by Rob Joyce
Game one of the Randy Edsall re-boot didn’t go as smoothly as planned, but 1-0 is 1-0, and UConn will take it after coming from behind at halftime to defeat Holy Cross 27-20. Now they are in the thick of their schedule, with possibly their toughest test of the season coming in Saturday’s home opener against South Florida.
As we’ve done each of the past two seasons, here is a preview of the Huskies’ 2017 opponents, ranked from least to most difficult (excluding the Crusaders, an FCS program):
11) vs. East Carolina (11/4):
Things aren’t great right now in Greenville. In Scottie Montgomery’s first year they went 3-9, including a 41-3 blasting of the Huskies. But their top passer, rusher and receiver are all gone from last year – that includes Zay Jones, the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader. In Week One they lost to defending FCS champion James Madison 34-14, making for what could be another long year for the Pirates.
10) @ Cincinnati (11/25):
The bottom fell out for the normally consistent Bearcats in 2016, who ended the year 4-8, including five straight losses to finish up the season. In four of those losses the offense was anemic, scoring 26 combined points against Temple, BYU, UCF and Memphis. With just eight combined starters returning, former Ohio State offensive coordinator Luke Fickell has his work cut out for him, and things could get ugly this weekend against a vaunted Michigan defense in Ann Arbor.
9) @ SMU (9/30):
Chad Morris’ system is starting to pay dividends in Dallas. His first year the team went 2-10 (and it was an improvement over 2014’s 1-11), then last year they nearly went to a bowl, finishing 5-7. The offense brings back nine starters and should easily average over 30 points per game, boasting perhaps the best receiving corps in the league. The defense is still a work in progress, as they five times allowed 35 or more points, including an ugly 75-31 loss to Navy to end the year. The schedule isn’t favorable – they have to go on the road to TCU, Houston, Navy and Memphis – but if they pull off an upset or two, a bowl trip is in the works as Morris continues to be a hot coaching commodity waiting for the next step.
8) @ Virginia (9/16):
Last year’s contest at Pratt & Whitney Stadium was ugly, to say the least, but UConn came out on top in the wackiest of ways. Down by a field goal in the final seconds near the Huskies’ goal line, UVA had to rush out the field goal unit, where walk-on Alex Furbank (playing his first football game ever) missed a 20-yarder as time expired. That was the season in a nutshell for Virginia, who stumbled to a 2-10 finish. In a difficult ACC Coastal division, things might not get better for Bronco Mendenhall’s crew. QB Kurt Benkert was benched midway through last year, but is the starter once again, and their run game was dead last in the ACC. Defensively they are healthy once more, and have two standouts in linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding.
7) @ UCF (11/11):
Among the most improved teams in college football in 2016, in Scott Frost’s first year the Knights improved from zero wins to six, qualifying for a bowl. Now a year into Frost’s fast-paced offensive system, things are continuing to look up. They bring back sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton and leading receiver Tre’Quan Smith. Defensively, reigning conference Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin (11.5 sacks) is back for his senior season, hopefully helping to alleviate a young secondary and linebacker corps.
6) @ Temple (10/14):
The defending conference champions don’t look nearly the same as the team that ripped off 10 wins in 2016. Head coach Matt Rhule is now at Baylor, quarterback Philip Walker and running back Jahad Thomas are gone, and their top-10 defense lost multiple pieces, including first-round draft pick Hassan Reddick. That being said, the drop-off shouldn’t be as steep as some believe. A 0-2 start to league play is possible, as they travel to USF then host Houston, but the schedule becomes easier from there. While they likely won’t repeat, they’ll be in the hunt in the East.
5) vs. Boston College (11/18):
The Eagles returned to a bowl game last year after winning their final two regular season games, including a 30-0 shellacking of the Huskies in Chestnut Hill. This year UConn is the “home team” but the game will be in Boston, at Fenway Park. The staple of BC under Steve Addazio has been a phenomenal defense, but a low-powered offense. While the defense isn’t quite as good as, say, the 2015 squad that led the nation in yards allowed, it’s still very good, especially on the defensive line, and the offense is improved. A return bowl trip is a possibility.
4) vs. Tulsa (10/21):
A Week One blowout to high-flying Oklahoma State shouldn’t deter the Golden Hurricane – they can still compete, and possibly win, the West Division. A year after going 10-3, Tulsa has two major holes to fill on offense in all-time leading passer Dane Evans and the conference’s rushing leader in James Flanders. They do, however, return D’Angelo Brewer, who had his own 1,435-yard junior season a year ago. And their top playmaker against the Cowboys was Corey Taylor II (20 carries, 111 yards, 2 TDs). They get Navy and Houston at home, while heading to South Florida. Win two out of three, and take care of business elsewhere, and they could turn heads in the West.
3) vs. Missouri (10/28):
This is the return trip after the Huskies went to Columbia in 2015 and lost 9-6. The Tigers have improved considerably on offense since then, averaging over 31 points per game last year. Quarterback Drew Lock set a pair of school records in their opener with 521 yards and seven touchdown passes. The problem is that although Mizzou can put up points, they can’t stop anyone. FCS Missouri State scored 43 points in a season-opening loss at Memorial Stadium, and last year they allowed 40 or more in a game five times (including a 53-37 loss at Tennessee). UConn is going to have to take advantage of a porous defense in order to stay in the game.
2) vs. Memphis (Fri 10/6):
A thrilling win over No. 20 Houston was the highlight of an 8-4 season in 2016, Mike Norvell’s first as head coach. While the offense was able to put up points, the defense was downright bad at times – six times they allowed 40 or more points, and twice they allowed over 50. The good news is that eight starters on offense return, including QB Riley Ferguson (3,698 yards, 32 TDs) and wideout Anthony Miller (1,434 yards). The offense alone will make Memphis a contender in the West and make a record fourth-straight bowl appearance likely.
1) vs. South Florida (9/9):
The Bulls won 11 games in 2016, and even though they’ve looked a little flat in their first two games, they are the favorites right now for the Group of Five bid to a New Years’ Six bowl, and could have a perfect regular season. Charlie Strong is the new head man after Willie Taggart left for Oregon, and Strong has a shiny toy to play with in Quinton Flowers. The senior is among the most dynamic playmakers in college football, with he and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson the only ones to throw for 2,500 yards (28,12) and run for 1,500 (1,637). The defense returns nine starters as well, making for an incredibly difficult matchup on Saturday in East Hartford.