By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
To wrap things up, we look at the four independent teams in the FBS: Notre Dame, BYU, Army, and UMass.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Despite multiple season-ending injuries to multiple players last year, the Irish put up 10 wins and were in the conversation for a possible college football playoff spot until late in the season. This year, Brian Kelly has a conundrum at the QB spot and will be replacing some highly-talented departures, but the Irish look strong again.
That QB conundrum for the Irish isn’t because they don’t have a returning starter. No, no, instead, it’s because the Irish have DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire back at that spot. Zaire opened last season by lighting up Texas to the tune of 313 yards and 3 TDs. Then he got hurt against Virginia and Kizer stepped in to finish out the year with 3,404 combined yards and 31 touchdowns. The old saying is “if you have two quarterbacks you really don’t have one” and in most cases it’s true. We saw Ohio State struggle with rotating two very talented guys at the position last year and it will be interesting to see how Kelly handles this. Elsewhere, the Irish lose their top rusher and four of their top five receivers from last season. The offensive line loses three starters from a line that paved the way for 208 yards rushing last season.
Despite those losses, there’s a ton of young talent ready to step into larger roles including WR Torii Hunter Jr. and RB Josh Adams. If the Irish can make the QB situation work better than the Buckeyes did last year this team should once again be putting up 35-40 points per game on the scoreboard.
On defense, the biggest losses are tackle Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith, and corner KeiVarae Russell. The Irish also lose both starting safeties and one other starting linebacker. Here, however, is where those guys that were injured last season come into play. Nose tackle Jarron Jones, corner/safety Drue Tranquill and safety Avery Sebastian were all lost for the year before last season and all three will be back this season. Those three will give this unit a boost, but the biggest question comes at linebacker where they lost two key pieces to their defense and are significantly less experienced. Brian VanGorder has work to do with that unit to keep the defense around that 22.4 points and 373 yards per game they gave up last season.
The schedule is favorable from the ACC crossover as they avoid Clemson, Florida State and UNC. They get Miami, FL, but that game comes at home. As always there are the tough rivalry games against Michigan State, Stanford and USC, but two of those three need to make the trip to South Bend. They open with Texas once again. Overall, the Irish have the talent to make another run at a playoff spot, but there are some big questions to be answered.
Toughest Games: @ Texas (9/4), vs. Michigan State (9/17), vs. Stanford (10/15), vs. Miami, FL (10/29), @ USC (11/26)
There’s a lot of noise about the Cougars this offseason, mainly centering on whether or not they will be part of the potential Big 12 expansion. The reason they’re under consideration is that BYU has had 10-straight winning seasons including five 10-plus win years. This year, they do have to replace head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but there’s a strong group of returnees that should make the transition easy.
Kalani Sitake is the new head coach and he played running back here in the late 90’s. The new offensive coordinator is Ty Detmer, who won the Heisman as a QB for the Cougars. Sensing a theme? BYU likes to keep things in the family and these two inherit an offense that is loaded with talent. Similarly to Notre Dame, the Cougars have two capable QBs back in Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum. In addition, their top rusher (Algernon Brown) and four starters along the offensive line are back. The one question mark comes at wide receiver where three of the top four from last year are gone. The big difference this year will be moving to more of a pro-style offense under Detmer from the spread they’ve run the past few years. However, considering how many returning players the team has, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Expect another potent offense from the Cougars this year.
On defense they do have to replace defensive end Bronson Kaufusi, who had 11 sacks last season. That said, the other two starters are back, but they switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. The Cougars do also have two starting linebackers and three starters in the secondary back. Linebackers Harvey Langi and Fred Warner were the second and third leading tacklers last season and both are back. Replacing Kaufusi will be difficult, but this should be a solid unit once again.
The schedule, as you would expect from a top independent school, is tough. Games at Utah, Michigan State, Boise State, Cincinnati along with home games against UCLA and Utah State. That’s not even counting games against Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi State and Toledo. It’s going to be a tough road, but there’s plenty of talent here. Nine wins seems possible due to the talent that returns.
Toughest Games: @ Utah (9/10), vs. UCLA (9/17), @ Michigan State (10/8), @ Boise State (10/20), @ Cincinnati (11/5), vs. Utah State (11/26)
Army West Point Black Knights
Army has had the roughest go of things among the service academy schools as they have just two winning seasons in the last 20 years (7-6, 2010, 10-2, 1996). Jeff Monken enters his third season with his most experienced team yet and with a schedule that has some very winnable games on it they could make a leap in the win column this year.
Both quarterbacks that Monken used last year return in junior Ahmad Bradshaw and sophomore Chris Carter are back. The top rusher Aaron Kemper also returns with three starters back on the offensive line, In addition the top two receivers return as well. Army runs the triple option, so the rushing numbers are key and last year they averaged just 244 yards on the ground, which is fairly low for this kind of offense. This year, with many of the top starters returning those numbers should be better and should be able to improve upon the 22 points and 338 yards per game they averaged last season.
On defense, virtually the entire unit is back. The two losses are nose guard TJ Atimalala and corner Chris Carnegie. The Knights bring back their top seven tacklers who totaled 474 tackles last season. That’s a ton of experience and if they can stay healthy, the Black Knights should improve dramatically on the 28 points and 376 yards per game that they allowed last season.
The schedule is favorable as I mentioned with the toughest games coming against Temple, Duke, Air Force, Notre Dame and Navy. The two other service academies are obviously big rivalry games for this team and they get Air Force at home in West Point while traveling to Baltimore to play Navy. This is the most talented team Monken has had and Army should be able to capitalize on the schedule.
Toughest Games: @ Temple (9/2), @ Duke (10/8), vs. Air Force (11/5), vs. Notre Dame (11/12 San Antonio), vs. Navy (12/10 Baltimore)
The Minutemen have struggled since making the leap to FBS in 2012. Their record in the first four seasons of play is 8-40 and now they will try to survive as an independent after spending the last four years in the MAC. Mark Whipple has to replace his quarterback and a large chunk of production from the receiving corps this season. It looks like another tough year.
Blake Frohnapfel departs as the number three passer in school history. To replace him, Whipple is looking at a battle between Virginia Tech transfer Andrew Ford, sophomore Ross Comis and junior Austin Whipple. Not only does the team need to replace a top quarterback, but they’ll also need to find new targets for him as five of the top six receivers from last year’s team are gone. The top returner is Shakur Nesmith who had just 15 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns last season. The good news is that the top rusher in sophomore Marquis Young is back following a freshman season in which he just missed 1,000 yards finishing with 960 and seven touchdowns. Young has an offensive line with three starters back in front of him so the run game should be solid once again. With the loss of their QB and receivers, it’s tough to see this team scoring more than the 22.2 points per game they averaged last season.
On defense, coordinator Tom Masella has two starters back on the defensive line, two starters back at linebacker and only one starter back in the secondary. The team runs a 3-4 and with inside linebackers Shane Huber and John-Robinson Woodgett (152 tackles combined) back and Sha-ki Holines and Peter Angeh on the line so the front seven should be solid. The secondary is where the biggest question comes with those three starters departing. Due to the departures in the secondary, it’s hard to see this team doing much better than the 31 points and 448 yards per game they gave up last season.
There’s a tough schedule ahead of this team with Power 5 opponents in Florida, Boston College, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. They have Louisiana Tech and BYU also. It’s looking like another down year for this team.
Toughest Games: @ Florida (9/3), vs. Boston College (9/10), vs. Mississippi State (9/24), vs. Louisiana Tech (10/15), @ South Carolina (10/22), @ BYU (11/19)
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.