There was a time when a Keaney blue helmet with curled white horns would elicit boos from UMass fans.
The Rhode Island Rams, and other New England foes, were easy to hate if you were a Minuteman. They were natural, geographical rivals. There was a history, replete with last-second heroics, parking-lot arguments and water-cooler bragging rights.
When UMass decided to upgrade its football program and leave the Colonial Athletic Conference, it also left behind its rivals. It moved into a neighborhood with decades of built-in history and tradition. Bowling Green and Toledo fight over I-75, the directional Michigan schools wrestle for the Michigan MAC Trophy, and Miami (OH) and Ohio have their own Battle of the Bricks.
On the outside of all this infighting is the University of Massachusetts. Perhaps it’s the newness of the whole thing, or maybe it’s because portions of the fan base can’t quite get fired up about a bunch of Rust Belt schools. One way or another, UMass lacks an in-conference rival.
Eventually, however, something is going to happen to spark a new rivalry for UMass. Below are the four most-likely candidates, and the arguments for and against their status as UMass’ MAC rival.
For: The Redhawks have a long tradition of excellence on the football field and serve as a model of how to succeed in the MAC. During their first matchup, the Minuteman and Redhawks absolutely beat the hell out of each other in the trenches. It was the first time UMass fans had a chance to see something resembling a ground-and-pound attack, as Mike Cox ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns. The Redhawks pulled away, but UMass came close to defeating a conference opponent. It was also the first MAC team UMass played.
Against: Miami (OH) is spread a little thin in the “rivalry” department. The Redhawks already have a long-standing, all-sports clash with the Ohio Bobcats. Further, they play the University of Cincinnati for the Victory Bell every year – a game that has taken place more than 100 times. The Redhawks seem to have their dance card pretty full at the moment, and while they are a good program to look up to, they don’t seem ready to take on any more rivalries.
For: No UMass football fan will ever forget the program’s first win as an FBS program. While the victory over Akron may have set football back about 30 years, there is little doubt that it was a major step forward for the Minutemen. The Zips provide UMass with a tough-but-winnable game for the foreseeable future. Both teams are almost equally down and are in the process of building behind passionate coaches. Those who watched the 2012 game will also remember the borderline unprofessional moaning and sighing from Akron’s announcers, who called the loss to UMass one of the “darkest days” in program history. Those sound like fighting words.
Against: Throughout its existence, the Akron football program has been terrible. There is almost no way to sugarcoat it – the Zips have never won a bowl game, and it took until 2005 for them to win their first conference championship. With college football rivalries, it’s typically good to square off against a program that mirrors yours, and – with all due respect to Akron – UMass is not interested in that image. The Minutemen were one of the best programs at the FCS level and are in the process of creating a new identity. It seems unlikely that the school wants to be a punching partner with a program that typically resides in the low-rent district of the subdivision. That’s what Kent State has done for years.
For: While UMass won’t soon forget the victory over Akron, it will be equally hard to shrug off what the Northern Illinois Huskies did a week before. In the teams’ first meeting, NIU never let up and slaughtered the Minutemen 63-0. On UMass message boards, fans promised payback come basketball season (not sure if the 64-59 win cut it), and several thought the Huskies were running up the score. That sounds like the early makings of a bitter rivalry. The Minutemen are still a few classes away from being able to compete against NIU, but when they’re ready, I can see UMass keeping its foot on the gas long after the game is in hand.
Against: Dekalb, Ill. is nearly 1,000 miles away from Amherst. To put that in perspective, if you drove the same distance south, you would end up in Augusta, Ga. Head north and you’d hit Labador City, Newfoundland. UMass fans would be very pleased with the product if the Minutemen were on the same level as the Huskies, but it’s difficult to have a rival that’s almost completely inaccessible. Most UMass fans would be perfectly happy to see NIU on a special occasion – the MAC Championship Game.
For: Buffalo and UMass have a few things in common. Both are Northeast schools and are relatively new to the FBS scene. In an odd twist, Buffalo and UMass are also situated in an Amherst, and both towns are named after British Commander-in-Chief Jeffrey Amherst, who, by all accounts, was a bit of a jerk. Both schools also play second-fiddle to more established programs in their respective states – Buffalo lives in Syracuse’s shadow, and UMass deals with similar issues with Boston College. History and geography aside, Buffalo and UMass are also in a situation whereby they are vying for some of the same recruits. During the past few years, UMass has won its share of recruiting battles, and Buffalo put together decent classes. These teams are going to play every year, and each has an interest in seeing the other stick around. While the drive isn’t easy, it’s the easiest for UMass fans looking to see an in-conference game.
Against: Much like Akron, Buffalo has had a rough history at the FBS level. Granted, the Bulls only joined the top division in 1998, so there isn’t a huge sample size by which to judge them. While the Bulls are an East Coast team, there isn’t much hatred between the schools, and very rarely do you come across a Bulls fan in Massachusetts or a UMass fan in Buffalo. That being said, of the four viable options, the Bulls seem to be the most logical potential rivals for UMass. The outcome of their yearly matchup could sway recruits, fans can actually get to the game without paying air fare, and both schools are likely rooting for another eastern team for travel purposes. The games may not be marquee just yet, but maybe a trophy and a few close match ups could create a rivalry. What should the trophy be? Hopefully something other than a blanket.
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