Football season kicks off tomorrow and the Villanova Wildcats couldn't be happier to get on the road to Hartford, where they will meet the UConn Huskies. It will be the first meeting between the two programs since the Huskies reclassified to I-A following the 1999 season.
While Villanova stuck around in the Atlantic-10 football conference, which later became the CAA, Connecticut moved into a brand new stadium, and a new conference in the Big East, and largely forgot about their former football rival in Pennsylvania. Andy Talley, however, remembers his trips to Storrs in the 80s and 90s, and is heading into Rentschler Field with every intention of reminding the Huskies about Villanova.
Reminding them that Villanova has a quality program is easy enough -- just keep the score close. If you want to leave a lasting memory, however, you have to leave the field with a win.
UConn coach Bob Diaco has proudly declared that his Huskies intend to win every game in 2015. All of them, including, the FBS national championship. Call it a bit of puffery from the coach, but after an embarrassing 2-win campaign last season, the program that is now just five years removed from a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, is looking to reclaim some of the winning ways they experienced in the past.
Villanova might be the better team heading into the game. Jeff Sagarin's magic computer rates Villanova 99th in all of Division I (FCS and FBS combined), and rates Connecticut 116th, and based on his formula, the 'Cats would be favored by about a point playing away -- those ratings have a flaw in them, though -- it's early in the season and they haven't normalized yet. The 'Cats have a chance, but fancy math isn't going to get them there.
UConn should win -- even as a struggling, rebuilding program -- an FBS school has many advantages in these games, they have home field, they have money, and most importantly, they have a lot more full-scholarship players to throw at the problem. Even middling FBS schools can use that depth to their advantage to wear a I-AA opponent down. It works best in the heat of an early-season day game, but it can happen whenever.
The Huskies have a defensive front-seven is supposed to be one of their strengths -- they were 69th in I-A football last year against the running game, and had one of the top-50 overall defenses. That unit, features star two linebackers who were the team tackling leaders last season in Graham Stewart and Marquise Vann, and a monster nose guard in Julian Campenni, who could create issues for the new-look Villanova offensive line.
John Robertson has worked some magic for the Wildcats in the past three seasons, and surely he will have a few tricks up his sleeve to deal with the Huskies defense, but they won't make it easy on him.
On the flip side, the Huskies were one of the worst offensive teams in the country last season -- ranking 126th out of 128 teams in total offense. They averaged a little more than 15 points per game, and did most of their damage on the ground. They return just five offensive starters from last season.
Things may be changing for UConn, however, with NC State transfer Bryant Shirreffs named their starting quarterback over the weekend. He's a mobile quarterback who makes plays with his arm and his feet, though some reports think he may be a little rusty after sitting out last season. UConn has high hopes for their starter, who appeared in seven games for the Wolfpack in 2013, completing 4 of 5 pass attempts for 17 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He also carried the ball 34 times for 158 yards (4.6 avg) and another touchdown.
It's tough to say what the UConn offense will look like, but Villanova plans to hang its hat on defense this season, with great depth and talent at linebacker, an athletic and strong defensive line, and an improved secondary. The 'Cats will still have their work cut out for them against what will likely be a big and physical offensive attack, but if that unit can slow the Huskies down, the 'Cats could keep the game close.
As Andy Talley has said many times about taking on an FBS opponent, if Villanova can keep it close into the fourth quarter, they'll have a chance to win it. If not, look for some deep back-ups to get their reps in late.
Villanova leads the all-time series with Connecticut 9-4, but the two teams have not played each other since UConn switched subdivisions.