UMass preseason preview: Growing pains

Previewing Year 2 of UMass as an FBS program:

Massachusetts Minutemen

Coach: Charley Molnar (second season at UMass, 1-11)

2012 record: 1-11 (1-7 in Mid-American Conference)

Key losses: RB Michael Cox, WR Deion Walker, DB Darren Thellen, OL Quinton Sales, OL Nick Speller, OL Stephane Milhim

Key returnees: QB Mike Wegzyn, TE Rob Blanchflower, RB Jordan Broadnax, RB Stacey Bedell, OL Anthony Dima, P Colter Johnson, DL Stanley Andre

Newcomer to watch: DE Justin Anderson. Molnar is excited about this fifth-year transfer from Maryland, suggesting he could make a big impact as a grad student this season. Anderson’s career stats as a member of the Terps don’t look like much, with 31 tackles (19 assisted and 12 unassisted) and two sacks in 24 games (13 starts).

But the 6-foot-5, 280-pounder certainly has the physical tools to put pressure on passers, something that the Minutemen struggled to do in 2012. UMass had just 12 sacks in its first year at the FBS level, tied for 118th nationally and ahead of only Eastern Michigan in the MAC.

Anderson and Molnar are both hoping that the Blythewood, S.C., native can recreate the season another fifth-year transfer had for the Minutemen in 2012: Michael Cox transferred to UMass after graduating from Michigan, and turned 198 carries into 715 yards, five TDs and a berth with the New York Giants, as he got drafted in the seventh round.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Maine, Sept. 7; at Buffalo, Oct. 19; vs. Western Michigan, Oct. 26; vs. Akron, Nov. 16

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can the Minutemen take a step forward in Year 2 of the transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision?

Molnar’s men have a year of FBS game experience and year in a Division I weight training program. Has that work improved their ability to compete in the Mid-American Conference?

If so, how much?

Forecast: As Coldplay frontman Chris Martin sang in “The Scientist,” “Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be this hard.”

The same can be said for the Minutemen's transition to the FBS level.

Half of UMass’ 12 games in 2013 will be against teams that played in bowl games in 2012, beginning with preseason AP No. 23 Wisconsin (which lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl in ‘12) at noon on Aug. 31 (Big Ten Network).

The Minutemen also have matchups with Kansas State (Tostitos Fiesta Bowl), Vanderbilt (Franklin American Mortgage Music City), Northern Illinois (Discover Orange), Ohio (AdvoCare V100 Independence) and Bowling Green (Military Bowl -- Presented by Northrop Grumman).

Before training camp started, Molnar set realistic goals such as reducing unforced errors and pre-snap fouls like false starts and illegal formations, and missing fewer tackles.

UMass will have to be better if it wants to draw well enough to avoid being put on probation by the NCAA. After UMass averaged just 10,902 in attendance in 2012, the NCAA stated that if the Minutemen don’t average at least 15,000 in actual attendance in 2013 they will enter a 10-year probationary period regarding the transition to Division I.

Failing to meet the 15,000 minimum standard could result in “restricted membership,” which according to NCAA bylaw would mean UMass would be ineligible for postseason play and would have one year to meet the minimum requirement before having to reapply for admission to the FBS.

The win-loss record isn’t likely to be pretty again this season, but Molnar believes his team is light years better than it was when it started Year 1. Time will tell if he’s right.

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