The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 14, 2018

2018 FBS Independents Preview

Note: The preseason ratings you see in the previews may not be the same as the ratings you see for the first game. We update every team’s rating based on player injuries, changes to the depth charts, and other factors that may change during preseason practice.

Some of our Group of 5 Conference won-loss predictions were figured before the beginning of August preseason practices. Thus, it could be that a player or players on some teams have already suffered season-ending or multiple game injuries or have left their teams, and these won-loss predictions no longer accurately reflect our ratings. We hope that by the time we preview the Power 5 conferences, we will know who is not going to be available (players and head coaches).

The number of FBS Independents has ballooned by 50% as Liberty moves up to FBS football and New Mexico State returns to this group after spending four years in the Sun Belt Conference.

There is no real affiliation between the six teams in the independent ranks. The top program, Notre Dame, is all but a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish play five ACC teams every year. In the past, Notre Dame may have been hurt by not being affiliated with a conference. That is no longer the case. Notre Dame has an easier path to the FBS Playoffs now that the top 4 teams qualify. With no conference championship game to play and the ability to arrange their schedule in the most convenient way, Notre Dame is a serious contender this year to make their first appearance in the playoffs.
If the Irish run the table or finish a strong 11-1, it will be the defense that carries them to the promised land. After surrendering 21.5 points per game and 369 yards per game in 2017, the outlook for 2018 looks better. A solid linebacking corps ranks among the nation’s elite. Middle linebacker Te’von Coney and outside linebacker Drue Tranquill may be the best duo in the nation in ruining enemy drives. Julian Love has a chance to be named an All-American from his cornerback position. The Irish are deep and talented on the back line of defense. The front four is the weakness of the defense, but in this case, the weakness means they are maybe the 30th best defensive line in the nation.

Look for an improved pass rush this year. Road games against Northwestern and Southern Cal are the two toughest on the schedule, and the Irish are strong enough this year to win both and should at least split these two games.

Brigham Young was one of the perennial best passing teams for decades during the Lavell Edwards days. A who’s who of quarterbacks including Ty Detmer, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, and Virgil Carter gave the Cougars the necessary tools to make the offense click. In recent years, not only has BYU not had a dangerous passer, passing has become a liability in Provo. Coach Kalani Sitake may have just one more year to turn things around before finding himself on another mission. The season may depend on whether the offensive line can keep senior Tanner Mangum upright and out of the hospital, something it has failed doing the previous two seasons. He is recovering from an Achilles’ injury and will lack a lot of mobility.

Speaking of passing, that word is not in the dictionary in West Point, NY. Army attempted just five passes per game last year, and completed just over 1 1/2 of those attempts per game. Still, with only 28 passing yards per game, the Black Knights averaged almost 31 points per game by leading the nation in rushing yardage. The 10-3 season was the best at West Point since 1996. The Cadets will take a small backward step this year with a decimated offense needing to rebuild, but the defense could limit opponents to 330 yards and 20 points per game this year.

Mark Whipple is a quarterback whisperer. He has a long history of getting the most out of his passers. Throughout his career, Whipple has helped tutor Greg Landry during his USFL stint, Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers (including a Super Bowl Championship season), and Donovan McNabb when he threw for the most yards in his career and led the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game. As offensive coordinator at Miami in 2009, he got the most out of Jacory Harris. So, it should be no surprise that the man that took Massachusetts to a I-AA championship his first go around in Amherst, is on the verge of making the FBS version of the Minutemen into a bowl-eligible team. UMass finished 4-8 last year with enough near misses to make a bowl game if they had gone the other way. This year, with experienced quarterback Andrew Ford, we expect the Minutemen to crash through the barrier and enjoy a won-loss record on the plus side of .500. If Ford stays healthy for 12 games, he should crash through the 3,500 passing yard barrier and make a run at 4,000. He has talented and experienced receivers returning as well as the most experienced and talented offensive line protecting him since he arrived on campus. UMass should score around 35-38 points per game, and while the defense is still quite suspect, the Minutemen should win seven games and receive their first bowl bid since they played in the 1972 Boardwalk Bowl.

New Mexico State left the Sun Belt on good footing, as the Aggies finished with a bowl win and winning season in their SBC swan song. The Sun Belt was never a good fit for this team; this school would be an excellent addition to the Mountain West, where rival New Mexico already plays, or Conference USA, where rival UTEP plays. Coach Doug Martin has enough key talent returning on both sides of the ball to return to a bowl in 2018, but they will have to stay healthy in the back half of their schedule after facing a brutal beginning. NMSU will play on August 25 against Wyoming and a short five days later, play at Minnesota. Then, on September 8, the Aggies have another tough road game at Utah State.  They could 0-3 to start the season.

Liberty finished 6-5 in their final year in FCS football last season. The Flames beat Baylor, so they will not be intimidated this year when they line up against teams like Old Dominion, North Texas, and New Mexico. Coach Turner Gill’s team won last year with a brilliant passing attack, as they frequently outscored their opponents in their wins. They gave up more than 40 points in two of those wins! In Liberty’s favor, most of their brilliant offense returns in 2018, but the schedule is about 20 points stronger per game this year than last. Don’t expect Liberty to contend for a winning season in year one in the FBS.

There is no FBS Independents media group that meets and hears speeches from the coaches and then interviews players before voting in a preseason poll. Rather than leave this section empty, I will show you how a conglomerate of 10 of my peers believe the teams will finish.

Independents 1st Place Votes
1. Notre Dame 10 60
2. Army 0 47
3. BYU 0 43
4. New Mexico State 0 26
5. Massachusetts 0 24
6. Liberty 0 10

The PiRate Ratings mostly agree with these other 10 very successful computer geniuses, and where we don’t it is probably because they are correct, and we are not.

FBS Independents
Team Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Notre Dame 0-0 125.6 121.5 123.7 123.6
BYU 0-0 95.9 97.0 96.3 96.4
Army 0-0 95.6 96.4 95.5 95.9
Massachusetts 0-0 89.8 92.4 92.0 91.4
N. Mexico St. 0-0 82.0 85.3 82.5 83.3
Liberty 0-0 75.2 73.9 74.2 74.5
Independents Averages 94.0 94.4 94.0 94.2

New Coaches
There are no new coaches among the six independents. Sitake is most definitely on the hot seat at BYU, and if something were to happen in South Bend, and the Irish terribly under-perform, Brian Kelly might be in trouble. However, we cannot see a scenario happening with Notre Dame this year, and the Irish have a better chance of going 12-0 than 6-6.

Predicted Won-Loss Records

Independents Record
Notre Dame 12-0
Army 8-4
New Mexico State 7-5
Massachusetts 7-5
BYU 6-6
Liberty 2-10

Bowl Tie-ins
This year, no Independents have a definite bowl contract. Notre Dame counts toward the ACC when bowls pick representative, and they can be selected ahead of any ACC rival if they have at least one win fewer than the ACC alternative. In other words, if Duke is 9-3 and the Irish are 8-4, bowls can take Notre Dame ahead of Wake Forest. If Duke is 10-2 and Notre Dame is 8-4, then Duke must be selected before Notre Dame.
BYU has an agreement with ESPN that if the Cougars become bowl eligible, ESPN will place them in one of their televised bowls as an at-large opponent.

Liberty is not eligible for a bowl this season, but there are technicalities involved that could send the Flames to the Cure Bowl.
New Mexico State has a secondary bowl tie-in with the New Mexico Bowl.

Coming Tomorrow–The American Athletic Conference

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