College Football Preview Series: Independents

Welcome to the College Football Preview Series! Over the next few weeks, I will be replacing the Student of the Game (don’t worry it will return) with this preview series. The first several posts will be a breakdown of each conference, breaking down the Power 5 into two posts apiece to cover everything in a manageable size. In each post, I will answer what I deem to be the five most important questions about each conference or division then post my standings for that division or conference. The preview series will conclude with an individual awards post and a New Year’s Six predictions post. Enjoy and please leave comments!

We have waited long enough and the college football season is just under a month away, which means two things. First, it means that I will be diving into my college football preseason previews. The second thing is that you are a mere 27 days or fewer from watching your favorite team play and not knowing the outcome of the game beforehand (yay!). For this year’s preview series, I am going to kick things off with the Independents, or as I like to call them, the Ne-Yo division of college football.

Will Notre Dame Bounce Back?

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas
Equanimeous St. Brown hauls in a touchdown against Texas (Photo Courtesy of Soobum Im/USA Today Sports)

It’s no secret that Notre Dame was a huge disappointment last season, and now Brian Kelly is coaching for his job. The question is: will he do enough to keep it? The positives for the Irish are that they return 15 starters (8 on offense, 7 on defense) and two of their three toughest games (Georgia and USC) are in South Bend. The biggest question mark will be Brandon Wimbush stepping into the quarterback role for the departed Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire, but he has the talent to be just as good as his predecessors and has plenty of help around him.

Four offensive line starters return including third team All-American Mike McGlinchey, as well as leading rusher Josh Adams and leading receiver and all-name team member Equanimeous St. Brown. The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense with Drue Tranquill sliding into the Rover spot from strong safety and Nyles Morgan and Te’Veon Coney both returning. Greer Martini should also see an expanded role at weakside linebacker this season after finishing 6th on the team in tackles last season. All that being said, I think Notre Dame will win eight games this season and that will be enough to save Brian Kelly’s job.

How far is BYU from national recognition?

This will be Brigham Young’s seventh season as an FBS independent, but they are still much closer to a Group of Five school in the public eye than the Power Five school that the playoff agreement states they are technically considered. In the current seven year stretch, the Cougars are 49-25 and have been to a bowl game in every season. Last season, BYU played six Power Five schools and went 3-3 in those games with wins over Arizona, Michigan State and Mississippi State. So why don’t they get more respect?

I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I will make a suggestion just based on the 2017 schedule. There are respectable games on this year’s schedule like LSU (neutral site), Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State and a road trip to Mississippi State. However, the last six opponents of the season are ECU, San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV, UMass and Hawaii. Only one of those teams made my preseason top 100, and that was Hawaii who is 100 on the dot. That six-game stretch probably gets BYU its second 10-win season this decade and also probably eliminates them from any New Year’s Six discussions unless they go 12-1 or better. Here are my suggestions for the athletic director going forward: five games against Group of Five teams maximum (excluding the annual Boise State game because they have an elevated status), space them out better throughout the season, and continue performing. If they follow that recipe, then a New Year’s Six bid is attainable in the near future.

Will Army lead the FBS in rushing?

Mitchel Leff:Getty Images
Andy Davidson breaks free against Temple (Photo Courtesy of Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Army had a fantastic season in 2016. The Black Knights had their first winning season since 2010, won their second bowl game this century, ended a 14-year drought against Navy and finished second in the FBS in rushing. (Anyone care to guess who finished first?) Jeff Monken’s team returns four starters up front and the top five rushers from last year’s team, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a dynamic rushing attack again this season. The schedule is also very manageable, which means their scores should be close enough in most games to allow them to stick to their game plan, which involves heavy doses of triple options, fullback dives and the Joe Kines’ special a.k.a. “that ol’ inside trap”. I will go ahead and say that Army does lead the FBS in rushing this season and returns to a bowl game, which makes it the first time Army has been to back-to-back bowl games in my lifetime. (By the way, if your answer to the earlier question was Bob Davie’s New Mexico Lobos then pat yourself on the back and give yourself a cookie).

What is UMass doing with its football program?

Massachusetts started its transition from FCS to FBS in the 2011 football season, beginning with a two year period where they were not eligible to go to a bowl game. The Minutemen played one FBS team in 2011 (Boston College) which they lost en route to a 5-6 finish. Since then, they have joined and left the MAC (where they were a football only school from 2012-2015), become an independent, and never won more than three games in a season. This season the outlook doesn’t look good either. On the field, the lone bright spot for 2017 will be the passing game where quarterback Andrew Ford returns along with his two leading receivers Adam Breneman (a tight end) and Andy Isabella. My suggestion for UMass as a program is to either follow Idaho back to FCS or take their place in the Sun Belt, which would also be a win for the conference because by adding a 12th team (again) they would be eligible to have a conference title game.

Whose season will get ruined by an independent?

Spenser Heaps:Deseret News
BYU Head Coach Kalani Sitake (Photo Courtesy of Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)

Given the scheduling flexibility that the independent teams have, this will be an interesting question heading into virtually every season. This season, and in most seasons, BYU and Notre Dame are probably the only two teams capable of ruining the chances of a team with legitimate playoff or New Year’s Six aspirations so they will be the focus. Even narrowing it down to those two, there are several candidates. Notre Dame’s big opportunities come at home against Georgia and USC, and on the road against Stanford and Miami. However, I believe that Notre Dame will lose all four of those games (with Georgia being the most likely opportunity for a victory).

That leaves BYU, who I mentioned earlier plays four Power Five teams and Boise State. LSU and Wisconsin are probably too strong to fall to the Cougars, although if I’m an LSU fan I’m at least a little worried about having to play them in Houston the second week of the season. Also, with the way the Mississippi State message boards have reacted to the Ole Miss situation the only things that are ruining their season are an Egg Bowl loss or Ole Miss getting off scot-free from any additional NCAA punishment. With Utah and Boise State left, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which constitutes “ruining a season” more. If Utah loses to Brigham Young, which I believe they will, then they lose to their biggest rival and there’s also some chance that a loss here ends up being the difference between 6-6 and 5-7, which means no bowl eligibility. That’s pretty bad, but if Boise State loses to BYU that almost assuredly takes them out of contention for that Group of Five automatic bid to the New Year’s Six. That takes the cake in my book.

Next up in the College Football Preview Series will be the American Athletic Conference.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images




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