What comes next as UMass looks for football opponents in 2020

UMass will be running onto the field sometime in 2020. But against who and where is a question athletic director Ryan Bamford and coach Walt Bell will have to answer.

Now that the University of Massachusetts has committed to playing football in the fall, athletic director Ryan Bamford and coach Walt Bell have a herculean task in front of them.

Who do the Minutemen play, when will they play and where will they play?

The Minutemen had most of a 12-game schedule still intact when the administration announced back in August that they would not play football in the fall and would try to give it a go in a spring window. In light of the fact that other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, both in the Power 5 and Group of Five levels, are preparing to give it a go in the fall, the landscape for spring football shifted dramatically.

While most of the leagues still considering playing in the fall would not be on a UMass schedule, due to conference-only game requirements, playing in the fall took away spring opportunities for the Minutemen to schedule those teams.

Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel has reported that the Mountain West Conference is close to approving an eight-game, all-conference schedule. The Mid American Conference has also been considering an all-conference schedule. In the Power 5, the Big Ten has already approved an all-conference schedule model, while the Pac 12 is considering the same thing.

The Big 12 and ACC have already begun playing and with one exception, have no openings. That's because the teams in those two leagues elected to play in conference with a plus-one game outside of their conference.

"We're going to try to play as many as we can that's safe," Bamford said in a Monday afternoon Zoom conference with reporters. "The good news, with where this whole season has gone, we've actually opened up dates on the back end of the calendar so we can play into December if we need to. I think Walt and I have initially talked about building in a week buffer in between games, so you're playing every other week."

Bamford said that an early-to-mid October start would be what UMass is looking at. That would give Bell and his staff three weeks to have a truncated preseason camp and to prepare for a first game. In that case, UMass would be looking at a possible Oct. 10 first game

Only one of the 12 original games on the UMass schedule has not disappeared. That is a Nov. 28 game at Liberty. Three other post-Oct. 10 opponents, Temple, FIU and Army have all plugged new opponents into their open dates after UMass canceled.

But it is theoretical to play as many as eight games between Oct. 10 and Dec. 5. Here's who is available.

Oct. 10: There are four American Athletic Conference teams that have byes this weekend, UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulsa. Conference USA school Rice and Sun Belt Conference teams Coastal Carolina and South Alabama also have off weeks.

Oct. 17: This would have to be an off week for UMass, as no Group of Five conference team has a bye.

Oct. 24: There are two potential opponents this week, East Carolina from the AAC and CUSA's North Texas.

Oct. 31: Army, who replaced UMass on Nov. 26 with Georgia Southern, has an opening this date. The American's South Florida and CUSA's Middle Tennessee are also free. South Florida is already playing 11 games, and this would make a maximum 12.

Nov. 7: Two CUSA teams, Marshall and UAB, are free this date. There is a UMass-Marshall connection. Marshall Associate Director of Athletics and Chief of Staff Jeff O'Malley spent six years as the Associate AD for Compliance and Regulatory Affairs at UMass under former AD Bob Marcum.

Nov. 14: Charlotte, a CUSA team that just wrapped up a home-and-home series with the Minutemen last year, has a free date. That depends, of course, if Charlotte's having to quarantine players because of three coronavirus cases on campus in September.

Nov. 21: The big game would be North Carolina. The ACC school lost it's non-conference game with Charlotte because of COVID-19. That was the Tar Heels' non-conference game. Now, while UMass fits neatly into Nov. 21, UNC will have a game the next Friday against Notre Dame. It's possible that North Carolina wouldn't want to play the Fighting Irish on a shorter week. But if not North Carolina, Memphis and CUSA's Florida Atlantic are free.

Nov. 28: That's where Liberty pops up on the UMass schedule, so that game looks like a go. But if something happens in the short term, Navy of the AAC is free. The Midshipmen were not on the UMass schedule.

Dec. 5: Since Bamford said that extending the schedule into December, there are possibly five opponents to choose from. Temple, Navy, Tulane and Houston of the AAC are all not playing on that day. But if the American plays its championship game on that day, those four would be off the board. The American could also play its title game on Dec. 12, the date of the Army-Navy game, or Dec. 19.

Which leads to one other question: Whither UConn?

There are 10 FBS teams in the Northeast, and only UConn has said it is definitely not playing in the fall. Buffalo is a member of the Mid-American Conference, and the MAC is looking into playing.

Would the Huskies jump back in and play UMass on, say, Oct. 17?

"Our latest status report was they weren't going to return to the fall, and that was as of late last week," Bamford said, in response to a UConn question. "You'd have to ask [UConn athletic director David Benedict]. We'd welcome it. They're close by and they're in a state that has managed this COVID environment really well in the last three or four months like Massachusetts has. Certainly, they've become sort of a natural rival and we'd love to have the opportunity to play them.

"I'm not sure their thinking has changed."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.