MAC football coaches are already familiar with UMass: ‘It almost feels like they’ve been in our conference’

Ball State head coach Mike Neu talks during pregame before taking on Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Sept. 2, 2023.

Ball State head coach Mike Neu talks during pregame before taking on Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Sept. 2, 2023. AP FILE

CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 03-11-2024 4:10 PM

AMHERST – UMass may be joining the MAC in all sports in 2025-26, but the football program is no stranger to the conference. From 2012-15, the Minutemen competed in the MAC as a football-only member, going 8-40.

In the eight years since, UMass has played 11 total games against six of the 12 MAC schools, winning only once – a 2019 victory over Akron. The Minutemen have played multiple MAC schools each of the past three seasons and they have five games on the schedule against MAC schools next year in their final season as an FBS independent.

Ball State head coach Mike Neu and 2023 MAC champion head coach Chuck Martin, head coach at Miami Ohio, said there’s plenty of familiarity that UMass and the MAC already share.

“I see crossover tape when we’re preparing for one of our MAC opponents,” Neu said. “I feel like I’ve seen so much tape on UMass it almost feels like they’ve been in our conference because they play quite a few MAC schools.”

UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford said that scheduling has been one of UMass’ biggest roadblocks to success as an FBS program. UMass claimed 22 conference championships between the Yankee Conference, the Atlantic 10 and the Colonial Athletic Association during its run as an FCS program. But since moving up to the FBS ranks in 2012, the Minutemen have gone a combined 24-112, including a 16-72 mark as an independent.

“I would describe (playing as an independent) as hard. Very hard,” Bamford said at Thursday’s press conference announcing the conference move. “The stability piece of this conference is something I can’t overstate, in that every year, (football head coach Don Brown) has to prepare for 12 new, different opponents. And two or three of them are Power Five opponents. That’s hard. That’s challenging. To build a program when you’re just over a decade old as an FBS program as an independent, those layers that you add into the dynamic, structurally that’s hard to overcome.”

Without a conference, UMass is often regularly playing teams it hasn’t seen in years, or maybe ever. UMass played three teams for the first time last year and will face Cotton Bowl champion Missouri for the first time in 2024.

“It’s nice when you have some continuity,” Brown said. “You’re playing eight, nine opponents a year where you’re playing them virtually every year. Then your preparation can take hold and you’re not starting from scratch.”

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UMass played 12 games last year. The only opponent they had faced more than five times previously was UConn.

With 12 teams in the conference and fewer than 12 conference games, UMass won’t be playing the same exact teams every year. But it can count on spending most of its schedule playing against the same roster of 12 MAC schools.

“Not only do you have the physical challenge which those (SEC) teams present, you have the challenge of their concept and their scheme and getting our guys lined up, ready to go and competing at a high level,” Brown said. “It’s just nice when you have eight opponents now (on the schedule regularly) – and we’re no stranger to the MAC. We’ve played two, three, four (MAC) teams (per season) and next year we’re playing five MAC opponents. So obviously, it’s almost like we’re getting a transition year.”

Martin agreed.

“Might as well throw them in next year,” the Miami coach joked.

Martin’s RedHawks played UMass last year and will play them again this year as part of their nonconference schedule. He was surprised by the move – the MAC hasn’t added a school for football since UMass left in 2015 – but said it makes sense.

“I know from our school’s standpoint, we always liked UMass because it’s a like institution from a really high academic standard,” Martin said. “So I know our school and our people upstairs always thought, ‘OK, UMass and Miami, we have like ideals of how this thing should be run.’ From our perspective, you always like to play like institutions that have the same aspirations. We always liked having them in (when they were in the MAC from 2012-2015).”

Now matter how the Minutemen fare in their five games against MAC opponents next year, they will enter the conference with a losing record all-time against MAC opponents. 

Bamford is hoping increased investment solves that. At Thursday’s press conference, he noted how UMass and schools in the MAC are similarly resourced and recruit many of the same players. He said UMass would currently slot in at first or second (behind Toledo) in the MAC in terms of football expenses and coaching salaries. But once they enter the conference in 2025-26, he committed to being tops in both categories.

Neu sees them fitting in well.

“From a skillset standpoint, the group of players that we attract at our current institutions and what UMass attracts there in recruiting (are similar),” Neu said. “So I think that familiarity and that transition will be a smooth one for them.”