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TGS 2013 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE INDEPENDENTS
Independent ranks swell this fall to their greatest number since the early '90s as a couple of WAC refugees (New Mexico State and Idaho) temporarily park in the lot before re-enlisting with the Sun Belt next year. Meanwhile, Old Dominion, though technically an FCS independent in 2013, will also be included for our purposes in this preview as the Monarchs, in the midst of a transiiton to FBS status and enlisting with Conference USA in 2014, face no fewer than five FBS foes this fall. For the moment, Navy is also still an independent, though it plans to join the American in 2015.

As for BYU, it remains "indie" for the time being, too, though is still rumored for a variety of destinations (a return to the Mountain West or perhaps enlisting with the Big 12) as it commences a third year of non-affiliated gridiron work that has proved more than a bit of a scheduling headache for AD Tom Holmoe. Sources say the Cougars are seriously weighing the idea of rejoining a conference before the new playoff system replaces the BCS next season. Stay tuned for further developments.

The 2013 football season is fast approaching! And we're ready at TGS with discounted JULY subscription prices! Click here for more special JULY subscription info on THE GOLD SHEET now!

Meanwhile, though Notre Dame hasn't really joined a football league, it does have a new alliance with the ACC (which will house other Fighting Irish sports), to play as many as five conference teams per season in upcoming years.

It's not quite like the old days, say 1988, when independent sides comprised the entire top four in the polls heading into the bowl games, but we can nonetheless enjoy an increased dosage of indies for a few months this fall.

TGS Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano rates this season's six (plus one) indie entries below...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


INDEPENDENTS PREVIEW


by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


1. NOTRE DAME...Shake down the Thunder? Brian Kelly?s reputation received another significant boost when the Irish head coach got Notre Dame back in a national title game for the first time since the legendary Lou Holtz stalked the sidelines at South Bend twenty years ago. The question is, with majority of the nation?s second-ranked defense returning and a core of solid offensive talent also on hand, are the Irish really back.

The storied Notre Dame program rarely, if every, received more ?luck of the Irish? than it did last season. Half of ND?s 12 wins last year came by single digits, two of those coming in OT. The Irish made a field goal with seconds left to beat Purdue. ND was outgained at home against Michigan, but managed a 13-6 victory. The elements and a questionable referee call at the goal line gave the Irish an OT win against Stanford. They barely outlasted BYU. Kelly?s crew trailed Pitt by two TDs in the fourth Q and needed a missed Pitt FG to survive on Nov. 13. Closer examination reveals that Notre Dame could?ve been 6-6 rather than 12-0 during the regular season if all of the breaks hadn?t gone its way.

It?s a bit more than surprising that a team which ranked 78th in scoring offense ultimately ended up in the BCS Championship game. Don?t expect it to happen again and don?t expect the Irish to score more than the 25.8 ppg they managed in 2012. Academic problems have sidelined ND?s most potent offensive weapon, as soph QB Everett Golson will spend the season watching before rejoining the team in the spring. Golson will be replaced by the experienced Tommy Rees, but he comes with issues. The senior has made 18 starts and thrown for 4,413 and 34 scores the last three seasons, however he?s not nearly the rushing threat that Golson is (6 rush TDs LY), is mistake-prone (24 interceptions) and has had disciplinary issues of his own. The Irish must replace their top two RBs, who combined for 1,659 YR and 9 rush TDs, as well as TE Tyler Ellert, who snagged 50 catches before taking his talents to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The attack fell short in the redzone far too often, as the Irish ranked 112th in the nation in converting TDs inside the 20. As a direct result of ND?s inability to finish drives with TDs, jr. PK Kyle Brindza set a school record with 23 field goals. With Golson out of the picture, this will undoubtedly be an ongoing concern in 2013. The rushing attack will rely on the speedy George Atkinson, who carried 51 times for a flashy 7.1 ypc and scored 5 times. Atkinson stands a decent chance of becoming just the 11th ND RB to top the 1,000-yard mark if he stays healthy.

