Previewing Notre Dame and the Independents

Following the BCS blowout and the loss of Everett Golson, the pressure's on Tommy Rees to keep Notre Dame among the nation's best. (USA TODAY Sports)

Following the BCS blowout and the loss of Everett Golson, the pressure's on Tommy Rees to keep Notre Dame among the nation's best. (USA TODAY Sports)

We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:

Monday: Pac-12 and Mountain West
Tuesday: ACC and the American
Wednesday: SEC and Sun Belt
Thursday: Big Ten and MAC
Friday: Big 12 and Conference USA.
Saturday: Independents

Here is everything you need to know about the FBS Independents:

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1. Any discussion of the FBS Independents has to start with the players who aren’t here. Notre Dame returns a lot of talented experience, but its path was altered in May by the shocking loss of quarterback Everett Golson, who is off the team this season because of academic issues. Golson was Notre Dame’s present and future, an athletic quarterback who took the Fighting Irish to the national title game and would have allowed them to open their offense up a bit and push the tempo. Now, the offense travels back in time to 2011, and even without Manti Te’o, clearly this will be a defense-first team again.

2. That’s what we expect out of Brigham Young, too, but the Cougars are also dealing with an unexpected loss after top cornerback Jordan Johnson (15 pass breakups last year) tore his ACL during fall camp. That means the Cougars have two starting corners to replace after losing Preston Hadley to graduation, and they’re still another key body short after juco transfer Trenton Trammell, a potential starter, tore his ACL in spring practice. (And there’s even more bad news on the depth chart.) So a position group that was expected to be one of the Cougars’ biggest assets — they ranked 10th nationally in pass defense last year — could turn into a liability.

3. The Independents temporarily have two new members among them — maybe two-and-a-half, counting transitional member Old Dominion, which will play in Conference USA next season but for now still plays only five FBS opponents — and both will join the Sun Belt next year. Neither will make much noise, including Idaho. The Vandals actually went to the Humanitarian Bowl in 2009, but they proceeded to decline from 6-7 to 2-10 to 1-11 over the next three seasons, resulting in the firing of Robb Akey and the hiring of Paul Petrino, Bobby’s brother and former Arkansas offensive coordinator. Petrino’s a solid choice, but it will take a few years, especially with freshman QB Chad Chalich likely getting the call for an offense that ranked 119th in yards per play and scored 15.8 points per game. Combine that with the top six tacklers leaving one of the nation’s worst defenses, and winning more than one game may be an adventure in the friendly confines of the Kibbie Dome.

4. Idaho’s been through a lot in its college football tour, from the Big West in the 90’s, to the Sun Belt in 2001, to the WAC in 2005, to being wanted by nobody after the WAC’s collapse, to the Sun Belt again next year. Following the same path? Its bottom-of-the-sport rival New Mexico State, who hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1960. The Vandals and Aggies have played every year but one since 1996, with Idaho holding a 12-5 series edge. Both teams went 1-11 last year, with New Mexico State beating FCS Sacramento State and Idaho winning this apparent rivalry game. New Mexico State got rid of Dewayne Walker after he won 10 games in four years, hiring Doug Martin, who spent one year as offensive coordinator in Las Cruces in 2011, went to Boston College in the same position, and now returns to the Aggies with a promotion. Previously, he went 29-53 with zero bowl games in seven years as head coach at Kent State, but his New Mexico State offense actually ranked 26th in passing two years ago. If nothing else, he has a good playmaker on the offense in junior wideout Austin Franklin, who caught 74 passes for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns.

5. If there’s any team in America that deserves to have some success, it’s Army. Despite his 17-32 record. Rich Ellerson is a good fit for the Black Knights, who have a more difficult time recruiting than Navy and Air Force. But the pressure is certainly on; Ellerson took Army to its first bowl since 1996 in 2010, but since then, he’s won just five games and continued to lose to Navy, and in the most heartbreaking way imaginable (especially for your-year starting QB Trent Steelman). Last year marked Army’s 11th straight loss to the Midshipmen, and now it moves to the post-Steelman era with junior Angel Santiago winning the starting job. Aside from inexperience at QB, the cupboard isn’t bare for Army, which gets back a pair of good runners in Raymond Maples (1,215 yards) and fullback Larry Dixon (839 yards), plus a tackling machine on defense in converted linebacker Geoffrey Bacon (136 tackles) at safety. Regardless of how Army finishes, beating Navy alone would make 2013 a successful season.

