by Rob Joyce
Fall practice is officially underway, meaning college football season is right around the corner. For the UConn Huskies expectations continue to rise as Bob Diaco enters his third year at the helm. Year Two saw him take the program back to a bowl game for the first time since the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, as UConn finished the regular season winning three of their final four games (including a victory over previously-unbeaten Houston). With plenty of starters returning, another bowl trip is expected for the Huskies, as a look at their schedule shows winnable games.
With a dozen regular season games to look towards, here are the rankings of UConn’s 2016 opponents, from worst to best:
12) Maine Black Bears (home, Thursday, Sept. 1):
As per usual, UConn kicks off the year on a Thursday night at home against an FCS team. There’s not much to write home about for the Black Bears: they went 3-8 last year and have a first year head coach in 30-year-old Joe Harasymiak. There should be no drama at the Rent.
11) Tulane Green Wave (home, Nov. 26):
The ugliest game of the year was against the Green Wave last year in a rainy New Orleans, where the Huskies pulled out a 7-3 win. The weather surely didn’t help, but Tulane’s offense played nearly up to par in that contest, as they had a bottom ten offense nationally, and now have a new head coach in Willie Fritz. The good news? Fritz’s Georgia Southern teams led the nation in rushing offense, and Tulane has some talent in the backfield. They also return seven starters on defense.
10) UCF (home, Oct. 22):
“The Civil Conflict” was a breeze for the Huskies last year in a 40-13 romp against a struggling Golden Knights squad. George O’Leary is out, and former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost is now the coach. Expect major changes on both sides of the ball for UCF, especially on the offensive side. Last year the Knights were at the bottom of the nation in scoring offense, total offense, turnover margin and had a sub-100 ranked defense. They are at least a year away from thinking about a bowl game.
9) East Carolina (away, Oct. 29):
Another team that made a coaching change, ECU shocked many by firing Ruffin McNeil after last year’s disappointing 5-7 campaign. In comes Scottie Montgomery, who inherits a roster that returns three-fourths of its lettermen. However it should be a pair of transfers who make an impact in quarterback Philip Nelson and running back Derrell Scott. Though they’ve been to a bowl game in eight of the last 10 years, 2016 might not add to that – their non-conference schedule sees games against NC State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech.
8) Syracuse (home, Sept. 24):
Another rivalry renewed (UConn makes the return trip to the Carrier Dome in 2018), the Orange is in year one of the Dino Babers era. ‘Cuse returns 15 starters from a year ago, and expect a faster-paced offense than the one that finished 119th in yards per game a season ago. It will be the first meeting between schools since 2012.
7) Virginia (home, Sept. 17):
Starting the ACC portion of the non-conference schedule are the Cavaliers, who like Syracuse has a new coach in Bronco Mendenhall, who is plenty familiar with UConn. Previously at BYU, he has seen the Huskies each of the last two seasons, but inherits a team that went just 4-8 a year ago. The feature player on the offensive side is tailback Taquan Mizzelli, who had nearly 1,400 yards of total offense last year, including over 700 yards receiving out of the backfield.
6) Boston College (away, Nov. 19):
Fans of northeast football should be ecstatic that UConn and BC are playing once more, in what hopefully becomes an annual contest. The Eagles are a tale of two sides. Their defense last year was incredible, leading the nation in total defense (254 yards/game), finishing second against the run, sixth against the pass and allowing the fourth fewest points. Despite all that, they went 3-9 and 0-8 in ACC play. Why? Because their offense was horrific. They were 121st (out of 128 teams) in scoring offense, 126th in total offense and cycled through quarterbacks. Steve Addazio is a good coach, and if his offense can just be mediocre, BC should return to a bowl game.
5) Cincinnati (home, Oct. 8):
In a rare 11:30 home start, UConn will see what could be the most talented offense on their schedule. The Bearcats finished in the top-10 in total offense in 2015 and bring back quarterback Gunner Kiel, but they do have a new offensive coordinator. Defense and turnovers were the main reason the Bearcats only went 7-6 last year. They allowed 53, 65 and 42 points in losses to Memphis, South Florida and San Diego State, respectively, and their minus-19 turnover margin was the fourth-worst in the nation. Still, this will be a test for the UConn defense.
4) Navy (away, Sept. 10):
Thus begins life in the post-Keenan Reynolds era in Annapolis. The decorated quarterback graduated and the Midshipmen only return one starter on offense. However, they do bring back six on defense, and finished third in the nation in turnover margin last year. Keep that up and they will be a force. Another 11-2 campaign may be out of the question, but 8-4 and finishing near the top of the West Division isn’t.
3) South Florida (away, Oct. 15):
Many are picking the Bulls to win the East Division this year after last year’s 8-5 campaign. One of the most improved teams in the nation in 2015, the Bulls are coming off their first bowl game since 2010, and bring back most of the firepower from an offense that averaged 47 points per contest over the final four games. Quarterback Quinton Flowers and two of his top receivers are back, as is Marlon Mack. The running back had 1,381 yards on the ground and is an All-American candidate.
2) Temple (home, Friday Nov. 4):
Matt Rhule was among the hottest coaching candidates to jump to a bigger program, but stayed in Philly. In his first three years he’s seen the Owls go from two wins, to six, to 10, and will threaten to hit double-figures once more. Top offensive threats PJ Walker and Jahad Thomas are back, but they must replace seven starters on a defense that was top-20 in total D last season. This includes All-American Tyler Matakevich. UConn felt the wrath of the Temple defense at the Linc last season in a 27-3 loss, mustering just 138 yards of offense as the Owls sucked up nearly 37 minutes of possession time.
1) Houston (away, Thursday Sept. 29):
So… the Cougars may have this game circled on the calendar. The only thing that held UH back from a perfect 2015 season was a 20-17 trip up against the Huskies at the Rent, in which quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. was hurt. Noel Thomas’ two touchdown catches (including the 45-yard trick play from Garrett Anderson) handed Houston its only loss of the season. The Peach Bowl champs took it to Florida State to legitimize themselves nationally, and once again are the favorites to win the American. Coach Tom Herman stayed put, Ward is a darkhorse Heisman candidate, they had a top-10 scoring offense and the second-best turnover margin in the nation. They have a major test Week 1 against Oklahoma, who went to the College Football Playoff last year.