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Bowl Eligibility Seems Unreasonable for UConn

Photo: John Raoux, AP

STORRS, Conn. – In less than two seasons, the college football world has figured out that many statements made by Connecticut coach Bob Diaco should be taken with a grain of salt. Whether he is creating a rivalry game with a trophy that no one else knows about, or predicting an undefeated season for his Huskies, Diaco can make headlines and draw puzzled looks with the words that come from his mouth.

Even when he is dramatically wrong, he doesn’t find the need to apologize. Diaco flies on a day-to-day schedule and rarely looks back.

But if you have forgotten, Diaco did make the bold prediction on American media day that UConn would “win every game” and “win a national championship.”

Once that thrill was gone, Diaco explained that should be the mentality of every coach and every player approaching a football game. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But an undefeated forecast might be more believable coming from Urban Meyer at Ohio State or Art Briles at Baylor — not from a coach who struggled to a 2-10 season in his rookie campaign at UConn and was picked to finish last in his division in the AAC preseason poll.

More than two months since media day, UConn stands 3-4 overall and 1-2 in games against AAC opponents. The Huskies have recorded two non-conference wins (over Villanova and Army) and beat winless UCF.

But any momentum from a 40-13 victory at UCF on Oct. 10 was jackhammered away last Saturday when the Huskies lost at home to USF 28-20. With five games remaining this season, the USF loss quite possibly eliminated UConn from the prospect of becoming bowl eligible.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. Heading into the season, the thought of UConn winning six games to become bowl eligible seemed unlikely to most. The typical prognostication had the Huskies winning four – maybe five games. But a dominating win over UCF certainly gave UConn hope for more.

And nothing can erase the fact that the USF game was extremely winnable at home. The Huskies didn’t execute, didn’t take advantage of opportunities and when that happens dreams can be shattered.

“We didn’t put up enough points,” UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said via Desmond Conner of The Hartford Courant. “That’s why we lost.”

Diaco called it a “sad, hard loss” and said he felt terrible “that I let the [student section] down.”

“It was great to see the students [fill the student section]. I hope they come back and I’m sorry.”

The reason for such postseason pessimism is UConn’s remaining schedule. Three of the last five games are on the road – at Cincinnati, at Tulane and the season finale against No. 22 Temple. The only home games are against East Carolina on Oct. 30 and No. 21-ranked Houston on Nov. 21.

Perhaps the only consolation prize for UConn is the fact No. 18 Memphis is not on UConn’s conference schedule this season.

Cincinnati (3-3, 0-2) is failing to live up to expectations this season but the Bearcats hold a 9-2 edge in the series and have won four straight against UConn. The Bearcats won 41-0 in East Hartford last season. The Huskies haven’t defeated them since 2010.

As usual, Cincinnati will be big and physical – and that’s a problem for UConn.

“They’re awesome on offense,” Diaco said of Cincinnati. “They have the best group of wide receivers that we’ve played up to this point and maybe arguably all season. They have impact players. You have match-up issues in every single spot.”

The first thing Diaco told reporters after the USF loss was to tear up the stat sheet.

“It’s not relevant,” he said. “It’s a bizarre read.”

Bizarre because UConn finished with 528 yards of offense, the first time UConn had reached 500 in a single game since Dec. 7, 2013 against Memphis. Shirrieffs recorded career-highs with 365 passing yards, 41 passing attempts, 100 yards rushing yards and longest rush. UConn held USF to 66 yards rushing in the first half, but yielded 209 yards rushing in the second half.

“I don’t know,” Diaco said when asked to explain UConn’s performance. “We had a great week of practice. The guys were focused and locked in. We had a strong week and we were healthy, disciplined and intense. We didn’t really have any distractions.

“I felt really good going into the game and really confident. You look at the tale of the tape and it’s moving the ball downfield and it’s pretty stout defense except for the explosive plays and at the very end. We’ll peel it apart and get it fixed.”

At this point in the season, getting “it fixed” is a pretty large challenge. Not as big as that “undefeated” prediction in August, but still enormous.

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