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The 10 Best Players Among the Independents:
1. Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
2. Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
3. Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
4. Cody Hoffman, WR, BYU
5. Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
6. Bennett Jackson, CB, Notre Dame
7. Austin Franklin, WR, New Mexico State
8. Prince Shembo, LB, Notre Dame
9. Raymond Maples, RB, Army
10. Geoffrey Bacon, S, Army

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6. Army has more proven producers returning at the top of its roster, but Navy has more depth and the most important single player returning, meaning it will certainly be favored for another win. The triple option offense preferred by the academies requires a smart quarterback making the decisions, and sophomore Keenan Reynolds certainly has a promising future after an impressive freshman season in which he threw nine touchdowns and two picks, running for 649 yards and 10 TDs in eight starts. Barring something unexpected, he’s the Midshipmen’s biggest advantage in trying to qualify for a 10th bowl game in 11 seasons, which is phenomenal for a service academy in the 21st century.

7. Navy is solid, but it’s clear two Independents are on another level: Notre Dame and BYU. BYU has problems all around on defense, because of both unexpected attrition in the secondary and expected attrition in the front seven, but the Cougars still will manage to be strong up front. They’re unlikely to repeat last year’s stellar numbers, when they ranked No. 2 nationally against the run, but senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy is one of the best defensive players in college football. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Van Noy was a disruptive force in opposing backfields, finishing the season with 13 sacks, 22 tackles for loss and a dominant game in the Poinsettia Bowl. He may be a first-round pick in next spring’s NFL draft.

8. While BYU will see a drop-off on defense, aside from Van Noy, the Cougars’ offense may be ready to pick up some slack. The Cougars were a middle-of-the-pack offense last year, ranking 60th in yards per play and 64th in scoring offense, in a season that included a 7-6 loss to Boise State and a 6-3 win over Utah State. But they return a strong core, and hopefully we’ll get to see what a healthy Taysom Hill can do with a full year at quarterback. Hill — who was originally headed to Stanford — played in five games last year, starting two because of Riley Nelson’s injury problems, and ran for 336 yards and four touchdowns before going down for the season with a fluke knee injury. We know Hill can run, so now we’ll see how talented of a passer he is, fortunately with the help of 6-foot-4 receiver Cody Hoffman, who caught 100 passes despite last year’s shaky QB situation.

9. Let’s hope this year’s BYU-Notre Dame game is as interesting as last year’s. With an undefeated record on the line, Notre Dame barely escaped with a 17-14 win after trailing 14-7 at halftime. The Irish played that game without an injured Everett Golson, and in his place, Tommy Rees completed only 7 of 16 passes for 117 yards. Now Notre Dame’s entire 2013 season may hinge on the arm of Rees. It’s certainly been an eventful career for the senior quarterback, who has started 16 games in his college career, including 12 as a sophomore before losing the job to Golson last year. He was good enough for Notre Dame to go 8-5 in 2011, but his game always comes down to turnovers. He threw 14 picks in 2011 and also has had a fumbling problem. While he lacks the natural playmaking ability of Golson — and the Irish also lose their top two rushers, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, and star tight end Tyler Eifert — this isn’t a bad situation. Rees can be good enough; the receiving corps is in good shape with senior T.J. Jones and emerging deep threat DaVaris Daniels, and tackle Zack Martin anchors a strong O-line.

10. Rees may be the difference between a BCS game and a mediocre bowl, and we don’t quite know what to expect from him. But we do know Notre Dame’s defense is good enough to give the Fighting Irish a chance against anybody. (Well, OK, not quite everybody.) The loss of Te’o hurts, but the anchors of this defense are mammoth linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, who both can be All-Americans. The rest of the defense is talented as well, from Prince Shembo and Dan Fox at linebacker to a secondary, led by CB Bennett Jackson, that exceeded expectations last year. The schedule is tough, as always, with Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC and Stanford all good enough to be ranked, and BYU is right there, too. The goal is 10 wins, as that all but ensures a BCS bid, but given the schedule, that will be a toss-up. Without a BCS bid this year, a year before the partial ACC affiliation begins, we have no idea where the Irish will end up in the postseason.

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Projected Standings
1. Notre Dame (9-3)
2. BYU (8-4)
3. Navy (7-5)
4. Army (3-9)
4. New Mexico State (3-9)
6. Idaho (1-11)

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Contact me at matt.brown@sportsonearth.com and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE.

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