We are coming up on the season openers for both Boston College and UMass, and the expectations of what we will probably see at this point are just different.
Even though the Eagles have a new offensive coordinator in Mike Bajakian, we know BC is going to run the ball with running back AJ Dillon behind its mauling offensive line, and mix in play-action passes to its tight ends and receivers like Kobay White, Ben Glines, and electric true freshman Zay Flowers. We know less about the defense because of the change in personnel and new coordinator Bill Sheridan, but we don't anticipate any major overhauls there.
But with the Minutemen, new coach Walt Bell has plenty of mystery surrounding his first game with UMass. The offense will be drastically different than under previous coach Mark Whipple. The defense will be thin along the line and in much need of improvement against the run, so those adjustments will be curious to see. And, of course, Bell has yet to commit to a starting quarterback, although he mentioned this week that he is close to making the decision.
And even though Virginia Tech enters the game with the Eagles favored, there is little reason for BC to anticipate anything other than a win on Saturday. The Eagles topped Virginia Tech, 31-21, in Blacksburg last season, and this weekend's game will be in the friendly confines of Chestnut Hill.
Also, it is a little strange that the Hokies are coming in as the road favorite. They are not especially loaded this year in any form or fashion. This simply feels more like the Eagles are not getting the respect they deserve in this situation.
That matters little, though, in the grand scheme of things. The bottom line is BC has the ability to start strong both in the season and Atlantic Coast Conference play. The Eagles are playing a tough team, but one they should expect to beat, which would provide a nice confidence boost going forward.
No, Virginia Tech isn't Clemson or anything, but it's still a strong program that apparently the rest of the country feels has more clout at the moment than BC. Saturday would be a nice way of changing those perspectives.
Switching over to UMass, the Minutemen are really playing with house money a little bit against Rutgers.
Here is the real issue that UMass has to be concerned with. In some of UMass' losses recently, the other team pulled away and the fans of the Minutemen felt, right or wrong, that their squad gave up. The lack of competitiveness and fight, in their eyes, was what was most embarrassing in any of the lopsided losses.
Speak to any number of UMass fans, they are excited for the season, yes, and would be over the moon if the Minutemen defeated Rutgers Friday night. Of course, that would be the desired result, and give Bell and Co. a rousing bounce into next week and the season in general. After everything this program has been through at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, a victory over a Big Ten team in the new coach's first game? Talk about a renewed sense of optimism.
But short of that, and UMass looks like it is coming in at about a 10-point underdog, the fans of the Minutemen want to see the opposite of what they hated last year. Simply put, they want to see more competitiveness. They do not want to see a team that falls behind and can't close the gap.
There were certain games last year, and ones sure to be this season, where the talent gap between UMass and its opponent cannot be overcome, and a huge point differential in defeat is unavoidable. However, UMass fans are looking for body language, and want to see the Minutemen battling it out for four quarters in a way that makes any loss less of a killer to the morale of the team.
In that respect, the Minutemen have a chance to really be fine with this opener against Rutgers. This is an opponent that is perhaps the weakest out of all the Power 5 conference teams, and UMass has the ability to stay in the game with the Scarlet Knights.
Even in the case of a defeat, if UMass keeps it close and makes Rutgers sweat well into the final quarter, you're looking at a fanbase that will feel much better than it did in a lot of the losses from last season.
So Bell of course is not thinking like that. He wants a win, as would any other coach in any other game. But short of that, Bell can put his foot down at his new program in a positive way if he leads the Minutemen on an upward trajectory from a competitiveness standpoint. Short of the ultimate goal, a smaller one can be achieved that would not be so bad.
Talkin' 'bout practice
Yes, we are quoting Allen Iverson here when we are about to go into some conversation about what we saw from the scrimmages that took place over the weekend. Although these are game-like conditions, scrimmages are really just joint practices when it comes down to it, so people need to remember that context.
OK, that being said, here are a few things we picked up.
— As we said over Twitter, Catholic Memorial looked extremely impressive against Foxboro. Everyone sort of knew the Knights would be good this year, but the main aspect that stuck out that was different from a year ago was the overall speed on defense. This was a fast team last year, of course, but defensively the Knights can run at another pace right now. These players flow to the ball and close holes immediately. It's a physical group that will be difficult to score upon.
— As for Foxboro, the Warriors were overmatched physically, but we still feel like this team can be a handful in Division 5 South. There are some decent-sized offensive linemen, and quarterback Shayne Kerrigan will be able to make plays when he has more time than he did on Saturday.
— In the first scrimmage we took in for Xaverian against Bridgewater-Raynham, it was a purely passing workout for two teams that usually prefer to run the ball. Our takeaway though is that both squads should be able to throw with efficiency, too.
Xaverian junior quarterback Michael Berluti, now in his second year as a starter, looked poised and accurate. He stepped up well in the pocket when he felt pressure and hit his receivers on time. We think this will be a well-rounded offense for the Hawks this year.
B-R has a promising young quarterback in Austin Hartsell. We don't know how big exactly he is, but he has grown from last year. He has a nice arm and made some excellent throws Saturday. He also has some big targets to work with, and we feel like the Trojans in general will be able to have true balance on offense this year.
— As we mentioned on Twitter, everyone knows that St. John's of Shrewsbury will score a lot of points this year. That said, we feel like the defense will take a step forward, too. The defensive line, in particular, has some impressive size and strength, and won the battle in the trenches against Brockton's offensive line Saturday.
— As for the Boxers, the offense had its fits and starts, but we feel good about where the defense is right now. The linebackers are fast and aggressive, and the secondary also doled out some big hits. Once the offense gets its feet under it in a new scheme, with its new quarterback and offensive line, things will look much better there.