Defensively, eight starters return, but all three graduates are on NFL rosters. The cupboard is hardly exhausted of pro prospects, however, especially on the defensive line where jr. NG Louis Nix and DE Stephon Tuitt both appear to be destined to play on Sundays. The linebackers will miss Manti Te?o, who made 113 tackles, but was even more valuable than that figure would indicate, as he intercepted seven passes. Still, Kelly has been recruiting and definitely has a replacement in place in soph Jarrett Grace. If Grace doesn?t work out sr. Carlo Calabrese (49 tackles) will be a reliable alternative. Sr. OLB Dan Fox had 111 stops the last two seasons, and both he and fellow sr. Danny Spond (39 tackles LY) will be backed by incoming frosh Jaylon Smith, rated the best linebacker in high school last season.

The strength of this defense is in the secondary, which is talented, deep and active. Sr. CB Bennett Jackson intercepted four passes and was third on the team with 65 tackles last season. At the other corner soph Keivarae Russell returns after making first-team frosh All-America with 58 tackles last year. Russell got his chance in large part because jr. Lo Wood was injured and out for the season. Wood is back and ready to go. A pair of talented soph safeties, Matthias Farley and Elijah Shumate, both rated in the top 20 at their position in the country when Kelly recruited them a few years back, will make sure ND is strong down the middle.

The Irish defense has a chance to be as good or better than a year ago, but the statistics are unlikely to be duplicated. The offense will likely make more mistakes with Rees? propensity for interceptions, and the bounces seem to have a way of evening out (the Irish were -15 in turnover count in 2011, then rebounded to +8 last year). We?re thinking the Irish pendulum swings the other way this season, but Notre Dame should remain the best among the Independents.

2. BYU...Change is the order of the day at BYU. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall overhauled his entire offensive staff after a disappointing 64th finish in scoring undermined the work of the nations third-best defense of 2013. Mendenhall is in his ninth season in Provo, but three straight ?Holy War? losses to Utah might?ve lit the burner underneath his chair.

The new fast-paced attack coordinated by Robert Anae (at Arizona the last two seasons) will be run by soph Taysom Hill, who burst onto the scene in Provo by generating 570 yards of total offense in a pair of starts before an ACL injury knocked him out for the season. With Hill recovered, the Cougar offense should have a major bounce-back season. Soph RB Jamaal Williams ran for 12 scores and 775 yards (4.7 ypc), and virtually all of the BYU receivers return. The Cougars have a 1-2 punch at RB, as Williams took over for sr. Michael Alisa after he broke his arm in game five against Hawaii. The receiving corps is led by A-A candidate sr. WR Cody Hoffman, who led the way with 100 receptions (11 for scores) and 1,248 yards. Sr. TE Kaneakua Friel found the endzone five times in catching 30 balls, and sr. ?mighty mite? J.D. Falsley had 37 catches.

Four offensive linemen with starting experience return, although soph Ryker Mathews and jr. G Brock Stringham are both coming off back injuries. This group should be deep, as four jucos have been brought in to compete. Hill and the offense should find the road to recovery quickly.

In contrast to his attitude on the offensive side, Mendenhall would absolutely do cartwheels if d.c. Nick Howell could duplicate last season?s effort. The Cougars allowed just 14 ppg, and ranked second against the run and third in total defense. BYU had the best third-down defense in the nation in 2013.

Mendenhall and Howell caught a break when sr. LB Kyle Van Noy decided not to enter the NFL draft this spring. Van Noy was a third-team All-American whose 13 sacks ranked second in the country. He almost won last season?s Poinsettia Bowl singlehandedly, scoring a pair of defensive TDs by stripping San Diego State QB Adam Dingwell and recovering the fumble in the endzone for the go-ahead score and then intercepting a pass and taking it to the house to ice the game. That?s especially good news for Cougar fans considering Van Noy is one of just four returning regulars from that record-setting stop unit. Three of BYU?s top four tacklers graduated, included in that group of departed stars is DE Ezekiel Ansah, the 8th overall pick in the NFL draft.

