At one time, there were more than 30 major college football teams playing as independents not affiliated with a conference. 45 years ago, a look at the top-ranked teams found independents dominating the polls with teams like Penn State, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Air Force, Houston, Florida State, and Boston College competing at the top level of the NCAA.
With Navy joining the American Athletic Conference this year, the number of independents has dwindled to just three. Notre Dame, BYU, and Army (West Point) are all that remain. There is a rising trend amongst the coaches and athletics directors of the other schools to mandate that all teams that wish to be eligible for the postseason playoff must be a member of a conference. This is a direct stab at Notre Dame and their plum TV deal with NBC.
The only other news item among the Indies this year involves a name change. Army is now to be called “Army West Point.”
Because there is no official media poll or All-Independent team, and because it is obvious that Notre Dame is the top of the trio and Army West Point is at the bottom, we will dispense with these parts of the preview and give you an in-depth look at the Fighting Irish.
Coach Brian Kelly is in an advantageous position this year. Notre Dame is sitting on a potentially big season with the return of 10 defensive starters and seven offensive starters. A team that went 8-5 with three close losses last year is considerably more talented in 2015. The schedule is more favorable than last year’s as the Irish host Texas and USC. Road games against Clemson and Stanford are the only roadblocks between a 12-0 slate that would put this team in the playoffs.
New starting quarterback Malik Zaire auditioned for the job last year by making his first start in the Music City Bowl. Against a tough LSU defense, he guided the Irish offense on a 15-play touchdown drive that consumed nearly eight minutes off the clock, capping it off with a 12-yard scoring pass to William Fuller. The drive looked similar to how the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers frequently started games. Removing the sacks, Zaire topped 100 yards rushing in that game, and he completed 12 of 15 pass attempts for 96 yards and a score. Look for the sophomore to have a break out season this year. If Zaire suffers and injury, there is no experienced depth behind him, but Kelly has recruited this position well. Two former 5-star recruits will vie for the backup spot.
The running game is talented but not that deep but with a wildcard. Tarean Folston led the team with 889 yards last year, and it looked as if he would split time with Greg Bryant until academic ineligibility sent him to junior college in Florida. The wildcard here is slot receiver C. J. Prosise. Prosise was the star of Spring Practice as both a receiver and a ball carrier. True freshman Dexter Williams may now see appreciable playing time. With Zaire’s ability to excell in the zone read, the running game is going to be much better this year, and the Irish could top 200 rushing yards per game.
The passing game may not be as fruitful as last year, but it could be just as effective, albeit less utilized. Fuller is back after leading the team with 76 catches and 1,094 yards. Prosise will get his reps in the slot. Chris Brown is almost as talented as Fuller. Corey Robinson would start for at least half of the Big Ten teams. Additionally, there are four or five other players capable of contributing to this deeply talented unit. Kelly was pleased in the Spring with new starting tight end Durham Smythe. Smythe will not replicate the numbers put up by last year’s star tight end Ben Koyack, who now plays in the NFL.
The offensive line returns four players with significant starting experience, and this unit is strong and agile. Notre Dame will control the line of scrimmage in most of its games, and Kelly will pound the ball between the tackles more like he did in 2012. Center NIck Martin and tackle Ronnie Stanley both have NFL potential. The Irish can go two deep here and not see much of a drop in production.
The Irish defense was not up to par for Notre Dame standards last year, but with most of the starting lineup returning, things promise to improve in 2015. It won’t be a repeat of 2012, but if Notre Dame can give up just 20 points per game this year, they stand to be quite successful.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Day decided to forego an early admission to the NFL and come back for his senior year. He will team with Jarron Jones to give the Irish possibly the best tackle tandem in the nation. Opponents will not exploit Notre Dame with inside running plays. Both of last year’s starting ends return as well. Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara provided an excellent outside pass rush last year. Look for Notre Dame to surrender 30 to 40 fewer rushing yards per game this year as well as giving up less than four yards per attempt. Also, look for the sack total to go up by more than 50% from 26 to more than 40.
Seldom can a team go three-deep at a defensive unit, but the Irish have 10 linebackers good enough to play in the top level of college football. The key player is middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. When Schmidt was in the lineup, the Irish looked like a typical defense in their storied history. With Schmidt injured, Notre Dame played defense more like a matador. Jaulon Smith is a tackling machine, but without Schmidt, those tackles occur too far downfield. Who the third starter will be is still to be determined, but Kelly can choose from four or five experienced players and sleep peacefully at night. Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu are the leading contenders.
There was a vulnerability in the secondary last year, but injuries and suspensions were the cause. Look for things to get a lot better this year. KeiVarae Russell returns to the club after missing all of last year due to the academic scandal of 2013. Russell is a game changer at cornerback, and he will team with Cole Luke to make it rather hard for opponents to succeed on the outer perimeter. Safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are not as talented as the cornerback duo, but they are competent and intelligent and should show improved play this year.
The Irish Achilles’ Heel this year is their special teams. Gone is supertoe Kyle Brindza, who hit 51-52 PATs and 14-24 field goals last year, while punting for an average of 41.5 yards per attempt. Two freshmen will replace him. True freshman Justin Yoon had thoughts of becoming an NHL hockey star. Years of playing hockey strengthened his kicking leg, and Yoon may turn out to be a better scorer than Brindza was. However, as a freshman, Yoon may not replicate what Brindza produced last year.
The schedule begins with a visit from the Texas Longhorns. Notre Dame should win this game by a touchdown or more. A week two trip to Virginia could be a trap game, but the Cavaliers don’t have the talent to upset the Irish this year. Week three brings an interesting match against Georgia Tech, and you should mark this one down on your calendar to tune into NBC for this one. The Irish should be favored by about 4 or 5 points in this game, a if they come out of this one at 3-0, they should move into the top 5 in the polls.
