ORONO — The start of any football season is approached with excitement. At the University of Maine, there is the added anticipation of a new coaching staff, led by Joe Harasymiak, and a new offense.

Maine, coming off a 3-8 season, opens its schedule against Connecticut at 7 p.m. Thursday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.

“There’s a belief that we can win,” said Harasymiak, who replaced longtime coach Jack Cosgrove. “Not just in this game but overall. That was the No. 1 goal of mine throughout the winter and the spring – to bring that belief back to this program because we had two rough years.”

The Black Bears won’t have it easy. They open with road games against Football Bowl Subdivision schools – Connecticut and Toledo – then, after a bye week, play perennial Colonial Athletic Association power James Madison at home.

FBS schools play at a higher Division I level than Maine, which is a Football Championship Subdivision school. FBS schools provide more scholarships (85 full scholarships to 63 for FCS schools), have larger rosters and often larger players than FCS teams. FBS schools also tend to fill out their schedules with games against FCS teams, providing the smaller schools with a guaranteed payday worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last year, for instance, Connecticut opened against Villanova, like Maine a member of the CAA, with a 20-15 win. The Huskies finished 6-7 last year, their final game a 16-10 loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

The Huskies return 10 starters on offense, including their quarterback (Bryant Shirreffs with 2,078 yards and nine touchdowns last season), leading rusher (Arkeel Newsome with 852 yards and six touchdowns) and top five leading receivers. UConn also returns six starters on defense.

Like Maine, the Huskies thrive on their defensive pressure – allowing just 19.5 points a game with a plus-9 turnover ratio a year ago – and looks to revive an often sleepy offense – 17.2 points and 310.3 yards per game a year ago (compared to 14.9 points and 321.7 yards per game for the Black Bears).

“They have a really good defense,” said Lian Coen, Maine’s new offensive coordinator. “Their front seven is really stout. They’re big, strong and physical.”

Coen came to Maine from the University of Massachusetts, an FBS program that Maine defeated 24-14 in 2013, the last season the Black Bears had a winning record.

The players say they’re ready for the challenge of playing FBS teams.

“We compete against the best so we have to play our best,” said Najee Goode, Maine’s junior cornerback. “I’ve got a lot of friends who play at that level so I like to see how I can compete against those guys.”

Pat Ricard, Maine’s outstanding senior tackle, said he was recruited by Connecticut as a walk-on, meaning as a non-scholarship player. Other Black Bear players received similar offers from FBS schools.

“There’s a chip on our shoulders,” said Ricard. “Some of us feel we can play there.”

Maine is 2-13 in games against FBS schools, including a 9-7 victory against Mississippi State in 2004 that’s still celebrated in these parts.

The Black Bears have played several other FBS teams tough, only to falter in the fourth quarter when the depth of FBS schools and the size of their players really kick in.

“It’s the second half where we start to get worn down physically. Our guys aren’t used to that size,” Harasymiak said.

He admits that it’s tough to play FBS teams in back-to-back weeks.

“Two is a challenge, no doubt,” Harasymiak said. “But I don’t look at this in a negative way because our guys love to play those games. And the coaches love playing them too.

“We want to see how we stack up against the FBS schools.”

There’s another reason the Black Bears play FBS schools – money. Maine will receive $325,000 from Connecticut and $375,000 from Toledo. That money goes into the general operating budget for the school’s athletic department.

“Those games are important for us,” said Karlton Creech, the athletic director at UMaine. “It’s a financial reality for us and most FCS schools that we need them to generate revenue.

“At Maine, as in many schools our size, none of our programs generate net positive revenue. It’s not like the larger schools where football and basketball can pay for everything else.”

Maine does not have FBS games scheduled beyond this year, though Creech said the school has been negotiating with a few schools. “We’re just not to the point where we can talk about it yet,” he said. “I think you’ll see similar level games, against mid-level FBS opponents.”

He added that he would rather play two games against mid-level FBS opponents than one against a school from a power-five conference, such as the Big Ten or SEC.

“We want to be careful about our scheduling,” said Creech. “We want to do everything we can to at least have a competitive game.

“We’re not interested in playing the highest-level FBS schools, where you can risk injury.”

That’s what Harasymiak is hoping for in his coaching debut, that the Black Bears can be competitive.

“Our goal is to earn some respect and to be in the game in the fourth quarter.”

Ricard said the Black Bears will be ready. They see these games as a chance to jump-start a successful season.

“If we play well versus the FBS schools, there’s no way we won’t play well against the schools in our conference,” he said. “So I think it’s a good indicator and will give us a good identity of who we are and what we need to work on. We’ll find out a lot in these first two games.”

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