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UMass Football To Join The MAC

Yesterday it was finally announced that UMass football would be holding a press conference to make a “major announcement” on the future of the program. The rumors of Massachusetts moving from the FCS to the FBS have been in the air since November of last year. After Steve Buckley of the Boston Herland broke the news, there was no shortage of coverage regarding the possible upgrade — especially considering we are talking about a FCS college football team, in a region where pro sports are king.

The conversation of UMass going big-time and heading to the FBS is one that I have had with my good friends from the undergrad days out in Amherst.  OK, we talked about it dozens of times from ’04 – ’08. However, even the strongest beer couldn’t make us believe we would see the move to the Football Bowl Subdivision any time soon.

By the time 2010 came around, the college football landscape was starting to shift. It was time for the University of Massachusetts administration to decide what the future of UMass football is going to be. Yesterday that decision was made clear.

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UMass will be joining to MAC. The Mid-American Conference? And UMass alumni are amped? Sure, well, sometimes it felt like being out in “mid-America” while out in Amherst.

Yes, the MAC has attendance issues on the whole. But the quality of football is actually often quite solid. Recently Temple signed a three-year agreement to play Notre Dame — a clear indication of the possible advantages UMass never would have seen while playing in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Of course, the end-game for UMass is ending up in the Big East, or whatever the major east coast conference becomes over the next decade. If the opportunity presents itself, the UMass administration has seemingly already made it clear that they are interested.

There are reports that UMass officials lobbied hard for consideration this past year when the Big East decided to expand from eight to ten teams in football. However, even the powerful Kraft family could not help to seal the deal.

The Big East is focusing on current non-football conference member Villanova. After announcing that TCU would join as a ninth full-time member starting in the fall of 2012, UMass became a third wheel.

If the University of Massachusetts had stayed in the FCS division, the program would have not only forfeited the chance for growth, but could have faced extinction under doomsday scenarios.

Conference realignment, and a shift to a “super conference” format could kill the FCS altogether, or could make it difficult for many teams to maintain a FCS program. Look at the last several years; a number of smaller New England programs (Hofstra, Northeastern and URI) decided to downgrade or disband altogether. The comes not much more than a decade after Boston University also killed off their program.

College football isn’t exactly going gangbusters in the Northeast.

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There are two other FBS programs in New England — Boston College and Uconn. UMass is already scheduled to play BC this coming September, and will open the 2012 campaign in East Hartford against Connecticut. However, scheduling these schools from the onset of Massachusetts’ FBS transformation might prove harder than anticipated. Boston College has 12 games scheduled right through 2015, although the University of Connecticut does appear to have open non-conference dates after 2012.

The Boston College folks are already questioning whether the school should schedule UMass. BC Interruption writes, “BC doesn’t have much to gain from scheduling UMass going forward and a lot to lose.”

There is a ton for Boston College to gain. Having multiple viable programs in New England can only enhance the college football experience. The small number of true blue chip recruits that come out of New England are happy to head south to play their college ball. If there are three solid programs, with solid rivalries, in place in the Northeast, the game of college football stands to grow in the area.

Additionally, for a major ACC program, Boston College fans aren’t the most loyal bunch. In their defense, there isn’t much of a rivalry when it comes to, say, Wake Forest. The schools are just so far apart. This makes it hard to create a natural rivalry.This is something that UMass will also face as a part of the MAC.

From a student fan-base perspective, one of the best parts of college football rivalries is having a victory over your buddies school. A healthy dose of Boston College, Uconn and UMass football will create a much bigger buzz in the respective local markets.

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Sticking with what current fan-bases are saying; a lot of fans associated with current MAC teams wanted UMass to join the conference for all sports. That was never an option for Massachusetts. The travel alone makes that an impossibility. The cost of getting the field hockey team to Akron, or the cross country team to a meet at Bowling Green, just doesn’t make sense.

Moreover, UMass held more of the negotiating chips than one might think. For starters, a successful UMass team is a great thing for both the MAC and the University of Massachusetts. Getting the Massachusetts, and potentially the Boston market, could do wonders for the MAC. The case study is Temple. A handful of year ago, when the league first began its affiliation with Temple, the football program was a joke. The school has just been booted from the Big East due to poor attendance. However, the new partnership allowed the MAC to expand it’s market reach in terms of geography and thus TV. Consequently, Temple has seen it’s program enjoy a resurgence.

The conference is a ways away from getting UMass or Temple to join full-time. In what is almost a slap in the face runner-up prize for those fans, as part of the football only deal, UMass (like Temple) is obligated to play two home and two road games against MAC teams each year in men’s and women’s basketball.

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In the end, although it didn’t manifest itself in a Big East invite, having the backing of the Kraft family is actually a very nice bonus. Robert Kraft didn’t become a billionaire by doing things half-assed. With his assistance, the University of Massachusetts has an important partner in making this a successful transition to the FBS.

Today’s press conference is being held at 3:30 ET from Gillette Stadium.

RDM attended the University of Massachusetts from 2004 to 2008.