It’s the “Game of the Year.” Nah, make it the “Game of the Decade.” Go farther and call it the “Game of the Century.”

UMass and UConn will play football later Saturday afternoon at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. To say that this historic Yankee Conference rivalry has blood boiling across the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut might be an overstatement. After all, it isn’t often that when you near the midpoint of their respective schedules, both teams would be looking for their first victories.

Between these two schools, there are 11 losses, five for the Minutemen and six for the Huskies. And UConn suffered a loss before the game started, as interim head coach Lou Spanos, two assistants and two players will all be back in Storrs on Saturday after testing positive for COVID-19. All five have been vaccinated.

So what else can go wrong?

USA Today’s Paul Meyerberg summed up Saturday’s matchup this way:

“Resistible Connecticut meets movable Massachusetts on Saturday in the worst game of this or any season of college football. Or maybe just the worst game since last Saturday, when the Huskies went to Vanderbilt and lost on a last-second field goal.

“On paper, the Huskies and Minutemen represent a matchup that can only be loved by family members, degenerate gamblers and sickos rubbernecking the Football Bowl Subdivision equivalent of a 10-car pileup.”

Hyperbole aside, it is going to be a fascinating three-plus hours of football.

What was the most interesting thing to me, was how in the leadup to the game, coaches and players on both sides were playing the PR spin game.

“It’s a big game for all of us,” UMass coach Walt Bell said in response to my question about how the Minutemen are looking at the game.

“It’s a big game for our players. It’s a big game for UMass,” he said. “It’s a big game for UConn. It’s a big game for all of us. There’s a lot on the line for a lot of people.”

The public attitude from Connecticut that this isn’t as big a game as Bell says. The Huskies’ public statements are that it is just game seven.

“It’s just another game,” UConn tight end Jay Rose said to me during a video call. “We go week-in and week-out, we’re looking to go 1-0. We don’t look behind. We don’t look ahead. What we’ve got on Saturday is what we’ve got.”

It’s the second battle of winless teams in Amherst in three seasons. Back in 2019, winless UMass hosted winless Akron in Bell’s first season. The Minutemen won 37-29, even with several players serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. A full team the next week was shut out by Florida International, and UMass finished 1-11.

The attitudes might be different because the state of the two programs are different.

When former UConn coach Randy Edsall stepped away after the Huskies inexplicably lost at home to Division I-FCS Holy Cross, interim coach Spanos and his staff had to know they were coaching on borrowed time. Since UConn will replace its head coach after the season, a new head coach usually wipes the slate clean with the assistants too. So that means Spanos and the other assistants pretty much know they will be looking for a job in December.

A loss, particularly a bad loss to UConn, could mark the beginning of the end of the Walt Bell Era in Amherst.

UMass Nation has seemed particularly bitter, if you read social media, about the Minutemen’s 0-5 start. While some of the scores were less than attractive, anyone thinking the Minutemen would have been better than 0-5 was being a little delusional.

Having said that, this one is important for Bell and his staff and by extension the administration and the fan base. This was one of the FBS games on the schedule that I think the coaches, players, administration and fans were putting into the “W” column way back when the schedule came out.

A loss to the Huskies would make UMass 0-6 for the first time since 2017. That team, coached by Mark Whipple, lost at home to Hawaii, at Coastal Carolina, at home to Old Dominion, at Temple, at Tennessee and at Ohio. They rebounded by beating Georgia State, Appalachian State, Maine and BYU to finish 4-8. That 4-2 end of the season included a 34-23 loss at Mississippi State.

Whether UMass can put a streak like that together after losing to UConn remains to be seen.

UMass has long played football in the shadow of UConn. Not when they were both in the Yankee Conference or in the Atlantic 10, but UConn was the first team to make a move up to the FBS level. The Huskies had a landing spot in the old Big East Conference. At the time, the Big East would have been part of a Power 6 lineup, had the Power 5 existed. Edsall even got the Huskies to play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. Of course, he left UConn right after that game for a failed tenure at Maryland. UConn’s football fortunes fell off the cliff right after that.

But for those of you thinking that this game is UMass’ to lose, there is something to remember. The most important is that despite the fact that the Huskies have been a roaring dumpster fire, their players are better than the UMass players — at least the veterans are.

Up until last year, Connecticut had butted heads in the American Athletic Conference with the likes of Cincinnati, Central Florida and Memphis, and were recruiting players at that level. The ability of many of those athletes were above the pool UMass was fishing in for recruits.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to this game. It should be fascinating to watch, and great theatre.

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

Sportswriter-Columnist

Howard Herman is a sports columnist at The Berkshire Eagle. The dean of full-time sportswriters in Western Mass., he has been with the Eagle since 1988, and is a member of the New England Baseball and Basketball Hall of Fame.