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UConn Can’t Afford to Be Shipwrecked With 0-2 Start

When coach Bob Diaco wears his favorite floppy UConn hat to football practice, it reminds me of the old television show Gilligan’s Island. And sometimes when Diaco starts to talk, I wonder if he actually did embark on a three-hour tour, only to be shipwrecked with the Skipper, the professor, the movie star, and Mary Ann.

Earlier this month, Diaco told reporters gathered for the American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, R.I., that he expects Connecticut to go undefeated in football this season. That’s right, 12-0.

Actually, better than 12-0, according to Diaco.

“We’re going to win every game,” Diaco said. “We’re going to play as one of the four teams in the [college football] playoffs and win the national championship.”

That’s when you stop and ask, “Coach, how many coconuts to the head did you take on that island?”

UConn finished 2-10 last season and the forecast for 2015 says the Huskies might be lucky to win three this time around.

But the more I think about Diaco’s statement, the more I like it. And he hasn’t backed off his prediction.

“What game should I pick that we’re not going to win? You tell me,” Diaco told Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs almost two weeks later. “Did I say that just to get attention? I didn’t. Look, we’re doing it the right way. I’m telling you, this thing is being built to last.”

Slow down Gilligan. “Built to last” is a heavy term for a second-year coach who has yet to prove he can construct an offense that doesn’t constantly stop itself with mistakes.

When the hat gets that floppy, you can’t help but laugh.

October 23 2014:  UConn coach Bob Diaco working with his defense during the NCAA Football game between the UConn Huskies and the East Carolina Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina. East Carolina defeated UConn 31 - 21.

October 23 2014: UConn coach Bob Diaco working with his defense during the NCAA Football game between the UConn Huskies and the East Carolina Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina. East Carolina defeated UConn 31 – 21.

But here’s the bottom line. If UConn finishes 12-0 and goes to the College Football Playoff, it would be a dramatic development. How’s that for an understatement?

Would it send the Huskies packing for a Power Five conference? Maybe not immediately, but it certainly would improve the chances. Put a playoff football team together with a men’s basketball program that has won three national championships since 2004 and you’ve got an attractive athletic department.

Power Five attractive.

Right now, that is a fantasy for UConn and athletic director Warde Manuel. There’s only one way to fulfill the fantasy and that is through football.

Football is where the money is. Win games. Sell tickets. Put fans in the stands. Sign big TV contracts. Put 55,000 fans in your stadium. Go to bowl games. Travel well. Win your conference championship, and reach the playoffs.

That formula exists in a galaxy far, far away for UConn.

So let’s establish a short-term goal for the Huskies. UConn needs to win its first two games on the 2015 schedule. Win two games in nine days. The Huskies play Villanova on Sept. 3 and Army on Sept. 12. Both games are at home. And UConn must be 2-0 heading into Southeastern Conference territory for a Sept. 19 game against Missouri in Columbia.

It is no exaggeration to say these might be the two most important games in the history of the UConn athletic program.

Against Villanova and Army?

Yes, against Villanova and Army.

Win those games and the Huskies might experience a football renaissance. They might feel good about themselves for the first time in a long time. They might see that they can be competitive in the AAC. They wouldn’t feel the pressure of needing to save the season at Missouri.

Lose the first two games and the Huskies begin to wonder why they put so much effort into preseason camp when the season is going to play out the same as 2014. Lose the first two games and the Huskies will be demoralized. They could get crushed at Missouri, lose at home to Navy, then travel to BYU on Oct. 2 and drop to 0-5.

That would be the end of the season – before the men’s basketball team even begins official practice. That is a scenario that has played out far too often in UConn history. But this isn’t just about football anymore. It’s a question of what football can do for the rest of the athletic department – and the rest of the university.

Villanova, favored to win the Colonial, is the No. 4 team in the STATS FCS Top 25 preseason poll and has the 2014 FCS offensive player of the year back in quarterback John Robertson. He passed for 2,846 yards and 35 touchdowns as Villanova advances to the FCS quarterfinals.

Army beat UConn 35-21 last Nov. 8 at Yankee Stadium. The Black Knights have lost experience and many of the top offensive producers from last season but always present a problem running the flexbone triple-offense.

November 1, 2014: Uconn Huskies Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (4) hands off to Running Back Ron Johnson (3) and pushes him through the end zone during an American Athletic Conference football game between the University of Central Florida and the UConn Huskies at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. UConn defeated UCF 37-29.

November 1, 2014: Uconn Huskies Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (4) hands off to Running Back Ron Johnson (3) and pushes him through the end zone during an American Athletic Conference football game between the University of Central Florida and the UConn Huskies at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. UConn defeated UCF 37-29.

Starting 2-0 against these opponents won’t elevate UConn into the Associated Press Top 25. But these are tough games UConn can – and should – win at home. A 2-0 start would give the Huskies confidence that they could be 3-1 after playing Navy at home on Sept. 26. Heading into the meat of the AAC schedule on Oct. 10 at UCF with a 3-2 record would give the Huskies the hope of a .500 season and the possibility of a bowl bid – two remarkable accomplishments after last season.

That’s enough optimism to bring fans back to The Rent for more than tailgating parties.

The Courant’s Jacobs put together an intriguing column that ran June 1. It details all the financial implications and differences between the Power Five and the Group of Five. It illustrates the overwhelming importance of existing in the Power Five.

Before UConn can even consider that upgrade, it must do something to sell its football product. Consider this paragraph from a Jacobs column on Aug. 17.

“Although an exact number wasn’t available Saturday, at last check UConn’s Mike Enright said the school had sold in the neighborhood of 15,000 season tickets. This is approximately half the high-water mark of 32,000 set in 2005. After selling 22,000 in 2012, the number rose to 24,500 in 2013 with home games against Michigan and Randy Edsall’s Maryland Terps before taking a small dip last year. One could argue that when the school needs it most, interest in UConn football is at its lowest point since going big time in 2003.”

This isn’t going to be easy. But UConn doesn’t want to exist inside the AAC. Any time I approach Manuel on the subject, he praises the conference and says, “It is what it is.” Translated, that means there is no way out – at this time.

Realignment will likely resume in the future but nobody knows exactly when or how soon. Long-time sources that I trust in the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 tell me UConn has never been mentioned in their previous realignment discussions. Never.

It’s up to the UConn football program to change that. Diaco shouldn’t worry about finishing 12-0, but he does need to move the program in the right direction – starting now.

Beating Villanova and Army in the first 12 days of September might sound like a small step. But the alternative isn’t at all attractive.

No one enjoys being shipwrecked on a 0-for-2 island. It’s the type of thing that removes all hope.

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