Burning questions for UConn football going into the offseason
This is going to be an interesting one.
UConn football won its final two games of the season convincingly, beating a pair of regional “rivals” in Sacred Heart and UMass to end 2023 with a 3-9 record.
If college sports is about how you perform against your peers, the Huskies actually fared alright this season despite the bad record.
Many of their losses were expected, like those to NC State, Duke, Tennessee, and James Madison. Three of those schools have the all-important “power five” money and the other is a former FCS powerhouse situated in a recruiting hotbed that would have likely defeated UConn in each of the last five years regardless of FBS status.
Against Boston College, the 21-14 final score in a game where the players battled to the end was respectable considering it came against another monied opponent, though the contest was more lopsided than the score would suggest.
Against Utah State, Rice, and USF, the Huskies played competitive football. The offense demonstrated improvement; the defense was not great but at least opportunistic, and the Huskies lost two close games while winning one, aided by a 4-0 turnover margin in that one-score win over Rice despite giving up 471 yards to the Owls.
The Huskies’ worst performances came in the second and third games. It’s unfortunate that dropping those two is the whole reason this season has failed to meet expectations, but that’s college football.
Losing to Georgia State 35-14 and then letting FIU take a 24-3 halftime lead at Rentschler Field in an eventual loss the following week was the stretch where it slid too far. The departures of running backs Brian Brewton and Devontae Houston made it seem worse. UConn recovered to perform around the level that was expected before the season, but the 0-5 start punctuated by a missed extra point deflated all hope for anything good happening this season.
GSU is better than most thought, but not by that much (105th in FEI), there’s no reason for UConn to get out-classed like that. Against FIU, the Huskies did a good job of coming back to make it close, but it shouldn’t have gotten there. USU and USF were winnable, both arguably should have been victories.
The mood around the program would be a lot different if the season ended with five wins, obviously. They played well enough to do that, but couldn't close.
We will try to diagnose some of the season’s key coaching decisions in future articles but in the meantime, dedicated UConn fans are no doubt keeping an eye on the potential structural changes that may be occurring around the program this offseason.
Here are some of the possibilities:
Hire a defensive coordinator?
Since Lou Spanos left in August 2022, UConn has been without a defensive coordinator. It went the entire 2022 season without naming an interim or replacement and also went into 2023 in the same configuration, with head coach Jim Mora owning those duties. It’s starting to look like a problem.
The Husky defense took a step back in 2023. This can partially be attributed to personnel, a tougher schedule, and offensive struggles, but it’s also on the coaching. Mora himself has acknowledged that some big plays allowed were due to bad calls by the staff after the FIU and Utah State games.
In addition to the obvious benefits of defensive coordinators on game days and practice days, a veteran coach leading that side of the ball is also: a key recruiter, someone who contributes to the identity and culture of the team, and another adult in the room. A DC could serve as an interim head coach in a time of need, be the next head coach, or get hired to be a head coach elsewhere, which is also a good look.
For a program in desperate need of an identity, especially as an independent with limited natural rivals in a region where college football is not super popular, hiring a defensive coordinator seems like it could be a very logical step on the path to relevance and FBS competence.
Other staff changes
Mora has said that a lot of changes are in the works for the offseason, mostly detailing a plan to improve the roster via transfers because he wants to “win now.”
He did not specify whether “changes” also meant the coaching staff, but usually, we see a few moves here and there on any staff in the offseason.
UConn’s offense had an inconsistent growth pattern over the year, causing some observers to question if that side of the ball is in need of new leadership.
Judging the offense for poor performances against the likes of NC State, Duke, and Tennessee would not be fair. But scoring 14 against GSU, 17 against FIU, and 21 against USF, the 118th, 117th, and 126th-ranked defenses in the FEI efficiency rankings, is not good.
To be fair to offensive coordinator Nick Charlton, injuries decimated his unit in 2022 and transfer departures affected it in 2023. He brought in his former QB from Maine and made him the starter, but that did not go well. One could argue that this QB decision contributed to the sub-par performance against Georgia State and that the FIU game might’ve gone better if Ta’Quan Roberson had been starting from the opener.
I don’t think it’s time to move on from Charlton but, like his head coach, he’s on notice. If Roberson returns and they add a few more playmakers at the skill positions while keeping the line steady, the offense could continue to improve.
At this point, continuity is probably better than blowing it up unless Mora can bring in a big name or someone with better experience that would excite recruits and the fanbase.
Last year, UConn lost a number of key players to the transfer portal including running back Nate Carter and wide receivers Aaron Turner and Keelan Marion, who all ended up at P5 programs. This year, a similar exodus could occur. Running backs Brian Brewton and Devontae Houston are already on the portal list, as is wide receiver James Burns and defensive lineman Carter Hooper.
Mora has been vocal about the need for NIL money to improve the roster. Though it’ll be natural for players to leave, the retention of the current young stars is paramount and they’ll also need to be aggressive in adding more talent via transfer. This will be one of the major keys to success for 2024. Last offseason, some teams added as many as 40 new players. Mora said he’s looking to add 12 to 14 high-quality players.
The D’Amelio Collective has launched a fundraising campaign aiming to raise up to $100,000, which the collective’s founder Marc D’Amelio has said he will match in order to make progress on the approximately $1.5 million that Mora said is needed to field a competitive “group of five” team.
Like it or not, this is part of the future of college football. We’re not going to speculate on which names will leave yet, but one can assume that pretty much any productive or promising underclassman could be targeted.
The conference situation
Mora seems to feel quite strongly about this, and a lot of his peers in coaching have echoed the sentiment: UConn football needs to be in a conference. The obvious solution is to join one of the power fives, but that invite is not coming.
Being in a conference offers a path to the playoffs, rivalry games in November, the chance to play for division and league crowns, bowl ties, and a chance for players to be recognized as standout performers.
It also anchors the program to a recruiting footprint and a consistent set of opponents to measure itself against. With the playoff expanding and the independent ranks thinning after Army announced it’s joining the AAC, joining a conference — any conference — might make sense.
So, what are the possible solutions if, say, UConn was looking to join a league this offseason?
The easiest ones are the MAC, C-USA, or Sun Belt as football-only members. We don’t know how amenable anyone will be to this but those are the options out of the existing leagues. I’ve voiced my support for the Sun Belt because it’s a good G5 league with strong football cultures and reasonable geography in its East division. The MAC or C-USA would be far from ideal but may just need to be the call.
After that, UConn may want to consider starting its own league. The only easily available partner is UMass, after which they’ll have to get creative.
Candidates for this new league include Temple, East Carolina, and Buffalo from the AAC or MAC, and perhaps some successful FCS programs can be enticed to move up, like Villanova or Holy Cross. Delaware is moving up to join C-USA, ESPN’s Pete Thamel has reported. The new league could also grab Army and Navy and eventually Pitt, BC, and Syracuse if the ACC collapses the way the Pac-12 did.
Perhaps the Ivy League would be interested in something similar to what it does with hockey in the ECAC and join up with a crew of other schools in order to bring more relevance to its athletic programs.
Short of those options, UConn and UMass may want to consider lawyering up and suing someone for something to get their way. The college sports cartel is being attacked on a lot of different fronts, perhaps its power brokers will find a home for two erstwhile FBS programs twisting in the wind when faced with some legal pressure against its business model.
All of this and more will be on our minds as we head into a very important offseason for the program.
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