Teams: Army, BYU, Idaho, Navy, New Mexico St., Notre Dame, Old Dominion
Best Team: Notre Dame
Best Coach: Brian Kelly (Notre Dame)
Top Players: QB Taylor Heinicke (Old Dominion), OT Zack Martin (Notre Dame), Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), Louis Nix (Notre Dame), Prince Shembo (Notre Dame)
Top Storyline: Notre Dame’s pursuit of returning to a BCS bowl, and, once again, being a title contender
Outside of Notre Dame, the Independents are unlikely to play a role of any significance in the college football landscape. However, the Fighting Irish figure to, once again, be in the conversation for at least a BCS Bowl selection.
Although their most prominent defender (Manti Te’o) and last year’s top offensive performers (Everett Golson, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and Tyler Eifert) are gone, the defensive line unit will lead a very strong defense for Brian Kelly. Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are among the nation’s best players in the nation regardless of position.
The Irish, preseason #11 in the USA Today preseason Coaches’ poll, will be tested early against quarterback Devin Gardner and the Michigan Wolverines on September 7. A few weeks later, the Irish will matchup against #16 Oklahoma (September 28). The final significant test will come in the final game on November 30 against the elite defense of #4 Stanford.
If the Irish can survive the regular season undefeated, they could wind up in the national title game again. One, or even two losses, could result in a BCS berth.
With the defense on solid footing, quarterback Tommy Rees will a strong season with some support from fellow offensive stars. The offensive line, led by Senior offensive tackle Zack Martin, has 78 career starts behind them and is a strong unit.
The offensive question marks are at the skill positions and youngsters such as five star running back Greg Bryant may be called on to compliment Junior running back George Atkinson. T.J. Jones, who was second on the team last year in receptions behind Eifert, is the leading returning receiver.
Prediction: Although Brian Kelly will once again put a strong team on the field, I would look for the Irish to lose against Michigan and Stanford with Oklahoma and others also posing a threat to sneak up on Notre Dame. Look for a 10-2/9-3 type season.
While Notre Dame is poised to be a fixture in the Top 25 this season, the BYU Cougars, the next best program competing as an Independent, face a tougher schedule than in 2012. New quarterback, sophomore Taysom Hill will have each of the Cougars’ major receivers returning, including Cody Hoffman who hauled in 1248 receiving yards last season.
In addition, BYU will return a solid defense, particularly in the secondary. However, the Cougars face a tough schedule, including four teams in the preseason top 25 (Texas, Utah, Boise State, and Wisconsin).
Prediction: BYU finished 8-5 last season and an approximate repeat of last season is a reasonable expectation for the Cougars.
The other Independent likely to compete for a bowl is the Navy Midshipmen program. Ken Niumatalolo has been a consistent winner as the program’s head coach, and the team is likely to win again this year. Sophomore Keenan Reynolds played well last season, and is poised for another strong year.
Prediction: The Midshipmen were 8-5 last season, but do not have a particularly rigorous schedule. Notre Dame will be the toughest match up, but games against Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh, and San Jose State will be key. Navy could see marginal improvement due to the lackluster schedule.
Old Dominion is entering its first season of FBS competition after an 11-2 season in the FCS. Junior quarterback Taylor Heinicke was the Walter Payton Award winner (FCS Heisman Trophy equivalent) last season after throwing for an incredible 5076 yards. While those numbers are sure to drop off in FBS competition, the signal caller could nonetheless make a grand entrance for the Monarchs. The Independent schedule this year will be replaced when Old Dominion joins Conference USA next season.
Prediction: ACC foes Maryland, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina will likely be too difficult to overcome, but, with seven of their opponents in the FCS, the Monarchs should have a winning record in 2013.
Although Rich Ellerson has had more success with the Army Black Knights than his predecessors, his 17-32 record shows there is still a long way to go before Army is consistently competitive. However, the team returns 15 starters from last year with Raymond Maples and Larry Dixon poised to lead a strong rushing attack.
Prediction: Army should be better this year than last season’s 2-10 showing but not by much. A 3-9/4-8 season is probably the best that fans of the Black Knights should expect.
There was not a whole lot to celebrate for 1-11 New Mexico State last season. However, the Aggies return wide receiver Austin Franklin who had 1245 yards receiving last season and running back Germi Morrison who rushed for 803 yards. Moreover, new coach Doug Martin has a strong set of defenders returning making improvement likely for the program.
Prediction: Although three of its first four games are against BCS conference foes, the Aggies could see a three to four win improvement from last year’s pitiful results.
With his brother back in coaching as well, Paul Petrino will be given an opportunity at the University of Idaho to make a name for himself in his first year as head coach of what has long been arguably one of the worst programs in Division 1. Making matters worse for Petrino is that the abysmal team from last year only returns 10 starters.
Prediction: Idaho does not exactly have a difficult schedule and faces lowly North Texas, Wyoming, Temple, Texas State, Old Dominion, and New Mexico State. However, it is hard to pick any of those games as possible wins for the program. After what may be a winless year, the Vandals will join the Sun Belt conference next season.
Follow Cole Muzio on Twitter @ColeMuzio for more college football analysis.