2011 NCAA Football Preview: Independents

August 31, 2011
By K. Becks

Overview

This year, four teams instead of three get to decide their entire schedule in college football’s FBS division. BYU joins Notre Dame, Army, and Navy as an independent, somewhat of a head scratching move considering how much movement there has been among college football’s “Big Six” conferences. Why become an independent when it seems necessary to join a future super conference in order to compete for a national title years down the road?

The independent teams look pretty solid this year. Notre Dame’s expectations are high, Army was bowl eligible for the first time in over a decade last season, and both Navy and BYU have been consistently winning at least seven games for several years. However, there are no great teams among the independents.

Four teams remain to be previewed in Around The Corn’s 2011 college football preview series. Here is the Independents preview.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

None

Unfortunately for Notre Dame fans, the Fighting Irish are not going to make it all the way back to the top in Brian Kelly’s second year.

At best, the Fighting Irish will contend for a BCS bowl bid, but not the ultimate one. Notre Dame has a lot of tough opponents on the schedule this season; South Florida, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Navy, and Stanford are not give-me games for the Irish. They return a lot of players on both sides of the ball and will continue to improve upon their 8-5 record last season, but will have a hard time running the table with their schedule.

As for the other teams, even a BCS bid seems out of the realm.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Navy

Gone is team captain and exceptional leader Ricky Dobbs, who managed the triple option at Navy for the past three seasons. Although Dobbs will be missed, head coach Ken Niumatalolo is known for getting the most out of players with limited experience, so new quarterback Kriss Proctor should be just fine. In addition, both slot back Gee Gee Greene and fullback Alexander Teich return and will be running behind an offense that didn’t lose much from last season.

If there are any issues for Navy this season, they will be defensively. The Midshipmen lose nine starters from last year’s team, and although they will not be young, they will be inexperienced. For a team that was frequently in close games last year, a suspect defense could be a problem.

The Midshipmen have a manageable schedule and have shown the ability to replace star players effectively in the past. A bowl berth seems likely, and Navy could even surprise a team like Notre Dame yet again if their defense comes together.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Manti Te’o (Jr.), Notre Dame inside linebacker

Te’o is the first and only defensive player to be featured in Around The Corn’s “Player To Watch” section, and for good reason. Te’o may be the single most important player on any defense in the nation. The Fighting Irish defense improved immensely last season, and Te’o was one of the main reasons why, collecting 133 tackles to lead the team.

If fans in South Bend think that they have a chance to do great things this year, they will need Te’o to continue where he left off last season. Notre Dame’s offense will be good, but they will need to continue to improve on defense if they want to win at least ten games. Te’o is the heart and soul of the Irish defense, so he will set the tone for that improvement if it is to be made.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (September 17th)

This matchup will give fans a better idea about how good Notre Dame really is this year. Michigan State will test Notre Dame’s defense, and will not be intimidated by the Fighting Irish offense.

Last year, the game between these two teams came down to a fake field goal attempt that resulted in a touchdown for the Spartans. While it may not have such an exciting finish this year, it will be just as close. The key for the Fighting Irish will be to stop Michigan State’s rushing attack, which tore up Notre Dame for 203 yards last year.

If Notre Dame cannot beat the Spartans at home this year, don’t expect the Irish to accomplish much more in 2011 than they did in 2010. This game is that telling.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Army vs. Navy (December 10th)

The annual Army-Navy game is worth watching regardless of how good each team is, but this year it will also be worth watching because both teams should be pretty good. It has been ten years since Army has beaten Navy, but 2011 may be the year where the Black Knights finally end the streak.

Both teams run an option offense, and Army’s was extremely effective last year thanks to fullback Jarred Hassin. The Black Knights were eighth in the nation in rushing last season and will probably be in the top ten again this year if they can get production from a revamped offensive line.

If there is one team that knows how to stop an option offense, it is Navy. The Midshipmen have been able to beat Army recently because they can contain the option attack enough, and Army has close to no passing game. If Navy can stop Hassin and Black Knights quarterback Trent Steelman on the ground, they could gain control in this game.

Team Predictions

1. Notre Dame (9-3, with wins over Army and Navy)

2. BYU (8-4)

3. Navy (6-6, with a win over Army)

4. Army (4-8)

This post effectively concludes my college football conference-by-conference preview. For those of you that missed one of my previews, I hope to add an archive box on the front page with links to all of my previews. Until then, you can click on the NCAAF tab on the front page to find all of my previews. Tomorrow, I will officially conclude my college football preview with a short list of Heisman hopefuls, some of the things I think will happen throughout the season and my pick on who will be holding up the crystal football on January 9th. Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read even one of my previews.

- K. Becks

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