Friday, September 9, 2016

UConn Football's Most Important Game, Ever?

A September game against Navy should never be the most important in school history. Yet, here we are with UConn football.

The first weekend of the 2016 college football season could not have started any worse for UConn, who stumbled through a thoroughly uninspiring last-second win against Maine. Maine might be great this year, but they play FCS football and were 3-8 in 2015. UConn needs to win that game by more than 3 points.

For all the hand-wringing and disappointment about the opener – terrible offensive line play, awful defensive lapses, an empty stadium, the looming feeling of being stuck in the Group of Five – the first weekend of the 2016 college football season could not have gone any better for UConn.

That all starts with Navy, who thrashed Fordham in week one but lost its starting quarterback, who in turn was replacing the school’s best QB (Keenan Reynolds) since Roger Staubach. Vegas has noticed, as the line for the Navy/UConn game has shifted dramatically toward the Huskies, down from an opening line of Navy -7.5 to Navy -3.5.

What looked like a terrible loss after the Maine game now looks eminently winnable. Beating Navy and Maine should not be cause for celebration at most places. UConn is not most places in football. It’s been a long, hard, painful slog since Randy Edsall left and UConn made the single worst coaching hire of the 21st Century.

Is being 2-0 that important? Yes. UConn has gone 2-0 once since 2008 and it was last year when UConn beat Villanova and Army, then promptly followed it up with five losses in six games. This could be so much different.

We don’t need to address the elephant in the room – UConn needs to impress the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten and/or ESPN. A huge part of that is ticket sales. How do you sell tickets? You win football games. UConn has not won many football games.

A win over Navy, though, could be a springboard. Did I mention how well the opening weekend went for UConn? After Navy, UConn returns home to face a Virginia team that just got throttled by FCS Richmond and is clearly already deep into a “tear it down to build it up” year. UConn should win that game.

Okay, now we’re talking about a 3-0 UConn team – UConn hasn’t been 3-0 since 2008! – with past, future, and always rival Syracuse coming to town for the first time since 2011. It’s already a game circled on every UConn fan’s calendar. It will almost certainly be a sellout, if both teams were 3-0 or 0-3. Even better, Syracuse is beatable. Yes, they could be improved, but they are well within UConn’s reach.

Let’s see, four games, four potential wins, could UConn actually end September undefeated? What would that do for the fan base? What would that to do about the “narrative” that UConn football stinks? How would that play in the Big 12 offices?

This is where I reveal why Navy – and all the subsequent games – are so important. UConn ends the month by traveling to Houston for a Thursday night primetime showdown on ESPN. Houston is already ranked #6 and should remain in the Top 10 when UConn rolls into town. Houston is by far, by an order of magnititude UConn’s toughest opponent. Still, UConn beat Houston with a backup quarterback last year.

Can you see it? Can you see the ESPN hype?

Undefeated Houston hosting the only team that’s beaten them in two years and, oh by the way, they’re undefeated too with 2 wins over ACC teams. It’s the type of game that not only puts UConn on the map, but also solidifies the AAC as the top Group of Five conference. Like in 2006 and the Big East’s big Thursday night games, it could be the catalyst for the AAC to be taken seriously as a football conference on the same level of Power Five conferences.

Am I getting ahead of myself? You damn right I am. That’s the beauty of sports. And it’s the beauty of having everything fortuitously fall into place.

Houston had to beat Oklahoma. Navy needed to show vulnerability. Virginia had to show it sucked. Syracuse had to, well, just be Syracuse.

Walking out of the Rent following the Maine game, I would have slapped anyone who said, “UConn should be 4-0 when it plays Houston.” Yet just a week later, I’m saying the exact same thing.

It all hinges on Navy. Sure, UConn should still beat Virginia and could still beat Syracuse and enter the Houston game at a respectable 3-1. It’ll be a fun storyline with the revenge factor. It wouldn’t, however, move the needle.

An undefeated UConn facing an undefeated Top 10 Houston in a revenge game would definitely move the needle. That, in a nutshell, is what the Big 12 is looking for. Fans can spout garbage about attendance or market sizes or apparel contracts. The Big 12, and any Power Five conference, wants to add a school that moves the needle in football.

Right now, Houston is moving the needle in football. If UConn wants to rejoin the big leagues, they need to start moving the needle in football again. It won’t happen with a win over Navy on Saturday – but it cannot happen without a win.

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