2019 NCAAF Preview: Independents

August 29, 2019

From program-specific television deals to full scheduling autonomy, the Independents in college football have always been special. But thanks to Notre Dame and BYU, there is enough tradition involved that national attention is administered to the group as a whole.

Aside from the heavy hitters, there are some other storylines of interest, most notably the return of Hugh Freeze as a head coach at the FBS level. Freeze takes over at Liberty, who made its FBS debut in 2017 and now has full-fledged status this season. The return of a service academy to national prominence is also a potential narrative worth watching with Army.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish must contend with a nasty schedule and replacing some key losses in the running game and linebacker corps, but there is enough returning from last season’s CFP participating squad for Notre Dame to be included in the conversation heading into the 2019 campaign. Ian Book is a major reason why – the senior quarterback rejuvenated the offense last season after coming in midway through the year and is the most dynamic player Brian Kelley has had at the position since being in South Bend. Even if the run game isn’t as strong this season, Book’s abilities in the passing game should buoy the offense.

Realistically, the Fighting Irish can pin their Playoff chances on three games this season. A bevy of games on the slate will be difficult, but road contests against Georgia, Michigan and Stanford will garner the most national attention and serve as litmus tests at various points in the year. Even if Notre Dame can get by two of the three, it should be enough to propel them to back-to-back appearances in the CFP assuming Kelly’s team takes care of business everywhere else.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


Like Notre Dame, the Cougars must deal with a schedule that even the most talented teams in the country would shudder at the thought of having to play. BYU should be in better shape to compete against high powered offenses such as Boise State, Toledo and Utah State thanks to a revelation at quarterback, however. As a freshman in 2018, freshman Zach Wilson proved to be the future at the position for the Cougars, capping his initial season at the school with a 3 touchdown, 18 for 18 passing performance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

If BYU takes the next step offensively in 2019, there is the feeling around the program that defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki can replace the necessary defensive pieces to be competitive on that side of the ball as well. If not, it could be a long season with the Cougars looking for answers on how to stop teams from scoring a lot of points. But the program is nationally known for its toughness, so the Cougars will be far from an easy victory for anyone this season.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Kelvin Hopkins Jr., Army senior quarterback

Army is looking to stretch its streak of banner years to a third in 2019 and that all starts with its electric quarterback Hopkins. The senior is a true dual-threat option for the Black Knights, something that the program has never really had before, which gives OC Brent Davis a lot of options offensively. With Hopkins you can’t blindly assume he’s just going to run or pitch the football.

It has been decades since Army football has come into a season with expectations as high as they are this year, but Hopkins is the type of player that can fulfill them. Nothing short of another double-digit win total will satisfy the service academy fan base, and to achieve that Hopkins will need to be one of the most dynamic players in all of college football.

Games to Watch

Utah at BYU (August 29)

The Holy War is one of the only three-team rivalries in college football, but recently it has had national implications. This year will be no different as Utah has its sights set on a CFP bid, but travelling to Provo in August will be no cakewalk.

The Cougars will have no opportunity to ease its rebuilt defense into the season against one of Kyle Whittingham’s most complete offensive units during his tenure at Utah. The crowd will be rambunctious, however, so expect BYU to receive a boost from that.

Notre Dame at Michigan (October 26)

The road to the CFP essentially cuts right through Ann Arbor, with the Wolverines hosting Notre Dame mid-season before welcoming the hated Buckeyes to town on Thanksgiving weekend. The Fighting Irish may be fighting for their Playoff lives at this point unless they manage to come out of Athens, Georgia with a victory earlier in the year.

The last time these two teams squared off in the Big House was in 2013, where a fantastic offensive shootout ensued. Expect much of the same in this one as both teams should bring at the very least solid offensive attacks to the table.


1. Army (11-2)

2. Notre Dame (9-3)

3. Liberty (6-6)

4. BYU (5-7)

5. Massachusetts (3-9)

6. New Mexico State (2-10)

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