Noy will be joined by sr. OLB Spencer Hadley (55 tackles, 3½ sacks LY), former Oregon State transfer Uani Unga (28 tackles for BYU LY) and emerging soph Manoa Pikula (played in 12 games). The DL will be rebuilt, but both DEs, sr. Eathyn Manumaleuna and soph Bronson Kaufusi, played in all 13 games. It will be difficult to equal last season?s No. 2 ranking against the run unless injury-prone DT Marques Johnson can make an increased impact and stay healthy.

The 2ndary should be solid, as CB Jordan Johnson had 48 tackles and 15 pass breakups last season. Safety Daniel Sorenson started all 13 games and led returning players with 68 tackles in ?12. Jr. FS Craig Bills emerged as a solid contributor last season by averaging 6 tackles in the Cougars? last 4 games.

With a new offensive scheme and a number of new faces on defense, look for a slow start for BYU. However, by the time the revenge-hungry Cougars host Utah on Sept. 21 they will have visited Virginia, hosted Texas and have an off week to prep for the Utes. Look for the Cougs to take the Holy War and end up extending their streak of bowl appearances under Mendenhall.

3. NAVY...Head coach Ken Niumatalolo has proven himself up to the difficult task of putting a winning product on the field in a difficult environment. Navy is 40-26 SU in Niumatalolo?s five seasons in charge, making four bowl appearances in that span. Considering the recruiting limitations and time constraints imposed on players at a military academy, that?s a remarkable achievement. Although Navy has sometimes lost touch against the ?big boys? (lost to Notre Dame and Penn State by a aggregate 84-17 tally last season), the Mids have held their own against most BCS conference foes. Under Niumatalolo, Navy has pushed its winning streak against Army to 11 and become one of the strongest road dogs in the nation (24-8 vs. the points the last decade).

This season the Mids should again be a bowl participant. The Midshipmen will have more diverse attack this season, as soph QB Keenan Reynolds? passing ability gives the Navy option attack an alternative. Reynolds, just a freshman a year ago, threw for 898 yards, completing 57% of his passes, had a 9-2 TD-int. ratio and ran for 10 TDs in eight starts last season. With Reynolds leading the way in the final eight games, the Middie attack averaged 407 total yards per game after gaining just 345 in the first five games. Look for continued improved production as Reynolds gains familiarity and confidence.

Reynolds will be surrounded by some important pieces returning as well. The offensive line has three key starters back, including C Tanner Fleming and sr. LT Graham Vickers. Jr. FB Noah Copeland (738 YR, 4.8 ypc) is the top returning rusher, and there should be more production from the slotbacks this season. Trey Miller, who began ?12 as the starting QB, returns for his senior season and will switch to SB. Soph Demond Brown was a special teams player LY as a true frosh, but he?ll step into a much more prominent role this year. Sr. WRs Shawn Lynch and Casey Bolena figure to double their combined 27 catches of last season with the expected increased pass attempts. The attack should easily improve on the team?s 25 ppg produced last year and return to the level achieved in Niumatalolo?s first four years on the job (29 ppg).

Although seven starters return on defense, the four players who graduated were the top four tacklers from last season, and graduated LBs Matt Warrick (93 stops) and Keegan Wetzel (79 stops, team-leading 7 sacks and 8 TFL) must be replaced. That being said, this will be very seasoned defensive unit, with a projection that four seniors and six juniors will be in the starting lineup. The defense has slipped the last few seasons at Annapolis, as the Mids have allowed 4.8 ypc, while giving up 221 ypg passing and 71% completions in the last two years. This after yielding just 3.8 ypc and holding foes to 211 ypg passing & 63% combined in Niumatalolo?s first two seasons.

While Keenan Reynolds won?t make the Navy brass forget Roger Staubach, the extra dimension his arm provides will give Navy?s foes a preparation problem. The schedule this season is a bit easier than the last few years, so look for another 8 or 9 win season and a bowl berth.

