NEWPORT, R.I. - In just five years at the Division I level, Connecticut has made quite a name for itself in the college football world.
Once known exclusively as a basketball school, UConn fans now have a reason to look forward to fall for reasons other than the start of basketball practice.
With Coach Randy Edsall at the helm, the Huskies have won 23 games in three years, this after winning just nine games in the prior three seasons. Last season, UConn posted an 8-4 mark and advanced to their first bowl game, where it hammered Toledo 39-10 in the Motor City Bowl.
Record-setting quarterback Dan Orlovsky is gone, and the Big East media picked the Huskies to finish fifth in the conference standings in 2005, but Edsall and his players, who met with the media Tuesday at the Big East media days, have different ideas.
And with 14 starters back, including a tremendous tandem of running backs in Cornell Brockington, the Big East's leading rusher a year ago, and Terry Caulley, who was leading the nation in rushing two years ago before a season-ending injury, it's hard to bet against improving UConn, which has also been helped by dramatically improved facilities.
"We're going to be the most athletic we have been since I've been here," said wide receiver Jason Williams, who had 44 catches for 661 yards and four scores last season. "I think we have one of the best tandems of backs in the country, and while our quarterbacks might not be able to pick defenses apart like Orlovsky, they run 4.6 and can take it to the house."
Finding a quarterback to take pressure off of the running game will be a key for UConn, and junior Matt Bonislawski and freshman D.J. Hernandez, and three starters from the offensive line need to be replaced.
The defense, which led the Big East a year ago by allowing just 327 yards per game, should be solid again in 2005. The entire defensive front returns, and senior linebacker James Hargrave, who recorded 88 tackles, including 15 for losses, and four sacks last season, is among the best defenders in the league.
What will be unusual for the Huskies this season is their schedule. Three times the Huskies will play on a day other than Saturday, something Edsall knows can disrupt a team during the season.
"Ideally, you would always want to play on Saturday night, but you can't pass up the exposure that comes with playing on national television," said Edsall, who was just rewarded with a new six-year contract.
The Huskies will open on a Thursday against Buffalo, face Syracuse at home on a Friday night on ESPN2 in a game Edsall singled out as huge for his program and then play at West Virginia on ESPN2 on a Wednesday night.
But the schedule is favorable, with the other non-league home games against Liberty and Army coupled with a road tilt against Georgia Tech. Within the league, UConn gets conference favorite Louisville at home to close the season, but it will travel to Pittsburgh as well as take to the road for the aforementioned clash with the Mountaineers.
"I think it's going to be a great conference, very competitive," Edsall said. "I think you have to be ready to play each week or you can get beat."