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, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.
There are four teams that live life at the FBS level as independents, unaffiliated with any particular conference. These four teams have varying levels of expectations from year-to-year, and this year is no different. We’ll start with the biggest name of the four, which is coming off a season where pretty much everything went wrong.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
In case you were under a rock during last college football season, or if you’re an Irish fan and you blocked it out, Brian Kelly’s team went 4-8 last year (sorry for the reminder Irish fans). A great multitude of things went wrong in the process and, heading into 2017, some have Kelly on their hot seat lists.
Both QBs from last year’s team, Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire are gone. In steps sophomore Brandon Wimbush who redshirted last season after seeing time in a couple of games as a freshman. He’ll have a veteran offensive line (4 starters) in front of him and hopefully a much healthier receiving corps. Five of the top six guys from last year return including leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (58 receptions 961 yards 9 TD). Top rusher Josh Adams (158 carries 933 yards 5 TD) is back and overall this unit should be much more explosive than last year’s group that averaged 30.9 PPG and 417.6 YPG.
The defense was beleaguered by injuries for much of last season with two corners being lost for the year before the season even started. This season, they lose a pair of starters on the defensive line and one each in the linebacking corps and secondary. With seven starters back and a secondary that is much deeper thanks to the adversity of last season, the Irish should improve on the 27.8 PPG and 378.8 YPG they gave up last season. The schedule is tough though. Home games against Georgia and USC combined with road trips to Michigan State, UNC, Miami and Stanford make for a difficult slate. Still, I’d expect them to be much better than last year and double their win total. Over 7.5 wins
Kalani Sitake did a great job in his first year at the helm of the Cougars, putting together a 9-4 record against one of the more difficult schedules in the the country. This season, he’s got 13 returning starters and despite losing a starting QB, he has an experienced one ready to step into the void.
Taysom Hill departs after racking up 2,815 yards (BYU QB rushing record) on the ground over the course of his career. In steps Tanner Mangum who got plenty of experience in the 2015 season when Hill was out with an injury. That experience under center, combined with an offensive line returning four starters should help give the less experienced skill position guys time to develop. The top rusher and top three receivers from last year’s team are gone, so they’re breaking in some newcomers at those spots. That said, this unit is more than capable of matching and improving upon the 29.5 PPG they averaged last year.
On defense, the Cougars were stingy last season allowing just 19.5 PPG and 366.5 YPG. This year, they return seven starters including their top three tacklers, who are all linebackers in Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u, and Francis Bernard (249 tackles 18 TFL 5 sacks combined). The secondary will be solid as well with three starters back, which means the biggest question is the defensive line. Three starters depart which could lead to a slight slip in the rushing numbers (114.4 YPG allowed), but overall this unit looks solid once again. The schedule is much easier despite the presence of Utah, LSU, and Wisconsin on it. Those are the biggest three games and every other contest falls into the winnable category. Over 8.5 wins
Army West Point Black Knights
Todd Monken has rebuilt the Black Knights program well going from 4-8 to 2-10 and then jumping to 8-5 in his third year in 2016. Now entering his fourth season, he has his most experienced group yet, but also faces a slightly tougher schedule.
On offense, almost everyone is back. They lose just one offensive linemen and one wide receiver from the starting group. Senior QB Ahmad Bradshaw has been a deft operator in the triple-option finishing last year as the team’s No. 2 rusher with 184 carries for 824 yards and 8 TD. Fullback Andy Davidson led the way with 961 yards and 12 TD. With those guys back as well as the top two backs in Jordan Asberry and Bell Walker, this team looks poised to once again dominate on the ground and rack up points similar to the 29.9 they averaged last season.
The defense’s biggest losses are in the linebackers corps with their top two tacklers in Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King departing (both three-year starters). Losing that kind of experience hurts, and despite the strength of experience in both the secondary (seven of eight back) and defensive line (two starters back), it will be hard for them to be as stingy against the run (121 YPG 3.9 YPC) without those top two backers. The schedule this year adds a road game against Ohio State in place of one of the FCS foes they had last season, and they also have tough games against Temple (home), Duke (home), and of course the service academy rivalries, (Air Force and Navy) which are both on the road. I’m going with seven wins, which would hit the under. Under 7.5 wins
Massachusetts Minutemen- O/U 3 wins
UMass found life as an independent to be unpleasant last year, posting a 2-10 record and being outscored 35.5 to 23.3 on average. This year, Mark Whipple has an experienced defense and a solid returning QB, but the schedule is once again brutal. They should hang around in more games, but there may not be much improvement in the win column.
Junior QB Andrew Ford (60.8% 2,665 26 TD 14 INT) returns along with top running back Marquis Young (197 carries 898 yards 4 TD) and the top two receivers (Adam Brendan and Andy Isabella). The biggest loss was the tragic death of guard Michael Boland this offseason. The offensive line does have three starters back, but of course the loss of a teammate is always tough to handle. Overall, the offense should be better than last year, allowing them to be in more games.
On defense, the secondary loses a pair of starters, making it the hardest hit unit in terms of losses. But, outside of those two guys, everyone else is back. That includes No. 1 tackler Steve Casali (105 tackles 4.5 TFL 3.5 sacks) and DE Sha-Ki Holines (44 tackles 2.5 sacks 4.5 TFL). Despite the experience, it will be hard to improve on their per game numbers because of the schedule. Games against conference favorites USF, Ohio, and Appalachian State are intermingled with road trips to Temple, Tennessee, Mississippi State and BYU. Overall, the Minutemen could be underdogs in nine of their 12 games. That makes is hard to predict the over here, though I think they hit three wins. Push 3 wins.