FBS schools should never lose to FCS schools. Period.
And, yet, here we find ourselves with James Madison "shocking" the college football world by defeating then No. 13 Virginia Tech. I use scare quotes because FCS wins over FBS schools are actually becoming a pretty hot trend in CFB today. In fact, after Appalachian State beat then No. 5 Michigan in 2007, the rules of the polls were changed to allow voters to cast ballots for FCS schools.
And we really shouldn't be surprised, FCS schools (such as UMass) are sending players to the NFL at quite a decent rate. The difference between FCS and FBS is that NFL talent in FBS is generally quite concentrated among around 20-30 teams, but spread through all of the FCS teams very nicely.
This basically means on any given Saturday, they could win. In fact, they do win. JMU over Virginia Tech, South Dakota over Minnesota, etc.
Interestingly enough, we're two weeks into the football season, and five FCS schools have defeated FBS schools. This matches the total number of FCS wins over FBS schools from the entire 2009 season.
Who are the Minutemen?
The Minutemen of Massachusetts compete in the Colonial Athletic Association (formerly the Atlantic 10 and even more formerly, the Yankee Conference). This is a conference that has seven of 10 ranked teams in FCS and could potentially dominate the postseason playoff. The Minutemen compiled 22 conference championships, and fell to the Appalachian State Mountaineers in the 2006 FCS championship game (yikes!). While only going 5-6 last year, the Minutemen have been quite strong in the 2000s, compiling an overall record of 76-44 (0.633 win pct).
Ranked No. 16 in the FCS poll (including an upset of No. 4 Mary & William), it appears the offense is rolling for the Minutemen. They currently rank fourth in FCS with 964 total yards, and their defense is allowing a stingy 15 points per game and just 272 yards per game.
Michigan's Rushing Attack vs. UMass' Rush Defense
Denard Robinson leads Michigan's rushing attack—leading the nation in rushing yards (455 total) at 227.5 yards per game. Behind Robinson is a triumvirate of all very talented backs: Mike Shaw, Vincent Smith, and Fitzgerald Toussaint. Michigan's offensive line, led by David Molk and Steven Schilling, is one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the nation, consistently opening up gaps that one could drive a semi-truck through.
Inexperience is an issue with UMass' defensive line, as coming into the 2010 season all four of them combined for two career starts and eight tackles. The two career starts belong to senior Brandon Flanagan, and those starts were as an offensive lineman, and all eight tackles belong to junior defensive end Courtney Jackson. Essentially, UMass's defensive line equals Michigan's secondary.
Assuming Denard and whoever else is carrying the ball can get past the line, the Minutemen's second line of defense consists of junior captain Tyler Holmes, a preseason All-American responsible for 110 tackles last season. LB play is one of the strengths of the Minutement and could slow down Michigan's rushing game a bit.
Overall, I think if the O-Line can make their blocks, Michigan should have little problem moving the ball on the ground.
Michigan's Pass Attack vs. UMass' Pass Defense
Robinson's passing from last year to this year is like night and day. Last year, he was 18 of 34 for 186 yards and four INTs and zero TDs. This year, he is 43 of 62 (69.4 percent) for 430 yards and zero INTs. While he's not been tested against the nation's greatest secondaries, Denard has put up decent numbers against decent FBS schools. Expect him to continue to develop the passing dimension of his game, getting better as we go. He needs to work on the long ball but has been extremely effective on mid- to short-range passes.
Defensive backs consist of CB Ke'Mon Bailey, and safeties Shane Viveiros and Darren Thellen. Viveiros and Thellen step in to fill positions vacated by an All-American, this leaves their defensive backs young and inexperienced, but certainly talented. In the short-pass game (Denard's strength), Tyler Holmes will be present (as discussed above). He's already recorded an INT, forced fumble, and a sack in two games so he'll be the star of their defense.
Outside of the All-American LB, the defense is young and inexperienced. There's talent there, but Michigan's offense should roll.
UMass' Rush Attack vs. Michigan's Rush Defense
Rush defense is the strength of Michigan (I use the term strength lightly). Jonah Mouton, Mike Martin, and Ryan Van Bergen are consistently in the backfield breaking up plays. While UMass runs a spread, their QB rarely runs (some seven carries for 28 yards, but he also has been sacked for -14 yards thus far). The duo RBs of John Griffin and Jonathan Hernandez combined for 46 carries, 212 yards, and three touchdowns in UMass's upset of No. 4 William & Mary. Hernandez also has a couple receptions for 69 yards, including a 64 yard catch-and-run that set up UMass' game winning TD. Griddin, who transferred to UMass from Notheastern, was the only 1000+ yard back in the CAA last season.
Their backs give a potent 1-2 punch, but they aren't the best Michigan has seen (UConn's Jordan Todman and Notre Dame's Armando Allen and Cierre Wood). UMass will move a bit, but Michigan's defense is allowing just 146 rushing yards per game. Expect the trend to continue.
UMass' Pass Attack vs. Michigan's Pass Defense
Led by senior QB Kyle Havens, the Minutemen expect to make some noise against a weak secondary. Star receiver Anthony Nelson is second in the CAA for receptions/game and is currently raking up 90.5 yards per game against probably some secondaries that could, at the very least, compete with Michigan's defensive backs.
As touched on, Michigan's secondary is young and inexperienced. Talented, but inexperienced. It is that very inexperience that leads to big plays (Notre Dame's 53-, 95-yard TD receptions) and a lack of overall consistency. Kyle Havens is passing for 223 yards per game and leads the CAA in efficiency (154). If UMass is to move the ball, it will be through the air.
UMass likely hasn't gone up against FBS-calibur secondaries, but nevertheless, I expect it to be relatively balanced play in this part of the game.
UMass leads the Colonial Athletic Association kickoff coverage, allowing just 69.7 yards per game in kickoff returns. The Minutemen have yet to miss a kick this season, and lead the CAA in punt return yards per attempt (45) and average yards per punt return (11).
Michigan has missed four kicks (three field goals and a PAT), which will prove costly should the Wolverines find themselves in a close game. Darryl Stonum broke the record for return yards last season (1,001) and return attempts (39), but has yet to see any sort of substantial production this year. Michigan's punting is erratic; true freshman Will Hagerup can punt 50 or he can punt 20, you just never know what you're going to get.
The special teams are one of the most worrisome factors on this Wolverines squad.
Curiously enough, Massachusetts is the team that lost to Appalachian State in the 2007 FCS title game. They're definitely looking to make a huge statement, and there's no bigger stage in college football than the Big House. Drawing upon inspiration from Appalachian State's 2007 upset of Michigan and, more recently, James Madison's upset of Virginia Tech, the Minutemen will be very motivated.
If they can overcome their lack of experience and the youth in defense, then they could prove to be formidable. Last year the Minutemen sent three players to the NFL, and for comparison, Michigan only sent four. Sure, bottom-tier FCS teams are bad, but teams near the top, like No. 16 UMass? They're good, very good.
While I wouldn't expect an upset of Appalachian proportions, I expect a hard fought game with Michigan coming out on top.
Who? Michigan Wolverines vs. UMass Minutemen
Where? Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
When? Saturday, September 18, 2010 @ Noon
Line? Michigan by 28
My prediction: UMass keeps it close for the first quarter but loses ground in the second.
MICHIGAN 41, UMass 21