In days of old, independent teams made up a significant portion of the college football landscape. Penn State. Pittsburgh. Virginia Tech. South Carolina. Boston College. Miami. Florida State. Notre Dame.
Today, almost all of those schools have since joined conferences, largely because conference affiliation today equals survival. Only Notre Dame remains from that list, and is joined by former Conference USA member Army, former WAC member BYU and former MAC member Massachusetts. And of those four, only Notre Dame and BYU are actually competitive in the sport.
Playing as an independent is brutal. A lot of things that come with conference affiliation help with recruiting – conference prestige, rivalries automatic bowl tie-ins. At least Army has Navy as a rivalry, and BYU has secured a guaranteed bid to the Poinsettia Bowl if it has even a 6-6 record. Of course, Notre Dame has its own TV deal and a host of bowl opportunities, simply because it’s Notre Dame and has the legacy of Knute Rockne and Touchdown Jesus. As for UMass? It’s pretty much screwed, and is waiting to see how the football landscape changes with more conference realignment looming.
In the meantime, independent college football is pretty much a thing of the past. If you’re a fan of Notre Dame or BYU, you might enjoy watching your beloved Irish or Cougars on NBC or FOX. But for the average college football fan, there’s simply no adventure in the world of the independents.
- Notre Dame (9-3). There has been no college football program with more mystique or prestige than Notre Dame. Knute Rockne. The Gipper. Touchdown Jesus. The gold helmets. Rudy. There also hasn’t been a more overrated program than Notre Dame. Every year, someone is going to predict that the Irish will be good enough to play in a major bowl. They’ll go 11-1, we hear, or 10-2 at the worst. And then they go 9-3, or 8-4, or even 7-5. Remember Ron Powlus? Beano Cook predicted he would win two Heismans while at Notre Dame. Sure, he was an OK college quarterback, but he only cracked 2,000 yards once, and the Irish went 30-17-1 while he was there. Bottom line? Notre Dame gets preferential treatment in the media and is frequently elevated beyond other teams who are of equal or better quality simply because … they’re Notre Dame. Not in this space. Yes, the Irish are a good team, and they’ll appear in our Top 25 when we publish it later this month. But Notre Dame got the No. 9 spot in the initial USA Today Coaches Poll, and are ranked 8th and 11th by Athlon and Lindy. That’s simply too high, unless you expect the Irish to lose only one or two games. The problem is that Notre Dame’s schedule has road games at Texas and USC, and home games against Michigan State, Stanford and Miami. Even the home opener against Nevada could be a letdown, because the Wolf Pack is just good enough to sneak up on an overconfident Notre Dame. Ten wins isn’t even close to a given, though nine or eight should easily be expected. QB DeShone Kizer returns and will lead a largely rebuilt offense. Three of five offensive linemen are new starters, and though the running backs looks deep, the starting receiving corps is an overhaul. Defense is only marginally better off, with only four returning starters. DE Isaac Rochell is the lone returning lineman, and two of three linebacking spots will feature new faces. The secondary could be the bright spot, as CB Cole Luke and FS Max Redfield will provide solid coverage and vital leadership. There are simply too many holes on both sides of the ball to say that Notre Dame is a favorite for a major bowl. More likely is that the Irish fares well in a rebuilding year and winds up in a decent, but lesser, bowl.
- BYU (8-4). To look at our picks for Offensive and Defensive POY, as well as Coach of the Year, you’d think that BYU was the best independent team in the nation. While the Cougars should have a decent season, they’re definitely a step or two behind the Fighting Irish. BYU will play a very difficult schedule that takes the Cougars to games on the road against Arizona, Utah, West Virginia, Michigan State, Boise State and Cincinnati, plus a home game against UCLA. If the Cougars aren’t up to the standards that we’re projecting, that could easily equal seven losses. However, we see that with strong talent returning at key positions, and with fresh coaching leadership from new coach Kalani Sitake, BYU should be able to come close to matching last year’s 9-4 performance. Critical to BYU’s success is the health of QB Taysom Hill, who has seen each of his previous seasons end with injuries. Hill will need a few receivers to step up, and should connect often with WR Nick Kurtz. BYU gets back RB Jamaal Williams, who led the team in rushing in 2013, as well as FB Algernon Brown, who was the second-leading independent rusher last season. Three of five linemen will provide a solid foundation up front. On the other side of the ball, the Cougars return seven starters from a unit that ranked 23rd in total yardage in 2015. LB Harvey Langi is a force in the middle and will lead a strong linebacking corps. The line and secondary return critical senior leadership, including DE Sae Tautu, DT Logan Taele and FS Kai Nacua. If Sitake and the Cougars gel quickly, BYU has the talent and potential to surprise some people and put together a solid season.
- Army West Point (4-8). In 1996, coach Bob Sutton and the Army Black Knights shocked the college football world by going 10-2 and almost upsetting Auburn in the Independence Bowl. At that point, the future looked bright for Army, but the truth has been a much different story. Five coaches and 19 years later, the Black Knights have had one winning season, 18 losing seasons and have won fewer than three games six times. Worse, especially for Army, is that the annual series with Navy has completely reversed. Army led the series after its win over Navy in 1996, 47-43-1. Now, after going just 2-17 during those years, Navy has a commanding 60-49-1 lead. And while both Air Force and Navy continue to build winning programs, Army appears to be mired in last place among the service academies. For that to change in 2016, the Black Knights will have to overcome a horrific offensive performance from 2015, while replacing seven starters from that unit. Army will continue to try and establish the run, but it won’t be easy with a lot of inexperience on the line. Two QBs – Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter – may share time, but it’s Carter that has the best passing potential. Preseason all-Indy WR Edgar Poe makes a great target if the Knights can set up the pass. Eight Knights return on defense, which was definitely Army’s strength last season. Five Army players show up on our all-Indy list, led by LBs Kenneth Brinson and Jeremy Timpf, who will provide stability in the middle of the defense. The Black Knights should look more competitive this fall, and may even pose a challenge to Navy in December, but finding their way to six wins and a bowl may be overly ambitious.
- Massachusetts (1-11). Every pot must have a bottom, and at the bottom of the FBS pot sits Massachusetts. There was a day that the Minutemen were good, but that was long ago in the FCS, where UMass won the 1998 National Championship under head coach Mark Whipple. Three other coaches have since roamed the sidelines in Amherst, and now the coach is … Mark Whipple. The powers that be clearly hope he can reignite the magic from the late 1990s, but that has yet to occur. Instead, UMass has pulled out of its conference affiliation with the MAC and will instead try and navigate the murky waters of the independent world. Last year’s 3-9 squad loses 13 starters, which should make this season long, difficult and without many wins. The schedule features road games against three SEC schools (starting with the opener at Florida), plus back-to-back matchups at BYU and Hawaii to end the year. QB Andrew Ford is the favorite to inherit what was a solid passing game last year, but loses all of last year’s starting receivers. The line is big and experienced, and its success is vital, especially as the young offense develops. On defense, UMass will probably take a step back from 2015, which was bad to begin with. The Minutemen gave up 31.4 ppg and 447.8 ypg, and that was against the lesser competition of the MAC. Now, against a much tougher schedule, they will struggle to slow down stronger, faster offenses. At the end of the season, if UMass has even two wins, and hasn’t gotten too many players injured, it should be considered a successful rebuilding year.
Bowl teams: Notre Dame, BYU.
Offensive player of the year: Taysom Hill, QB, BYU
Defensive player of the year: Harvey Langi, LB, BYU
Coach of the year: Kalani Sitake, BYU
Tomorrow: 2016 American preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt