At some point last fall, I found myself so starved for entertainment that I actually watched a University of Massachusetts football game. I'm not sure how I even stumbled across this contest on my television; I think I may have accidentally pirated a closed-circuit feed from a public-access station in Sudbury. This particular UMass football game was being played at the New England Patriots' 70,000-seat stadium in Foxboro, because UMass's on-campus stadium is currently under construction, due to what might be the most ill-advised attempt to move from the FCS to FBS in recent history. Either way, the visuals were striking, and it took me a moment to figure out why.
There were no people in the stands.
I mean, there were a couple of random windbreaker-wearing phantoms here and there in the camera shots, but I think those might have actually been other camera operators. The stadium, at least on my television, appeared as a vast concrete wasteland. And for a second, I actually panicked. I found myself wondering: Was there a bomb threat? Mass food poisoning? Is this is some kind of network experiment? Did zombies incubate at Hampshire College?
Perhaps there is a UMass football fan, somewhere, who might read this and insist that things are not quite as bad as they appeared on my screen. Still, things are not exactly great. I imagine being a UMass football fan is a lonely and often soul-crushing existence, but take heart in knowing that you have provided inspiration and justification for the following list of the least-hopeful FBS college football programs in the country.
Please note: The criteria here is not strictly based on record, or on recent bowl history; the criteria is based on the entirely subjective notion of which team, in each conference, I'd least like to be a fan of at this juncture of my existence. Some benefit of the doubt was provided to teams that are relatively new to the FBS (but not enough to benefit UMass).
American Athletic Conference: Connecticut
Three-Year Record: 13-23. Average 2013 attendance: 30,932. Stadium capacity: 40,000.
Hey, remember when the Huskies made four straight bowl games under Randy Edsall -- including the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, where they were summarily mauled by Oklahoma? Yeah, I don't really, either. Three years of Paul Pasqualoni did a pretty solid job of obliterating any sense of optimism in Storrs. Perhaps new coach and baking enthusiast Bob Diaco can alter the attitude here, but he can't shift the unfortunate fact that Connecticut is a basketball school in a basketball region whose best all-time player is a former backup running back for the Indianapolis Colts.
Runner-Up: Memphis (12 victories over the past five seasons)
Atlantic Coast Conference: Virginia
Five-Year Record: 21-40. Average 2013 attendance: 46,279. Stadium capacity: 61,500.
It's kind of astounding that the answer here isn't Duke -- I suppose that fact alone lends hope to every team on this list -- but Virginia, under once-coveted coach Mike London, has been more consistently mediocre for a longer period of time than any of the other conference schools whose fan bases traditionally only get excited about recruiting power forwards. Virginia did sign three five-star recruits in the offseason, but it's not impossible to imagine the Cavaliers' only two wins this season coming against Richmond and Kent State, and even those are not locks. Where art thou, Moore to Moore?
Runner-Up: Wake Forest (23-38 over the past five seasons)
Big Ten Conference: Maryland
Five-Year Record: 24-38. Average 2013 attendance: 41,278. Stadium capacity: 54,000.
Do you remember when Randy Edsall departed Connecticut for Maryland in perhaps the least-interesting coaching hire of the past five years? Well, so far it's turned out pretty much like everyone expected: Maryland went 7-5 last season before losing to Marshall in the Military Bowl. Given their impending money-grab move to the Big Ten -- and despite the fact that they have one of the best receivers in the country in Stefon Diggs -- I can't imagine there's another team that won more games than it lost last season yet still inspires so little excitement about the future.
Runners-Up: Illinois*, Purdue (both 23-39 over the past five seasons)
Big 12 Conference: University of Kansas
Five-Year Record: 14-46. Average 2013 attendance: 37,884. Stadium capacity: 50,071.
There are fewer major-conference programs in the country with lower expectations than Kansas; the whole "college football" enterprise in Lawrence is really just a bridge to the Maui Invitational. But the Jayhawks have been so bad in the past four years that they've actually managed to fall short of those low expectations, with 39 losses since 2010 -- the most over a four-year stretch in school history. Something to look forward to: The Charlie Weis implosion, when it comes, may actually melt clocks.