4. OLD DOMINION...Welcome to the ?Show? Monarchs! Old Dominion moves up to a holding position this fall, technically classified as an FCS independent but playing under FBS rules, including being allowed to have as many as 85 scholarship players, before official FBS status and Conference USA football membership in 2014 (ODU will immediately join CUSA for hoops and other sports this school year).

But HC Bobby Wilder?s Monarchs nonetheless warrant an overview as they will make a handful of appearances on the Las Vegas line in 2013. It?s decidedly unclear, however, if ODU is capable of holding its own immediately.

The Monarchs won 11 of their first 12 games before bowing to Georgia Southern in the second round of the FCS playoffs. But Old Dominion was a big fish in a small pond, as jr. QB Taylor Heinicke led an offense that scored 45 ppg and dominated FCS defenses. Heinicke has thrown 65 TDs and just 15 interceptions the last two seasons, and his 5076 YP last season eclipsed Steve McNair?s FCS passing record. Heinicke also led the team in rush TDs with 11. Although Heinicke?s top target graduated, he returns three receivers who grabbed between 55 and 60 passes for a total of 2,422 YP and 21 TD catches. Four other pass catchers with at least 19 receptions also return. The offensive line welcomes back four of five starters (including three seniors), and has been reinforced by soph juco RT Ely Anderson, who enrolled in school in time for spring practice. Lead RB Tyree Lee ran for 5.4 ypc (864 YR) and scored 9 TDs. Now we?ll see if they can produce on the next level up in the food chain of college football.

Defensively, things aren?t so rosy. Although six starters return, that unit allowed 30.5 ppg and 4.7 against a schedule that any MAC squad would see as lined with cupcakes. New Hampshire had the Monarchs down 54-38 in the 4th Q and gained 725 total yards in a last-minute 64-61 ODU win. We wish d.c. Rich Nagy good luck slowing down ACC-reps Maryland, Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

Nagy?s stop unit lost its top player, LB Craig Wilkins, who led the team with 90 stops and 6½ sacks last year, and the fourth-leading tackler, DE Chris Burnette (73 tackles, 4 sacks). Both of those players are being replaced by junior college transfers. Again, good luck stopping Stefon Diggs, Devin Street, Eric Ebron and Kevin Parks this fall on the ACC road.

The recent past has given several examples of teams moving up from the FCS, and they?ve met with mostly hard times. UMass was 1-11 SU and 4-8 against the number last season. Western Kentucky was 2-22 SU in its first two seasons after moving up to the FBS full-time. South Alabama was 2-11 SU and 4-9 against the number in 2012. UTSA was one ?success? story in moving up to the WAC last season, recording a somewhat deceiving 8-4 mark. The Roadrunners? only SU wins against established FBS teams (and this is a loose interpretation of that phrase) came against New Mexico State and Idaho. Regardless of how good Heinicke was last season, duplicating his numbers facing faster, bigger and better-coached FBS teams is an impossibility. It?s much more likely the Monarchs will be continually playing from behind and putting pressure on their weary defense. Look for ODU have a shot at Idaho, but get blanked by the remaining FBS teams on the schedule.

5. ARMY...Since Army gave head coach Rich Ellerson a two-year contract extension in December of 2010, the Black Knights are just 6-20 SU. The Army athletic department might be thinking they overeacted when Ellerson managed to win 12 games in his first two seasons in charge (the first time that had happened since Tom Cahill won 16 in 1966-67!). Now Ellerson has a contract at West Point through the 2015 season. And Army is just 1-7 in its last eight games against Air Force and Navy under his direction.

The record in that 2010 season (which turned out to be an anomaly) is worth examining. Army was +16 in turnovers that year. In the five years prior to 2010 and the two since, the Cadets are an aggregate -56 in TO ratio. With Stanford and Louisiana Tech replacing San Diego State and Kent State on the schedule this season, things don?t figure to improve significantly.

