The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 15, 2021

FBS Independents Preview

While 2020 was one strange logistical nightmare for college football conferences, it was a walk in the park compared to what the FBS Independents endured.

First, Notre Dame decided to join the Atlantic Coast Conference as a full-fledged member for one season.  Then, the Irish ran the table, upsetting Clemson to win the ACC regular season title.  That NBC TV contract must mean a lot to the Irish, because full-time membership in the ACC might have allowed the once top program in football to increase its recruiting base and return to the glory of their earlier times.  Alas, the NBC money meant more than membership in one of the top four leagues.

BYU, Army, and Liberty had to move mountains to play a full schedule, sometimes scheduling a Saturday three or four days before.  It was almost a 21st Century barnstorming tour for the three schools, but it seemed to work as the Cougars went 11-1, the Black Knights went 9-3, and the Flames finished 10-1.  BYU’s lone loss came at the hands of Coastal Carolina in one of those last-minute scheduled games.  Trying to prepare for CCU’s highly unorthodox offense with no advance notice may have been something the Baltimore Ravens might have struggled pulling off.  

Army finished first in the nation in total defense, allowing just 275 yards per game, and they finished runner-up in scoring defense, allowing 14.8 points per game.  Liberty lost by one point at North Carolina State, which is all that kept the Flames from running the table.  Liberty knocked off previously undefeated Coastal Carolina in overtime in the Cure Bowl.

Connecticut, New Mexico State, and UMass didn’t fare so well in the year of Covid.  UConn cancelled their season and never played a game.  This comes off a 2019 season where the Huskies went just 2-10 with one FBS win over UMass.

UMass didn’t play until Mid-October and then the Minutemen played just 240 minutes, going 0-4 and scoring just one touchdown, one field goal, and one safety.  The Minutemen were outgained by more than 400 yards in their season-ending loss to Liberty 45-0.  In the nine years since UMass has been a full FBS member, they have a 19-81 record, with nothing better than a couple of 4-8 seasons.

Then, there is New Mexico State.  The Aggies were one of three FBS schools to cancel their entire 2020 season.  NMSU is just barely hanging on as an FBS football program, and losing the entire season was a big financial tragedy.  However, there was an even bigger tragedy in Las Cruces this Spring.

The Aggies decided to play a couple of FCS opponents that were playing Spring schedules.  On February 21, NMSU welcomed Tarleton State to Aggie Memorial Stadium for a Sunday afternoon contest.  Tarleton State had just lost to McNeese State and would lose again the week after the NMSU game to upstart football program Dixie State.  This should have been a game where the last player on the Aggie bench saw at least a quarter of action when the game was a 35-point blowout.

Sure enough, the game was a blowout, and NMSU got to empty their bench in the final quarter.  Unfortunately, Tarleton State scored two touchdowns in the first four and a half minutes.  Three plays into the third quarter, the Texans led the Aggies 40-7.  They won 43-17 after emptying the bench.

How does a hopeful normal season look for the Independents?  There is no official Independent Media poll.  Instead of showing you how the media voted, here is a composite look at how 20 other computer power ratings see the Independents finishing this year.

  1. Notre Dame
  2. Liberty
  3. Army
  4. BYU
  5. Connecticut
  6. UMass
  7. New Mexico St.

How do the three PiRate Ratings see the 2021 season for this septet?

Notre Dame returns to full Independent status this year.  The Irish face a major rebuild on the offensive side of the ball.  If Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan can find some of the spark that made him shine two years ago, Notre Dame may not suffer greatly from the loss of Ian Book.  However, the offensive line will be inexperienced, and the receiving corps needs a go-to big play receiver.

The Irish return half of their defensive regulars from 2020, but they lose their defensive coordinator, Clark Lea.  Lea’s defense was tops in the ACC, and the 19.7 points per game allowed is incredible when you consider that they played Clemson twice, Alabama, and North Carolina. 

Notre Dame faces a weaker schedule this year, but there are still potential tough games against Florida State, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC, North Carolina, Virginia, and Stanford.  Don’t expect another undefeated regular season in South Bend, and don’t expect a return to the Playoffs.  The schedule is full of trap games.  Toledo, Purdue, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC, North Carolina, and Stanford will be tough contests, and it is possible that the Irish do no better than 3-4 in these seven games and at best 5-2.

Liberty should be more talented and will be a much more experienced team this year.  The Flames were 10-1 last year, but 2021 presents LU with a considerably tougher schedule.  Coach Hugh Freeze takes the Flames to Oxford, Mississippi, in November, where LU will take on his former team, Ole Miss.  It should be one of the most exciting games of the season, and the final score might look more like a basketball game.  Games against Louisiana and Army follow the Ole Miss game.  If Liberty wins two of their last three, they could win 10 games again.

Army’s offense didn’t click on all cylinders last year, but the Black Knights’ defense surrendered less than 115 rushing and 160 passing yards per game to lead the nation in total defense.  That great defense returns an intact defensive line and an experienced secondary, so it might be even tougher to move the ball on the Black Knights this year.  Unfortunately, a new quarterback and inexperienced offensive line probably means the Cadets will regress a bit this year.

BYU finished third nationally in scoring and fourth nationally in scoring defense.  Key players on both sides of the ball must be replaced, foremost being quarterback Zach Wilson, who now wears a New York Jets’ uniform.  At least, the Cougars should know who they are going to play the following Saturday when they wake up Monday mornings this year.

Connecticut last won a game on October 26, 2019, when they topped a 1-win UMass team.  The Huskies have not defeated a legitimate FBS program since they beat Tulsa in October of 2017.  Expect UConn to show an improved passing game and better all around defense this year, but the Huskies have a long way to go before they will be competing for winning records as a new Independent.

As for UMass and New Mexico State, these two teams may be the weakest among the 130 FBS teams.  They both are definitely in the bottom five.  The two teams close out the 2021 season facing off in Las Cruces.  Unless these schools can find a conference during the upcoming round of realignment, they both face the possibility of joining former FBS Independent Idaho at the FCS level.

Here are the preseason PiRate Ratings for the Independents.

FBS Independents
TeamPiRateMeanBiasAverage
Notre Dame108.8110.6111.2110.2
BYU109.2108.2110.3109.2
Liberty104.3105.6106.5105.5
Army100.099.8100.2100.0
Connecticut77.478.674.276.7
UMass74.874.070.573.1
New Mexico St.70.371.167.669.7
Indep. Averages92.192.691.592.1

While the PiRate Ratings are designed only to compare teams’ power ratings in their next scheduled game, we can still have a little fun trying to predict won-loss records.  

IndependentsOverall
Liberty11-1
Notre Dame8-4
BYU8-4
Army7-5
UMass3-9
Connecticut2-10
New Mexico St.2-10

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