Runner-Up: University of Kansas (they're that bad)
Conference USA: UTEP
Five-year record: 20-40. Average 2013 attendance: 28,375. Stadium capacity: 51,500.
Do you know who UTEP's football coach is? Apparently, neither does this Sporting News college football preview I'm reading, which mistakenly lists Larry Coker as coach even though Coker is at Texas-San Antonio -- which is not (at least right now) a terrible program. UTEP, on the other hand, hasn't won a bowl game since 1967. After nine middling seasons under noted Destiny aficionado Mike Price, the Miners hired alum Sean Kugler last season, and promptly lost ten games.
Runner-Up: Southern Mississippi (three different head coaches in the past three seasons, one win in the past two years)
Mid-American Conference: Massachusetts
Two-year record since moving up from FCS: 2-22. Average 2013 attendance: 15,830. Stadium capacity: 68,756 (Gillette Stadium)/17,000 (McGuirk Alumni Stadium).
In an attempt to become at least marginally competitive, the Minutemen hired veteran coach Mark Whipple, who spent six years at UMass when they were an FCS contender in the late '90s and early '00s. This is the program's last season in the MAC; next year, unless a miracle occurs, they'll likely become an independent, and will probably continue to struggle until they retreat back to the FCS, which is where they almost certainly belonged in the first place.
Runner-Up: Eastern Michigan (18 consecutive years without a winning season)
Mountain West Conference: New Mexico
Five-Year Record: 10-51. Average 2013 attendance: 23,537. Stadium capacity: 39,224.
I admire Bob Davie's attempt to step out of the broadcast booth after many years and revive a moribund program, in part because it meant someone else would get to hear Bob Davie speak on Saturday afternoons. But this list of New Mexico football coaches who either didn't succeed at all, or were marginally successful before departing for a job where they could be more successful (Marv Levy!), is pretty astounding.
Runner-Up: Hawaii (4-20 the past two seasons -- seriously, what is up, Norm Chow?)
Pac-12 Conference: Colorado
Five-Year Record: 16-45. Average 2013 attendance: 38,463. Stadium capacity: 53,613.
Few programs have sunk so precipitously from national-championship contention to utterly irrelevance -- over the course of less than a generation -- with the hapless aplomb of Colorado. And while there is at least a shred of hope under second-year coach Mike MacIntyre, the Pac-12 is so deep and so good that it may take Colorado another generation to contend again. The good news: It's Boulder, so everything is beautiful and everyone is too stoned to care.
Runner-Up: California (1-11 in the first season under no-huddle guru Sonny Dykes. See also: Beautiful and stoned, above.)
Southeastern Conference: Kentucky
Five-Year Record: 22-40. Average 2013 attendance: 59,472. Stadium capacity: 67.942.
The Wildcats finished with the No. 22 recruiting class in the country, and if they were in any other conference in the country, that alone might be reason for hope. But Kentucky plays in the weaker of the SEC's two divisions, and I'll still be shocked if they finish any higher than sixth out of seven. The upside for coach Mark Stoops is that John Calipari is an outstanding smokescreen.
Runners-Up: Mississippi State (marooned in the second tier of the life-threatening SEC West), Arkansas (in the same position, but with Bret Bielema)
Sun Belt Conference: Idaho
Five-year record: 18-44. Average 2013 attendance: 14,744. Stadium capacity: 16,000.
The obvious answer here is Georgia State, which went 0-12 in its first FBS season and may go 0-12 again. But we should cut them some slack, so let's go with the Vandals, who -- despite having the most compelling SmartCar-sized stadium in the FBS -- haven't had a coach with a winning record since the '90s. Idaho has already been banned from the postseason for a low APR score, which is sort of like banning a sturgeon from a Volvo dealership.
Runner-Up: Georgia State (no FBS wins, ever)