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No threat? Massachusetts played SEC teams tough in 2016


Conventional wisdom says Tennessee will have little trouble putting away Massachusetts at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (12 p.m., SEC Network).

After all, the Vols are a couple of questionable red-zone play calls away from being 3-0. UMass is 0-4. Some people think Tennessee’s Butch Jones is on the hot seat, but UMass’s Mark Whipple is absolutely on the hot seat, and likely won’t survive the 2017 season. Even though the Vols dropped out of the Top 25 after last week’s loss to Florida, they’re ranked 31st in the Sagarin rankings. The Minutemen are 164th.

Yes, if you’re keeping count at home, there are fewer than 164 FBS teams. Far fewer, in fact. There are 39 FCS teams ranked ahead of Massachusetts, according to Sagarin. Among them are powerhouses like UC Davis, Stony Brook and Holy Cross. Indiana State isn’t too terribly far behind UMass, at No. 187.

UMass isn’t the lowest-ranked FBS team according to Sagarin, but there are precious few of them behind the Minutemen.

Besides, Vegas has Tennessee as a four-touchdown favorite…and that’s probably being conservative, right?

Massachusetts’ 0-4 start in 2017 isn’t exactly due to tough competition. Its losses were to Hawaii, Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion and Temple.

That’s the same Hawaii team that gave up 56 points to UCLA, the same Old Dominion team that gave up 53 points to North Carolina and the same Temple team that gave up 49 points to Notre Dame. All three of those teams — UCLA, North Carolina and the Golden Domers — have one thing in common with Tennessee: a coach who is perceived to be on the hot seat. Yet they had little trouble dispatching teams that defeated UMass.

So, yeah. Conventional wisdom says Tennessee will thrash UMass. The Vols will cover the spread, everybody will play (Butch Jones may even let Jarrett Guarantano go under center), and there won’t be enough people left in Neyland Stadium to do the wave by late third quarter.

But conventional wisdom might not have seen what happened when the Minutemen faced SEC teams last season.

The 2016 UMass squad continued its ongoing struggle to adjust to FBS play, winning just two games (against Florida International and Wagner). But the Minutemen faced three SEC teams, and played all of them tough — too tough for comfort, in fact.

In a Labor Day weekend trip to Gainesville, UMass trailed Florida only 10-7 going into the fourth quarter, and only lost 24-7.

Three weeks later, Mississippi State made a trip to New England and found itself in a dogfight before pulling out a 47-35 win in Foxborough. UMass actually led at halftime, 14-13, before the Bulldogs scored 28 points in the third quarter.

A month after that, the Minutemen traveled back south of the Mason-Dixon Line and took South Carolina to the wire, 34-28. To be fair, the Gamecocks led 34-14 before UMass put up a couple of touchdowns late. But it was only a 27-14 game at halftime — very much still up in the air.

Three games against SEC teams, and UMass covered in every game. Which means if the same thing holds true in 2017, Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium might be closer than you think.

Players to watch: If you’re looking for a player to keep your eye on when UMass has possession on Saturday, look for tight end Adam Breneman (81). The preseason All-American is averaging six receptions per game, and already has 369 receiving yards on the season. He is Andrew Ford’s favorite target. And Ford has proven himself a successful quarterback this season, despite UMass’s struggles overall. He has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,204 yards and six touchdowns, with only one interception. When Ford isn’t lobbing passes to Breneman, he’ll likely be looking for wideout Andy Isabella.

UMass can’t run the ball…can they? If Tennessee’s maligned defense (which admittedly played much better against Florida, the game’s final play withstanding) gives up massive amounts of real estate on the ground against the Minutemen, look out. UMass is not a running team. The Minutemen average 323 yards per game through the air but only 89 yards per game on the ground. They rank 124th in the nation in rushing offense, ahead of only Purdue, Georgia State, UCLA and Texas State.

Early-bird Vol Walk: Because Tennessee bumped back the Vol Walk for 2017, a request of new strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson to give the team more time to stretch out before the game, Saturday’s Vol Walk will be one of the earliest in years. The Vols will head down Peyton Manning Pass at 9:45 a.m. Kickoff is at noon.


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