The ranks of those too good for a conference shrinks again this year as Navy joins the American, leaving just three independent programs in the FBS. Two are strong, major programs on their own and the other is Army West Point. Rankings these teams is the easiest thing I’ve done yet in this project.
1. Notre Dame
The Irish are contenders to make the College Football Playoff, although there is an argument over whether they will have to run the table or if they could slip in with one loss. Brian Kelly returns 17 starters and should get even better simply by keeping guys healthy. Thanks to a ton of injuries, the Irish fell off the cliff at the end of last season.
Everett Gholston is gone, but sophomore Malik Zaire is a very impressive talent who will take over the starting job under center. He broke out during the bowl game, leading the Irish over LSU. He has great experience to work with at receiver. Will Fuller should easily top 1,000 yards again and be one of the top WRs in the nation. The Irish continue their recent run of sending tight ends to the NFL and replenishing the position. Ben Kopack is gone, but there’s a wealth of talent in several underclassmen to fill the void.
This is also an unusually deep and experienced defense with 17 of the top 20 tackers from a year ago back. This should be a top 10 unit. You wouldn’t think that looking at last year’s numbers. The Irish were a mediocre 71st in total defense (404.2 ypg), 75th in pass D (233 ypg) and 72nd in rushing defense (171.2 ypg). But you have to remember the glut of injuries they suffered through. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the unquestioned captain here (112 tkls, 5.5 tlf, 3.5 sks, 2nd-Team All-American).
The schedule is rough, but not as brutal as in past years. The Irish get their most difficult games (USC, Georgia Tech, Texas) at home, but still have to travel to Stanford and Clemson. The addition of the ACC games should soften some aspects of the schedule while giving them some leverage if they beat the eventual ACC champs. Plus, the potential for future ND/FSU regular season battles is enticing. I’ll call for double digit wins and a New Year’s Day bowl for the Irish, though they’ll probably fall just short of a spot in The Bracket.
Bronco Mendenhall has maintained BYU is a major program since taking them back to the independent ranks four years ago. This season will be all about Taysom Hill. Should the senior QB return to his early form from last season, he’ll be in New York the first Saturday in December. In four games before breaking his leg, he threw for 7-3 ratio at a completion percentage of 66.7%. Besides having a Heisman candidate under center, the Cougars also feature a star at running back in Jamaal Williams. He should become the school’s all-time leading rusher this season. There are a few questions about depth on the offensive line, which is surprising for a Mendenhall team, but that should get sorted out before the start of the season. Defense will probably be an uncertainty as well. They lose 4 of their to 5 tacklers from last year and only have 5 starters back. They will need to find young guys to fill those holes fast. The biggest issue will be the secondary. CB Michael Davis is the only returning starter on a unit that allowed 289 passing yards a game last season, good enough for 112th in the nation. They also have a brutal September, with trips to Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan and receiving a visit from Boise State. If they survive, the rest of the schedule looks much more manageable. More than 8 wins will be a tall order, but who knows how far a healthy Hill can take them.
3. Army West Point
The Black Knights have lost a ton of talent on offense, with only four of the top ten leading rushers back. The leading returner is QB A.J. Schurr. While they’ll need to find new answers at the tailbacks, the line gets deeper, bigger and more experienced. Ideally, they should improve on their 297 rush yards a game from last season. While that was 5th in the FBS, that was Army’s lowest total in the last four years. The defensive line is a huge concern. Only 35 tackles return so unless some underclassmen step up fast, the Knights will take a huge step backwards from a rush D that allowed 193 yards a game last year (93rd FBS). The schedule isn’t terrible either with 2 FCS teams and Eastern Michigan, Rice and UConn featured. If the defense can pull together, repeating four wins is quite possible and would show improvement in head coach Jeff Monken’s second year. But if not, Army could return to the days of the one and two win seasons.