Opponent Preview: UMass
If a vote were taken on which 2015 Notre Dame opponent would be considered the weakest, the Sept. 26 visit from Massachusetts likely would be the 100 percent selection.
2014 Record: 3-9, 3-5 in the MAC
Series Record: This is the first meeting between the two schools in football.
Projected Starters Returning: Everyone on offense other than 2014 first-team All-MAC tight end Jean Sifrin is back, while nine of the 11 starters on defense return.
Head Coach: Mark Whipple — 124-68 (.646), highlighted by winning the 1998 Division 1-AA national title during his first stint at UMass from 1998-2003.
He coached mainly in the NFL since 2004 — including the development of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — before returning to UMass last season, a 3-9 debut.
UMass' seven best players were held out of the spring game as a precautionary measure. This included 2014 first-team All-MAC quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (3,345 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions), who missed the final two games last season, both losses, after a leg injury.
Overall experience with 19 returning starters, led by the passing combination of Frohnapfel and fellow All-MAC selection Tajae Sharpe, a 6-4 receiver who grabbed 85 passes last season for 1,281 yards and seven TDs.
Leading the defense is first-team All-MAC linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, who paced the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (8.5), fumbles forced (3), QB hurries (3) and was second in passes broken up (6).
This program is 5-31 since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision and needs to improve a defense that finished 112th last year in sacks (15), and 103rd in points given up per game (33.0). It also was 112th in rushing offense with a 109.3 average yards per contest.
It is sobering to remember that since 2009 Notre Dame has lost its first meeting — at home no less — to teams that 10 years ago you would have said, "No way!" The four were UConn (2009), Tulsa (2010), South Florida (2011) and Louisville (2014).
If it happens again, this time versus UMass…
On the outside, it is classified as Notre Dame's "respite game" sandwiched between hosting Georgia Tech (which finished No. 8 in the Associated Press poll last year) on Sept. 19 and traveling to "Death Valley" on Oct. 3 for its clash with Clemson (No. 15 last year).
Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Charley Molnar (2010-11) was hired in December 2011 to shepherd the Minutemen into the FBS in the MAC, but consecutive 1-11 seasons saw him get the axe and led to the return of the now 58-year-old Whipple, who became immortalized at the school with the 1998 Division 1-AA national title.
The 3-9 progress in 2014 was "highlighted" by competitive losses to Power Five conference opponents Colorado (41-38) and Vanderbilt (34-31), but there also was the 48-7 blowout to Penn State, the 42-41 setback to first-year head coach Chuck Martin's Miami (Ohio) team that finished 2-10, and poor performances minus the injured Frohnapfel in the final two contests, a 30-6 loss at Akron and a 41-21 spanking at home from Buffalo.
Notre Dame vs. UMass Projection
The Minutemen are considered to the 2015 schedule what Rice was to 2014, although the Owls were coming off a conference title. Notre Dame defeated Rice 48-17 in the 2014 opener, so the Fighting Irish will likely be expected to defeat UMass by at least four touchdowns in what is an evident mismatch. Talking about a letdown during the week might be popular because this game falls between Georgia Tech and Clemson, but anything less than a dominant performance will probably result in disappointment. This is Massachusetts' final season in the MAC because it will go independent in 2016.
A 4-0 September by Notre Dame after opening with Texas, at Virginia, Georgia Tech and UMass is conceivable. If achieved, it would be the first time since the four years from 1987-90 the Irish would open unscathed in back-to-back Septembers, and set up the showdown at Clemson.