Independents Preview



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

The end is here...and the beginning will be here before you know it!

We wrap up our July preview series of college football conferences with the three teams who don't belong to a conference. Today, we'll spend some time with Notre Dame, Navy, and Army. If you missed our earlier previews, please check the archives. Mid major conferences ran over the past several days. The BCS leagues ran a couple of weeks ago.

Our NFL Divisional previews, as always, will run through the exhibition slate. We'll start Sunday Night to line up with the Hall of Fame Game on NBC (Dallas vs. Cincinnati). In the coming days, the remaining previews will be linked to big NFL nights during the summer.

The pro preseason came up on us quickly. College football is literally just around the corner.

Let's jump right in. Notre Dame is typically one of the most interesting college football teams every year. Sometimes that's good. More often than not under recent head coaches, they've been interesting for all the wrong reasons. Even last year, with an offense that ranked 4th in the nation in passing and 8th overall...the Irish failed to qualify for a bowl game. Their blowhard coach finally had to admit he was a failure. The administration brought in Brian Kelly from Cincinnati to turn things around.

Athlon Ranking: 26
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 8 on offense, 86 on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: There's a lot of optimism because Kelly has been very successful as he's climbed the college football ladder. Central Michigan was a MAC power under his leadership. He went to Cincinnati, and the Bearcats soared to a conference crown and a BCS bowl under his leadership. It's easy to forget how few people were optimistic about Cincy prior to last season. The defense had to be rebuilt. Kelly was still green in terms of the big time. No problems! Cincinnati exploded. Notre Dame fans hope the same thing happens this year in South Bend.

Is that likely? Tough call. Kelly will bring more confidence, more creativity, and less arrogance. He won't throw his players under the bus after losses. He'll command respect. The problems are:

*The defense was bad last year, and defenses have trouble getting better when their offense runs the spread. They wear down from playing too many up tempo games.

*Recruiting wasn't as good as advertised in the prior regime. The media kept hyping new recruits. Once they were on the field, you wondered what all the excitement was about. Kelly may take more than a year to get the program up to where everyone thought it had been.

*There's no experience at quarterback. Jimmy Clausen was a one-man team last year. And, if you saw that Jon Gruden special on ESPN before the draft, you realized that he wasn't really that great of a one-man team! He wasn't a quality leader. He'd throw teammates under the bus just like his coach did (as he did in the film room with Gruden unfortunately). The returning starters don't know what it's like to play with a sense of urgency. The new QB has a lot to learn, and quick.

*Opponents still get up for Notre Dame. There aren't any laydowns in the first half of the season with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, and Pittsburgh. Western Michigan, Tulsa, and Army represent the only three 'sure things,' though anything can happen in football. Kelly may not be able to build confidence as quickly as he hopes.

We're going to be watching that first month very closely. We like Kelly vs. a certain class of teams, but his Bearcats were softer than they should have been at the point of attack last year. You can get away with that in a weak conference. It's very tough to get away with that against Notre Dame's schedule that sends physicality after you week in and week out. There's a great chance for volatility here. Other coaches have started hot before fading. We'll bet that way if early evidence suggests we should. The world isn't always that simple. We're ready to fade the Irish if Kelly's group turns out to be overrated coming out of the blocks.

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Athlon Ranking: 33
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 77 on offense, 34 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Navy's been better than Notre Dame the last few seasons, so they're probably tired of falling behind them in preseason previews every summer! Navy won 23-21 in South Bend in 2009. This year's rematch will be at the Meadowlands rather than Annapolis. More ticket sales!

Whenever Navy wins, everyone attributes it to their option offense. It's worth noting that the Midshipmen only ranked 77th overall in offense last season. They were much better defensively than people realized, holding six opponents in the teens or less last year. The offense didn't break 40 points against soft spots like Western Kentucky, SMU (even with overtime), Delaware, Hawaii, or Army. Frankly, the offense was pretty BAD last year when you adjust for context.

Quarterback Ricky Dobbs returns for his senior season. Hopefully he can put more on the scoreboard on a consistent basis. The defense probably won't be as good this year with only five returning starters.

A September 6th opener with Maryland will have us looking their direction most likely. A fairly manageable schedule could launch them to 10 wins once again (10-4 last season despite the road loss at Hawaii). Just keep things in perspective with this group. They're not quite as good or consistent as their media coverage suggests. Pick your spots both ways and things could go very well for you.

Athlon Ranking: 85
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 117 on offense, 16 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 8 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Army has returned to the option attack after a few years of experimentation with other styles. That brought them back from the dead and up to respectability fairly quickly. Well, respectability in the sense that they're not longer a complete doormat. They went 5-7 last year, with wins over Banderbilt of the SEC, and vulnerable teams from mid major conferences.

It's not great, but it's better than it used to be!

Note also how strong this defense has become. Yes, it's undersized and likely to struggle vs. quality. They stopped scheduling quality, focused on what the guys could do, and kept them fresh by running clock with the option offense. Defensive battles give you a shot to win...and keep you healthy for 12 outings because the games go quicker. The fact that 8 starters return on that side of the ball should help them in the winnable games this season.

We have to warn you though about getting delusions of grandeur. This is still a program that's way behind Navy in terms of competing with quality. Scheduling Eastern Michigan and North Texas makes you feel better about yourself, but can create unhealthy illusions. As handicappers, you have to avoid falling prey to those.

For a few years there, we wouldn't touch Army with a 10-foot pole. Now, we'll gladly try to pick value spots with the Cadets...just as we did with Navy when they first returned to respectability.

That's it. All the Vegas board teams are in the rearview mirror. We can't wait for the season to get here!

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