The State of the Program Entering I-A
With far more tradition as a basketball school than a football factory, the University of Connecticut had little pedigree at the lower levels of the sport to draw upon when they vaulted to the I-A ranks in 2000. Despite fielding a team consistently since 1896, UConn was an afterthought season after season as they passed from the New England Conference to the Yankee Conference to the Atlantic 10.
Through the 1980s, the Huskies would win four Yankee league titles. But all four times, the NCAA passed the team up for a spot in the I-AA playoffs. Thus UConn would play in only one postseason, going 9-2 to win the Atlantic 10 in 1998. Finally gaining a berth thanks in large part to the league they had joined just the year before, the Huskies beat Hampton 42-34 at home on November 28.
The win was UConn’s tenth of the year, the first time that the Huskies had finished the year with double digits in the win column in their long history. After earning their first taste of postseason success, though, Connecticut would bow out the following weekend in the quarterfinals at eventual tournament runner-up Georgia Southern 52-30.
Then their head coach, Skip Holtz, left Storrs at the end of the 1998 season to take over as offensive coordinator at South Carolina — where his father, Lou, had just become the new head coach. Brought in to fill the void was Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Randy Edsall, who had just one season to gain his bearings before the transition to the I-A level.
Edsall’s first year as a head coach had its pitfalls, as the Huskies finished 4-7. Having failed to build on the momentum of the team’s inaugural preseason berth, Edsall had still built a foundation in Storrs that had the chance to flourish once they gained their footing in the upper division.
The First Season
2000, the first as an independent in the century-long history of UConn’s football program, offered little opportunity to gain any traction. But there would still be highlights for the Huskies as they fought their way to a 3-8 finish in Edsall’s sophomore season as their coach and first in the I-A ranks.
Connecticut played their first game as a I-A member on September 2, traveling to Ypsilanti to take on Eastern Michigan. The Eagles would prevail by a touchdown, 32-25, but the showdown showcased the fact that the Huskies were destined to be a competitive program at the top level. The following weekend, they easily took care of I-AA Colgate at home 37-7.
UConn went to Buffalo on the 16th to face the Bulls, which had just joined the I-A ranks the previous season. The road trip would give Edsall’s crew their first victory over a fellow top-flight opponent, as the Huskies held on to a 24-21 lead for the victory. Midway through September, Connecticut had a winning record and conceivably had a chance at finishing their first FCS season with a winning record.
But over the next three weekends they would suffer a losing streak that reversed their winning percentage and put them well below .500 at the beginning of October. The Huskies would lose to I-AA Northeastern, 35-27, at home before falling 41-22 at Louisville on the last day of September. Taking on Boston College on the first weekend of October, UConn looked out of their comfort zone for the first time of the season. Battered by the bowl-bound Eagles, Connecticut stumbled 55-3 to fall to 2-4 on the season.
They would recover after a bye week, surviving a thriller on the road against Akron 38-35 to stop the losing streak at three. Unfortunately for the Huskies, though, it would be their last win of the season. A trip to Tampa saw UConn lose to USF 21-13 to end October at 3-5.
Needing to win all of their final November games to finish with a winning record, Connecticut promptly bottomed out at Middle Tennessee 66-10 on the first weekend of the season’s final month to guarantee a losing season. The humiliation continued with their second I-AA loss of the year, Rhode Island coming to Storrs and beating the Huskies 26-21 in the penultimate game of the year. A 29-0 shutout at Ball State put an end to a season that had shown glimmers of promise but ended with just three victories.
How Have They Fared Since?
The Huskies would suffer a sophomore slump in 2001, going 2-9. All but two of their losses would be by double digits, their only two victories coming against Rutgers and Eastern Michigan teams that would also finish with just two wins on the season.
Things started to improve in 2002, as UConn rebounded from a 2-6 start in September and October to win their final four games and finish at .500 for the first time in the I-A ranks. They would then improve by three wins in 2003, posting the school’s first winning season at the top level. To cap the campaign, their last as an independent, they won the last five games on their schedule to finish 9-3. But as an independent still, the Huskies failed to attract enough attention to earn a bid to one of the country’s 28 postseason bowl games.