After a breather home game against an improving UMass, the Irish have a tough assignment at Clemson on October 3. The Tigers will have a bye week to prepare for this game, and CU is 26-2 at home in the last four years. Navy comes to South Bend on October 10, and because the Irish will have already played Georgia Tech, they should fare rather well against the spread option.
The following week is the big game against rival USC. It is possible that these teams will both still be undefeated and ranked in the top five for the first time since 1988. Notre Dame will be out for revenge against the Trojans after losing by 35 points in the regular season finale last year.
After a welcome week off, the Irish play Temple in Philadelphia, and while the Owls will be flying with a possible 5-2 record by then, this game should not be much of a contest. The Irish stay in the Keystone State the following week against Pittsburgh, and the Panthers don’t have the horses to pull off the upset this year. After a home visit from Wake Forest that should not be much trouble for Kelly’s troops, Notre Dame plays Boston College in what should be a very memorable game. The contest will be played at Fenway Park, and this is one game you won’t want to miss if you are a real football fan.
The regular season concludes on the Left Coast with a visit to The Farm against Stanford. If Notre Dame comes out of this game with at least 11 wins, they very well could be in the FBS Playoffs. 10 wins will still guarnatee them a Big Six bowl bid.
Brigham Young coach Bronco Mendenhall welcomes back enough talent from his 8-5 team last year to guarantee that the Cougars will once again be bowl eligible and earn a bid to the Las Vegas (or Hawaii) Bowl. Quarterback Taysom Hill was off to a spectacular year last season until an gruesome injury ended his season early in the fifth game (when BYU was 4-0). Hill returns to take his QB spot back, but there is no way he can be as effective as he was prior to the devastating knee injury that was worse than anything Joe Namath experienced.
The loss of expected running back starter Jamaal Williams is going to hurt, and BYU doesn’t have a back that can replace him. With Hill not expected to use his legs like he did before the injury, the Cougar offense may become more one dimentional. There are talented receivers, so BYU may still succeed on this side of the ball. Mitch Mathews, Terenn Houk, Colby Pearson, and Mitchell Juergens provide Hill with four quality targets.
An offensive line that averages 310 pounds per man should provide Hill with enough pass protection to allow him to top 300 passing yards per game, and if this is so, then BYU should top 35 points per game for the second consecutive season.
The defense is not strong enough to allow BYU to compete for the one allotted Big Six bowl bid, as there are a lot of holes to plug. The secondary will be vulnerable with the loss of three starters including star defender Robertson Daniel.
BYU is also thin at linebacker where three of four 2014 starters are missing. Only up front, where all three 2014 starters return is above average for a FBS team. End Bronson Kaufusi could play in the NFL next year.
The schedule is tricky this year, and the Cougars could have to play catchup in the second half of the schedule to gain bowl eligibility. Among the first six games, BYU plays at Nebraska, UCLA, and Michigan, and they host Boise St. A 2-4 start is not out of the question. In the second half of the season, BYU plays Missouri in Kansas City and closes the season out against Utah State in Logan, so there is very little wiggle room for the Cougars this year.
Army West Point
To those fans of the Black Knights on the Hudson, it has been a long time since their team has been good enough to compete against teams from big conferences. To all other football fans, it is somewhat of a blessing that this school has not fielded exceptional teams. Why? Because throughout its history, The Academy becomes a juggenaut when the world, or a large segment of the world, is at war. A record of 30-4-1 during World War I included two undefeated seasons. During World War II, Army 31-5-1 with what many believe was the best team ever. During the Korean Conflict, the team had 8-1 and 7-1-1 seasons. Even during the Vietnam years, Army enjoyed its last dominant years against big time opposition, going 8-2, 8-2, and 7-3 over a three-year period that included wins over Penn State, Pittsburgh, California, and Stanford.
2015 does not find the country involved in a World War, and the Black Knights do not figure to contend for a bowl bid. Just beating Navy after losing 13 in a row in the rivalry would be considered a major success.
Second year coach Jeff Monken uses the very familiar spread option offense that the other service academies rely on, as well as Georgia Tech. A. J. Schurr has the potential to run this offense with some success, but injuries have kept him off the field. The senior has the experience to make the offense go, but he did not participare in Spring drills. He is a question as the season begins, and there is little experience behind him.
The entire running back corps is raw and inexperienced. Fullbacks Aaron Kemper and Matt Giachinta combined for just 71 rushing attempts and 310 yards, while no other back on the roster ran the ball at least 20 times. While there is more returning experience in the receiver unit, this team seldom passes the ball with a run-pass ratio of close to 9 to 1.
The offensive line is the stong point of the offense, but in the spread option, the linemen are not the key. Reading and reacting with quickness is what makes this offense go, and it is questionable whether this edition of Cadets can do that consistently.
The defense has some promise with the return of the top five tacklers, including linebacker Jeremy Timpf, who made close to 10 tackles per game last year and registered 14 1/2 stops behind the line of scrimmage. A weak pass defense made it hard for Army to get its defense off the field last year. Three starters return, which may or may not be a plus.
The Schedule offers a few weak opponents, a few opponents that are beatable but better than this team, and the rest of the slate comes against teams that will easily defeat the Black Knights.
PiRate, Mean, Bias, and Average Ratings For The Independents
|Army (West Point)||77.0||88.1||78.4||81.2|
Here are our predicted Won-Loss records and bowl projections for the trio.
|PiRate Ratings Predicted Records|
|1||Notre Dame||6-0 *||11-1||Big Six|
|3||Army (West Point)||0-0||3-9||None|
|* 6-0 Represents Notre Dame’s slate against the ACC|
Coming Next: We begin our coverage of the five major conferences with our preview of the Atlantic Coast Conference.