2013 NCAA Football Preview: Independents

August 28, 2013

This is my final “conference” preview. This is a good thing, not just because the season starts tomorrow night. I also started school last week, and haven’t been doing much homework thanks to these articles.

Here is the preview for the FBS Independents.


Notre Dame making it to the national championship game last season was a huge surprise to most people, and the fact that the Fighting Irish didn’t hold up too well against defending national champion Alabama wasn’t much of a surprise to those outside of South Bend, either. But regardless of what you think about Notre Dame’s rise to relevancy in 2012, you have to give head coach Brian Kelly a lot of credit for reviving a team that simply was heading in the wrong direction before he got there four years ago.

The Fighting Irish will be strong once again this season, albeit not nearly as strong as they were last year. Notre Dame has also significantly ramped up their strength of schedule, which means that a repeat trip to the national title game will be difficult. However, the awareness created by last year’s run may give the Fighting Irish a decent shot at making a BCS bowl if they can manage to put together a double-digit win season.

As for the rest of the Independents, the pool only got bigger in the offseason. Joining Notre Dame, Navy, Army and BYU as do-it-yourselfers in the scheduling department are New Mexico State and Idaho, former members of the now defunct Western Athletic Conference. While the veteran independent schools did not make room for the newbies on the schedule, it does bring up an interesting topic of discussion. When conferences such as the WAC finally do close their doors to college football, will the teams left behind simply look to compete in the sport’s top division on their own? Perhaps the success of the Aggies and Vandals this season will serve as a shining example, or warning, to teams looking to do the same.

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


Admittedly, I whiffed on Notre Dame last year, predicting the Fighting Irish to finish 8-4 and not giving them much chance at all even to reach a BCS bowl (although, I did predict that they may surprise people, for what it’s worth). And while I’m not going to rule out Brian Kelly’s squad from making a BCS bowl, I’m still pretty confident that Notre Dame’s competition will keep them out of the national title game this year.

Let’s take a look at the gauntlet that the Fighting Irish will navigate this season: games on the road against Michigan and Stanford, home games against Michigan State, Oklahoma, USC and BYU, and a neutral site game against Arizona State. Raise your hand if you think this schedule compares favorably to last season’s, when Notre Dame narrowly escaped five games without a single loss. Bueller…Bueller?

Notre Dame is clearly the strongest of the Independents, and if they’re not making it to the national title game, then neither is anyone else from this group of teams. It’s still a very interesting group, but they’re more likely to ruin some other team’s title hopes than actually preserve their own.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


There probably won’t be too many surprises from the Independent squads this year as far as overall records are concerned, but the Navy Midshipmen at least have a shot to snag 10 wins this season. Navy has been extremely consistent from year to year under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, going to bowl games in four of his five seasons in Annapolis. Although the Midshipmen don’t bring back a ton of pieces from a team that finished 8-5 last season, Niumatalolo has done a remarkable job at getting the most out of first year starters.

There are nine very winnable games on Navy’s schedule this season, and if the defense is once again stellar in the red zone then the triple-option offense will be sufficient to give them a chance in every one of those games. Having a returning starter at quarterback in sophomore Keenan Reynolds should do a lot for the Midshipmen during the first month of the season, where the team suffered three of its four regular season losses last year. If Navy gets off to a better start in 2013, 10 wins including a bowl game victory isn’t too optimistic.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Kyle Van Noy (Sr.), BYU linebacker

New Mexico State wide receiver Austin Franklin was the original pick for this section, but thanks to his ineligibility the undisputed vocal leader of the BYU defense Kyle Van Noy has filled the void. Van Noy surprised some people by returning to BYU for his senior season instead of declaring for the NFL Draft, but the Cougars probably welcomed him with open arms after losing Ezekiel Ansah to the pros.

Van Noy has a sixth sense for knowing the quickest way to get to the ball, whether it be to make an open field tackle, an interception or stripping the quarterback of the ball on a designed blitz. He is the main reason why BYU is not coming into this season totally searching for answers on the defensive end, because without him they would be. His leadership skills exceed his physical capabilities on the field, and that is saying a lot for someone that recorded 13 sacks last season. Expect another very solid season from this guy.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Southern California vs. Notre Dame (October 19th)

The current advantage in this rivalry has shifted from Los Angeles to South Bend, where Notre Dame has won two of the last three meetings after breaking a streak of eight straight victories by the Trojans. This year the Fighting Irish should be the favorites again, but Southern Cal should be bringing in a much more prepared, focused and generally motivated team than the one that played Notre Dame without its starting quarterback last season.

The Trojans may not be too shabby defensively, but Lane Kiffin’s team will win this game by being able to move the ball against Notre Dame’s defense. Like many teams that the Fighting Irish will play this season, Southern Cal has an offense capable of punishing a lot of opponents but may struggle against a secondary that returns nearly everyone from last year’s squad. If Notre Dame can pick off a couple of Max Wittek (or whoever is playing quarterback for the Trojans at this point) passes, they will have a much better shot at winning this game. Keeping Southern Cal’s offense off the field will be key in this one.

In-Conference Game To Watch

BYU at Notre Dame (November 23rd)

There is technically no such thing as an “in-conference” game for either of these teams, but normally I do highlight one interesting matchup between two Independents to keep things consistent across all of my previews. Despite the fact that the Army-Navy game is one of my favorite games to watch each season, without Trent Steelman the Black Knights will have a very difficult time competing with the Midshipmen in 2013. Thus, this is really the only other game between independent schools that I believe has a chance to be close and also worth watching (sorry, Idaho vs. New Mexico State).

The Cougars played extremely well against Notre Dame last season, falling to the Fighting Irish 17-14. This was in large part due to a defense that ranked in the top ten in the nation in run, pass, scoring and total defense. Although Bronco Mendenhall has a knack for putting together strong defenses season after season, it might be difficult for BYU to repeat that success. However, the defense should still be good enough to give the Cougars a shot in this game. Offensively it won’t be pretty, but if it needed to be, BYU would have a much more difficult time competing.

Conference Predictions

1. Notre Dame (9-3, beats Army, BYU and Navy)

2. Navy (6-6, beats Army)

3. BYU (6-6)

4. New Mexico State (3-9)

5. Army (2-10)

6. Idaho (1-11)

Questions from the Readers

Q. Will Notre Dame even make a bowl game? (Submitted by @OtterArfArf)

Yes, they’ll make a bowl game. They may even be in the mix for a BCS bowl, and ten wins may be enough to get them there. Notre Dame was grandfathered in to the BCS rules that give the Fighting Irish a good shot at making a BCS bowl provided they are a top ten team.

BCS rules state that “Notre Dame will have an automatic berth if it is in the top eight of the final BCS Standings” (via BCSFootball.org). The rules also state that any team finishing in the top 14 of the final BCS standings is eligible for at at-large BCS berth. If Notre Dame wins at least nine games, they’ll put themselves in position to win an at-large BCS berth. Due to the large following that the Fighting Irish enjoy, it seems likely that the school would get the nod from a BCS bowl looking for a team to extend an at-large bid to since the bowls are more about money than anything else.

But to put it shortly, it would be a major shock if Notre Dame did not make any bowl at all this season. They would need to finish below .500 for that to happen.

Q. Are we going to hear about how “Notre Dame is going to be great next year” for the next forty years? (Submitted by @OtterArfArf)

Is the sun going to rise for the next forty years?

Yes, absolutely.

– K. Becks

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