Connecticut would join what was then an ascendant Big East Conference for the 2004 season. Though they would finish one game back of a four-way tie for the conference championship, their only losses in league play came against Boston College, West Virginia and Syracuse — three of the four teams that finished ahead of them in the Big East standings. They would upset the fourth, Pittsburgh, in a home showdown on the last day of September. The 7-4 record would be good enough to earn UConn their first bowl berth. Taking on MAC champion Toledo in Detroit, the Huskies won the Motor City Bowl over the Rockets 39-10 to finish the year with eight victories.
Hard times would see UConn finish with losing records in 2005 and 2006, but by 2007 Edsall had the team competing for its first Big East title. Opening the season with five straight victories, the Huskies would not lose a game until a trip to Charlottesville on October 13 ended in a 17-16 defeat to the Virginia Cavaliers. They promptly rebounded from the blemish on their record by beating Louisville, South Florida and Rutgers on consecutive weekends to improve to 8-1.
Still undefeated in league play, the Huskies would fall 27-3 at Cincinnati on November 10 to fall to 4-1 in the Big East standings. After beating Syracuse 30-7 the next week, UConn went to West Virginia on the 24th for a de facto championship game against a Mountaineers team that also had only one loss in their conference record. Rich Rodriguez’s squad would easily dismiss Connecticut 66-21, but a loss the following weekend in the Backyard Brawl to Pittsburgh would force West Virginia to share the conference title (but not the attendant BCS berth, which went to the higher-ranked Mountaineers). Selected to appear in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, the Huskies would fall to Wake Forest 24-10 as the co-champions finished the season 9-4.
UConn would post another winning campaign in 2008 and earn a berth in the International Bowl, though they fell below .500 in conference play and finished just fifth in the eight-team Big East. In their bowl game in Toronto, Bulldozing the Bulls defense for a career-best 261 yards, NFL-bound Donald Brown helped the Huskies rebound from a fumble-filled first half to beat Buffalo 38-20 in Toronto.
2009 looked much the same as the previous year, as Connecticut posted another 7-5 regular season that would be good enough to finish in a three-way tie for fourth in the conference. Once again UConn was rewarded with a postseason appearance, this time facing off against South Carolina at the Papajohns.com Bowl. Against the SEC middleweight, the Huskies had a 13-0 lead by halftime and scored another touchdown to go up by 20 in the fourth quarter. Though the Gamecocks would score a consolation touchdown to prevent the shutout, Connecticut would win their second straight bowl game and another eight-win campaign.
The Huskies would post another 8-win season in 2010, though with a better conference record UConn would finish the season in a three-way tie for the Big East title. Direct wins over Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the other two teams with 5-2 records in league play, would give the Huskies the tiebreaker over the Panthers and Mountaineers. The reward for Edsall’s squad would be a trip to Arizona to face Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The showdown against the Sooners would show the gulf between the Big East and the other BCS conferences, the Big XII champions knocking off UConn 48-20 to end the team’s bowl winning streak.
And then, like Skip Holtz before him, Edsall left Storrs after an unprecedented season for Connecticut. Swapping one head position to take over the vacant post at Maryland, Edsall’s contentious departure left the door open for former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni to finally earn another opportunity at leading a squad.
His first two years at UConn would fail to yield a winning record in either 2011 or 2012, as the Huskies finished 5-7 in both seasons. The highlight of Pasqualoni’s tenure to date would be a 23-20 upset win over Louisville that put the final nail in the coffin of the Big East champion’s BCS championship-game dreams.
Left behind in the realignment shifts that led to another Big East defection, the Huskies now become one of the showpiece teams of the new American Athletic Conference while keeping one ear open for an invite to one of the big-five leagues. Pasqualoni will have to quickly find the coaching acumen that led his Orangemen teams to four Big East titles and six bowl victories if he hopes to remain a long-term part of UConn’s football future.