UMass heavy underdog at Wisconsin

The odds are against them. Heavily.

When the Minutemen kick off the 2013 season, Year 2 at the FBS level for coach Charley Molnar & Co., it will be as a massive underdog to No. 23 Wisconsin.

Most betting lines have the Badgers pegged as about a 45-point favorite, playing at home Saturday (noon ET) in Camp Randall Stadium. And considering the Minutemen got throttled by 50 the last time they played a top-tier Big Ten team (a 63-13 loss to Michigan at the Big House in Week 3 last season), that doesn’t seem an outlandish number.

But that won’t stop Molnar from spreading an optimistic message about the upcoming season.

“Going into our first game, we are a more confident team than we were a year ago,” he said Monday, according to a transcript of his weekly MAC conference call. ”We are playing harder and playing together. We are still young in several spots and will play a lot of true freshmen again this year just like last season, but I see good things coming up.”

The Minutemen return 17 starters from last season, including quarterback Mike Wegzyn, tight end Rob Blanchflower (the team’s captain) and left tackle Anthony Dima (an Outland Trophy watch list member) on offense.

However, Blanchflower and would-be starting running back Jordan Broadnax will miss the Wisconsin game with injuries. Michigan transfer Ricardo Miller will step in for Blanchflower, with Stacey Bedell taking the place of Broadnax.

Perhaps the biggest challenge the Minutemen face will be on defense, where in 2012 they struggled to stop the run (ranking 117th out of 124 FBS schools in rushing yards allowed per game at 224.75). That just so happens to be Wisconsin’s greatest strength, as the Badgers finished 13th in the country in rushing yardage per game at 236.36.

So while it’s a long shot at best, Molnar isn’t setting his sights on anything but a win in Week 1.

“It's to go out there to win a football game,” he said of the team’s mindset against Wisconsin. “We're certainly not going out there with any other thought in mind. We are going out there to play our very best and play as close to perfect football as we can.

“They are awfully good -- they’ve been to the last three Rose Bowls, so it's certainly a great program. We're going to give them our best shot and I certainly think that our guys are going to step up to that challenge.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.