On the plus side, Ellerson welcomes back sr. RB Raymond Maples, who has gained 2,281 yards rushing the last two seasons, averaging 7.3 and 5.4 ypc in ?11 and ?12, respectively. Maples is a big contributing fact to the Army attack leading the nation in rushing the last two years. FB Larry Dixon had 839 YR and 6 rush TDs. last season. On the negative side, Army must replace QB Trent Steelman, who led the Cadets with 1,248 YR and had 17 of the team?s 32 rushing scores. Soph A.J. Schurr played in six games a year ago gaining 47 YR and completing only 8 of 18 passes for 130 yards and a pair of scores in very limited duty. Unless Schurr makes all the right decisions, the Black Knight run game is unlikely to lead the country for a third straight year.

In 2012 Army had its worst defense since 2004, yielding 35 ppg and 427 total yards. The Black Knights ranked 117th against the run, giving up 5.5 ypc and 6.7 yds. per play. This unit was 104th in scoring ?D?, allowing 35 ppg, and 118th in pass efficiency defense, so returning eight starters isn?t necessarily a plus. The weak Army pass rush lost LB Nate Combs, by far the team?s best penetrator (6 sacks, 6 TFL), and the middle linebacker will be ex-quarterback Gino DeBartolo, who converted to LB in the spring after sitting out last season altogether. DeBartolo weighs just 200 lbs., and Sr. DT Robert Kough (239 lbs.) and jr. DT Richard Glover (6-0, 247) are also undersized for FBS defensive linemen. NT is a weak spot, with T.J. Atimalala standing just 5-11 (only 7 tackles LY) and Mike Ugenyi (just 13 stops in his six starts) sharing the position. And remember, this defense allowed Temple to rush 57 times for 534 yards, Northern Illinois, Wake Forest, BC and Kent to all run for 6.6 ypc or better.

The secondary is keyed by jr. FS Geoffery Bacon, who led the team with 136 stops last season. However, Soph rover Alex Meier is coming off an ACL injury and missed spring workouts. Soph CB Chris Carnegie was targeted as a true frosh. Soph SS Shaquille Tolbert is now a starter although he didn?t play at all last season.

Ellerson?s Cadets are in for a long season. Army will likely be favored to win just 2-3 times this season (if that), so four victories would be a surprise, five a complete shock and a .500 mark is impossible.

6. NEW MEXICO STATE...DeWayne Walker, who?s tenure as New Mexico State?s head coach was marred by a DUI arrest and decorated with just 10 wins in four seasons, ?resigned? to take a position as an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars in January. Okay, Aggie fans, all together, ?Good riddance!? Waiting in the wings was offensive coordinator Doug Martin, who was 29-53 SU in seven seasons at Kent State before being showed the door in the MAC before surfacing as o.c. in las Cruces two years ago. Then, after a stint on Frank Spaziani's Boston College staff last season Martin returned to NMSU as o.c. and quickly received a promotion to the HC role when Walker made his long-anticpated escape from Las Cruces ito the NFL.

Martin will lead the Aggies through a transitional season as an Independent before the team rejoins the Sun Belt Conference next season. NMS played in the Sun Belt from 2001 through 2004 before joining the MAC for the last eight seasons. Although Martin is respected in some corners, rescuing the Aggie program from the dregs of the college football world is a bridge too far.

Martin?s proclivity for more mobile QBs and the decision to switch to a spread attack prompted incumbent starter Andrew Manley to transfer in May. Jr. Travaughn Colwell?s superior wheels gave him the edge in spring workouts, and he?ll run a good amount of QB option. Can?t blame Martin for making some changes, as the Aggies were just 112th in scoring at 19 ppg last year. The offensive line returns three starters, but the unit has little or no depth. Sr. RB Germi Morrison was passable, gaining 767 yards at 4.8 ypc, but he scored just 2 TDs. WR Austin Franklin was the only offensive player to make the all-WAC team last year, pulling down 74 passes for 1,245 (with a nice 17 ypc and 9 scores). Martin?s teams at Kent averaged just 20 ppg in his last six seasons there, so don?t look for NMS to suddenly resemble Louisiana Tech.

