2011 Independents College Football Preview
The Independents increased in number over the off-season as BYU elected to bolt from the Mountain West Conference and strike out on its own. The Cougars’ move placed the school in the company of long-time individualists Notre Dame, Navy, and Army, and it served to improve the sovereign landscape as BYU has not endured a losing season since Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall took over the program in 2005.
As is usually the case, each independent school will face a tough slate as there are 20 BCS teams and a host of other quality programs (i.e. TCU, Air Force, SMU, Temple) represented on the four collective schedules. Notre Dame, without question, faces the most difficult schedule, though, as the Irish square off against the likes of South Florida, Pittsburgh, Michigan State, USC, and Stanford.
Despite the arduous fall line ups, at least three of the four independent schools should find their way into post-season play. And if everything breaks right, one program might be playing in a BCS Bowl.
2011 Independents Forecast:
1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Projections 10-2 Overall): This year’s version of the Fighting Irish has an opportunity to be special with 17 starters and 50 letter-men back in South Bend. The program also moves into the second year of the Brian Kelly regime, which, according to history, is a good thing. Kelly has been successful at every stop in his coaching career, guiding Division II school Grand Valley State to two NCAA Division II National Championships before going on to record 53 wins in sevens seasons between Central Michigan (19-16) and Cincinnati (34-6). Last year Notre Dame averaged 26.3 points per game in spite of a difficult schedule and being in the first year of Kelly’s scheme. With quarterback Dayne Crist, leading rusher Cierre Wood, and top receiver Michael Floyd all returning, that number will easily crest the 30 point mark this season.
2. BYU Cougars (Projections 8-4 Overall): The Cougars won at least 10 games from 2006 to 2009, but last year a young BYU squad took a step back, going 7-6 to give Coach Mendenhall his worst finish since his inaugural season at the school. The Cougars have much to be excited about this season, though. The 2010 team closed out the year by winning five of its last six games, including a 52-24 New Mexico Bowl shellacking of UTEP. Fifteen starters, including sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps (2315 pass yards, 15 touchdowns as a true freshman), and 60 letter-men return from that unit, making another double-digit win season a strong possibility for Mendenhall. The downside for BYU is a road schedule that features games at Mississippi, Texas, Oregon State,TCU, and Hawaii.
3. Navy Midshipmen (Projections 6-6 Overall): The Middies have not won fewer than eight games since 2002 and last year they went 9-4 in Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s third season on the sidelines. This season Niumatalolo welcomes back a meager 10 starters and 39 letter-men, which, given Navy’s schedule, could put the program’s extended eight win minimum streak in serious jeopardy. The Midshipmen’s schedule does not feature as many big names as Notre Dame’s 12 games slate, but it is loaded with mid-major landmines (Air Force, Southern Miss, East Carolina, and SMU). Navy also plays South Carolina in Columbia and the Irish in South Bend.
4. Army Black Knights (Projections 5-7 Overall): Head Coach Rich Ellerson started to turn the corner at Army in 2009 when he guided the Black Knights to five wins in his second season running the program. Five wins may not seem like much, but consider that Army had won no more than four games in a season since going 10-2 back in 1996. Last year Ellerson continued the program’s progression as the Black Knights posted a 7-6 record and went to their first bowl since the aforementioned ’96 campaign. Army even won the post-season contest, beating SMU 16-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl. Ellerson, despite bringing back quarterback Trent Steelman, running back Jared Hassin, and middle linebacker Stephen Erzinger, will be hard pressed to get the Black Knights back to seven wins. Like Navy, Army must tangle with a host of mid-major powers, including Northern Illinois, San Diego State, Ball State, Miami (OH), and Air Force.