This year represents the biggest crop of independent school since the mid-90’s. Joining the steadfasts are Idaho, New Mexico State and Old Dominion. But this abundance of conference-less teams won’t be lasting long. The Monarchs are in the first year of their FBS experience and will join Conference-USA next year. Idaho will return to the Sun Belt after a ten-year absence. The Aggies also head back to the Sun Belt, having spent 2001 in the league. That being said, there’s no question which teams will lead this group. Notre Dame still sports one of the best defenses in the nation, even if the offense looks a little shaky. BYU is a consistent team that will also sport a stout defense.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2012 Final Standings: 12-1 (lost to Alabama 42-14 in BCS National Championship Game)
2013 Prediction: 10-2 (BCS bowl loss)
Pivotal Games: Sept 7 @ Michigan, Nov. 30 @ Stanford
I’m not going to make a single Manti T’eo joke here. I think that by now, that’s played out and he’s gone anyway. But Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt are still here and will lead what is likely to be a top-20 defense. This will likely be a team lead by defense again because the offense may take a few games to find its legs. Everett Golson won’t be leading the Irish this season after a year-long ban for academic misconduct, leaving Tommy Rees to take the reins again. TJ Jones is the leading returning receiver, but the backfield is inexperienced as last year’s top 2 rushers have moved on. Don’t get me wrong, this team will be successful, even in the face of their traditionally brutal schedule. If they get the same breaks they got last year, they could be in line for another shot at the Crystal Football, but a step backwards isn’t out of the question.
2012 Final Standings: 8-5 (def. San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl)
2013 Predictions:8-4 (bowl game loss)
Pivotal Games: Sep. 7 vs. Texas, Nov. 23 @ Notre Dame
The buzz around the Cougars will center around LB Kyle Van Noy, as he leads a defense that allowed just 14 points a game. But BYU will be held back by two things: the schedule and the the offense. First, the schedule is brutal with Texas, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame on the docket. Second, the offense is a mystery despite 8 starters returning. New OC Robert Anea will have a new system in place that will lean heavily on the run game while the quarterback situation sorts itself out.
2012 Final Standings: 8-5 (lost to Arizona State 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
2013: Prediction: 9-3 (bowl game win)
Pivotal Games: Nov. 2 @ Notre Dame, Dec. 14 vs. Navy
This is a Navy team, so you know exactly what you’re getting from them. The triple option that has lead them to average 8 wins over the last 10 years will bring more consistency this season. Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds is a talented athlete that brings more to the passing game than the last few QBs the Midshipmen have had. He threw for 898 yards and 9 touchdowns and could catch team’s off guard with his ability to throw in a rushing offense. This is a veteran defense as well with only one underclassman slated to start. The schedule is pretty manageable as well and they are one good break away from double digit wins. But most importantly, they’ll win their 12th straight over Army.
Army Black Knights
2012 Final Standings: 2-10 (no bowl game)
2013 Predictions: 2-10 (no bowl game)
Pivotal Games: Nov. 2 @ Air Force, Dec. vs. Navy
Despite losing four-year starter Trent Steelman under center, they are pretty much the same team from last year. The defense was terrible last season, surrendering 35.3 ppg (103rd nationally), so there’s nowhere to go but up with 8 starters back on defense. Really, the fate of this year’s team lies in the hands of the defense. If they can’t gel quickly with new faces and stop the run, which they were 117th at least year, they are destined for double digit losses.
New Mexico State Aggies
2012 Final Standings: 1-11, 0-6 (7th WAC), no bowl game
2013 Predictions: 2-10 (no bowl game)
Pivotal Games: Oct. 5 @ New Mexico, Nov. 30 vs. Idaho
The Aggies welcome former Kent State head coach Doug Martin who will change the offense with former BG head coach Gregg Brandon running the show. Which likely won’t matter, because development on the defense will be what matters here too. 7 starters are back from a defense that allowed 39.4 ppg (117tth nationally), so they can only get better. Its an experienced defense, so they can only go up. Sophomore Travaughn Colwell looks to be the best option to run their new Pistol-based offense, although they will need some running backs to step up and produce. Senior Germi Morrison and Colwell are the leading rushers back, exposing a serious lack of depth in the backfield. There’s a small chance to improve upon last year’s win total because the schedule as an independent is much tougher. Next year offers a chance to improve with the move to the Sun Belt.
2012 Final Standings: 1-11, 1-5 (6th WAC), no bowl game
2013 Predictions: 0-12, no bowl game
Pivotal Games: Nov. 9 vs. Old Dominion, Nov. 30 @ New Mexico State
Why the big goose egg in the win column? Well, a much tougher schedule, a new head coach, only 3 starters back from the 118th defense, need I go on? Okay I will. The Vandals are breaking in a new starting QB, had no running game last year (3 rushing TDs all year), and lose their top 6 tacklers. This is the definition of a rebuilding team, and much like NM State, will have room to improve in their new home in the Sun Belt but this year, not so much. Their season finale with the Aggies will be the pillow fight of the year.
Old Dominion Monarchs
2012 Final Standings: 11-2, 7-1 (1st CAA), playoff quarterfinals
2013 Predictions: 8-4 (not eligible for bowl game until 2015)
Pivotal Games: Aug 31 @ East Carolina, Sept. 7 @ Maryland
The Monarchs are transitioning to the FBS and will play an Independent schedule before joining Conference USA next season. They go from not having faced and FBS opponent since they re-started their football program in 2009, to a full FBS schedule with 3 BCS teams. They’ve redshirted a lot of players so that they’ll be ready for their C-USA debut. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke is a player to watch though. The junior threw for 5,076 yards with a 44-14 ratio. Old Dominion lead the FCS in total offense, putting up 548 yards a game. While they may not match that number, Heinicke will be interesting to watch now that he’s on a much bigger stage.