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Football

Playing football with the big boys

UMass cornerback Reshaude Goodwin.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

UMass cornerback Reshaude Goodwin.

With upcoming games against Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Notre Dame, and Florida in a five-year span, the future of UMass football includes some of the sport’s biggest programs. Whether the Minutemen will be talented enough to make those games competitive remains to be seen, since UMass has made the decision — criticized by some — to play football at the highest college level after more than a century of lower-tiered success.

The first UMass football team was in 1879, but the school wasn’t consistently good until the 1960s, when it was a member of the Yankee Conference. Playing in what was known as Division I-AA, UMass became a national power, qualifying eight times for the NCAA Tournament and winning 22 conference championships. Three times the Minutemen advanced to the national title game, culminating in 1998, when the school won its only I-AA championship, beating Georgia Southern, 55-43.

University of Massachusetts starting lineup, Sept 28, 1963.

John J. Landers

University of Massachusetts starting lineup, Sept 28, 1963.

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Team success relies on talented individuals, and over the years a handful of Minutemen have been good enough to play in the NFL. Northampton native James Ihedigbo is a safety who played for the Patriots and Jets, and recently won a Super Bowl with Baltimore. Victor Cruz became a prolific NFL wide receiver, and won Super Bowl XLVI with the Giants. (Who did they beat again?)

The 2012 season was the first for UMass at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, as a member of the Mid-American Conference. The move hasn’t pleased everybody, since it requires a much larger financial commitment from the school, and it’s temporarily taken games away from cozy McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, which is undergoing renovations. The Minutemen are playing home games at Gillette Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 68,756. In five home games at Gillette during 2012, the Minutemen averaged 10,901.

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