The defense will be better, but only because it can hardly get worse. Allowing 39 ppg, the Aggies ranked 117th in scoring defense last season. Seven holdover regulars are back, and eight seniors are projected to start. The top four tacklers return, including all-WAC S Davis Cazares, who led the league in tackles per game and had 116 total. Sr. LB Trashaun Nixon (second on the team with 96 tackles, NMS leader in sacks & TFLs) was also named to the all-WAC team. The defense will be boosted by a trio of transfers in the front seven. Nose tackle Willie Mobley (ex-Ohio State & Arizona graduate student), soph DE Matt Ramondo (ex-Michigan State) and LB Kalei Auelua (Washington). All appear ready to step in and start, some pushing inferior vets down the depth chart, probably to the delight of d.c. Dave Elson. However, Elson?s newly-installed 3-4 is unlikely to be a catalyst that will radically change a team that?s given up 36.3 ppg over the last six seasons.

The Aggies have historically been a landing site for jucos and transfers, and this season is no exception, with as many as nine such players expected to be inserted in various slots in the two-deep. However, NMS is looking at one or two wins again this season and likely will be ?caned? several times along the way this season. The homecoming game against Abilene Christian and the finale hosting bottom-feeding Idaho are the only soft spots on the schedule in Martin?s debut at Las Cruces. (And, mind you, Abilene is 15-7 the last two years, so don?t count your chickens.)

7. IDAHO... Ex-head coach Robb Akey had an almost perfect bell curve performance in his six seasons in Moscow. In his tenure, the team won 1, 2, 8, 6, 2, and 1 game in 2007 through 2012. After raising the Vandals from the ashes to bowl-participant, Akey?s reign crashed and burned the last two seasons, and Robb was dismissed before the 2012 campaign concluded. Enter Paul Petrino. Petrino makes his head coaching debut after paying his dues as an offensive coordinator at Louisville, Arkansas and Illinois, mostly working for his brother Bobby (now in charge at Western Kentucky).

Petrino isn?t going to reverse things at Idaho, at least not until the team rejoins the Sun Belt next season. This is a complete rebuilding job. Petrino must replace his quarterback, top rusher, top pass receiver and the top six tacklers (oh yes, and his kicker and punter as well). Now, one could argue a new broom sweeps clean, and why would Petrino need players returning from a team that ranked 120th in scoring and 118th in scoring defense. Point taken! However, the Vandals are more likely to go 0-12 than to win 2 or more games, as they have just three winnable contests in our view. They host Texas State & Old Dominion and visit New Mexico State. Texas State bashed the Vandals 38-7 last season, rolling up a 519-315 yardage edge along the way. Old Dominion QB Taylor Heinicke, who eclipsed Steve McNair?s FCS passing records last year, will be salivating at the prospect of attacking a secondary that ranked 112th against the pass and featuring three rookie starters. New Mexico State has four more returning starters and got a transfusion of jucos and transfer players from major institutions to bolster its ranks. No, 0-12 is a real possibility for Idaho in 2013.

Redshirt frosh QB Chad Chalich will be the starter. He threw for 332 yards in the spring game, operating Petrino?s spread well (albeit that was against the pathetic Vandal defense). It?s unclear who the ace back will be, as a pair of jucos impressed in spring. Kris Olugbode and Jerrel Brown (22 carries for 159 YR in spring game) were pushing sr. James Baker (390 YR in ?12) after arriving for spring practices. WRs Najee Lovett and Jahrie Level combined for 96 catches for 1,081 yards and 8 TDs last season, so Chalich will have some seasoned targets, and the offensive line returns four starters. That?s maybe four. Sr. RT Jordan Johnson was involved in a January DUI case in which he was first pulled over, tested at twice the legal limit for alcohol, and was found to have three other controlled substances in the car (?No officer, I don?t have a prescription for that.?). Oh boy.

Petrino inherits a bottom-10 team that was outscored by an average of 42-16 last season, but he?s brought in a whopping 11 jucos in hopes of getting a short-term upgrade in talent. We?ll see how good an offensive genius he really is, and if defensive coordinator Ronnie Lee (ex-Minny co-d.c. who helped shave 139 ypg off the Gophers? defensive allowance) can make lemonade out of the lemons at his disposal.



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