Preview of NCAA Independents
BRIAN KELLY STILL TALKING BIG AT NOTRE DAME, BYU HOPES TO BREAK THROUGH
We conclude our July look at the mid majors with a rundown of the four current Independent teams. It's actually a transition from the mid majors to the majors because BYU, Navy, and Army are considered mid-majors at the moment (if they go to bowls, they go to minor bowls). Notre Dame is of course treated like a Big Ten team like the media and bowl committees, even in years where they don't deserve a lot of respect.
This year's Notre Dame team does deserve respect after an 8-5 campaign that included losses to powers like Stanford and USC, and a bowl grinder with physical Florida State. What's interesting to us is how head coach Brian Kelly keeps talking about trying to win a National Championship in South Bend, while the media sees them as barely a top 20 team entering 2012.
Let's take a look at some key numbers for the Irish. Then, we'll do the same for the other three Independents.
Athlon Ranking: 20th
2011 Total Offense: 35th
2011 Total Defense: 30th
Strength: Pass Defense (38th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (54th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Brian Kelly
Notebook: The team had solid stat rankings last year against a representative schedule, and returns a good amount of experience. We don't expect a step back this season. And, if the team can avoid the turnover implosions that jumped up and bit them a few times...they just might sneak into the BCS picture. What's preventing many preseason pundits from falling in love with the Irish are these hurdles on the schedule.
At Michigan State on September 15
At Oklahoma on October 27
At Southern Cal on November 24
Southern Cal is a popular pick for #1 this year. It's very tough to win in Oklahoma unless you catch them napping...and few teams take naps when preparing for Notre Dame. Michigan State at least has a new quarterback. But, that's still a tough spot to win. If you assume two probable losses, and three possible losses...then you can't stick Notre Dame in your Preseason Top Ten even if they have great talent.
Should Notre Dame be Top Ten in YOUR Power Rankings? We're not ready to go that far ourselves even if we do respect the stats and the experience. Our grips:
Kelly tends to run up the stats against weak opposition, which creates illusions about his program. You saw that at Cincinnati where he won the Big East before getting absolutely annihilated by Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Kelly is more likely to create the illusion of having a Top Ten Power Rating team than he is of actually having one.
Kelly runs a system that is turnover prone vs. good defenses. Against a weak schedule, that's not necessarily a problem. Versus a representative schedule, it's very difficult to play clean football a dozen games in a row.
Notre Dame has other tests besides the three road trips we mentioned. Home games with Michigan and Stanford won't be sure things. They also host BYU, who we'll look at in a second. Who knows what to expect October 6th in Chicago when Notre Dame plays Miami. The Irish are capable of springing an upset in one of those aforementioned danger games...but then dropping one somewhere else in a fashion similar to last year's South Florida embarrassment.
JIM HURLEY is likely to have a few big plays in Notre Dame games this season based on our read of Kelly and his coaching style. In fact, we can already tell you that September's Game of the Month could easily involve the Irish one way or another.
Athlon Ranking: 39th
2011 Total Offense: 41st
2011 Total Defense: 13th
Strength: Rush Defense (19th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (56th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall
Notebook: Last year, BYU's offense was a joke in September. Pathetic. The low point was a 54-10 loss to Utah. But, even the two wins (Central Florida and Utah State) had low points because the Cougars were fortunate to finish on top. They almost started 2011 with an 0-5 record! But, to their credit, they FINALLY got the right quarterback on the field, and stormed down the stretch when the schedule got easier. They would go 9-1 their last 10 games, capping it off with a 24-21 bowl win over Tulsa.
Is there reason to be excited this year? Well, beating Tulsa by three is good if your goal is to be a Conference USA contender. Being a real big time contender seems much further off to us. The team was hit by graduation, and will be looking at four tough road challenges at Utah, at Boise State, at Notre Dame, and at Georgia Tech. We may give the Cougars some "defensive dog" respect in a couple of those. And, we'll consider them in blowout spots when they step down in class vs. what is otherwise a friendly schedule.
Simply put...we're more optimistic now than we had imagined we'd be last September, but we're not as optimistic as that 10-3 final record might have led you to believe.
Athlon Ranking: 65th
2011 Total Offense: 48th
2011 Total Defense: 86th
Strength: Rush Offense (4th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (119th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo
Notebook: Last year was a big disappointment for the Midshipmen. They didn't qualify for a bowl. They lost the Commander-in-Chief trophy to Air Force. Two of their wins came against Delaware and Western Kentucky. They had a schedule that should have taken them well past 5-7 to something more like 8-4 and a bowl bid. Personnel turns over so much with the military schools that you don't want to overreact to one off year. Maybe it was a one-year fluke, and the Middies will go back to playing their usual caliber of football. The season opener vs. Notre Dame over in Ireland will tells us a lot about that, as will a visit to Penn State two weeks later after a bye. As always, consider backing Navy's option vs. bad run defenses, and fading them vs. good run defenses. Last year was such a disappointment that even the time-proven basics didn't work as well as they should have with this team.
Athlon Ranking: 96th
2011 Total Offense: 49th
2011 Total Defense: 43rd
Strength: Rush Offense (1st)
Weakness: Pass Offense (120th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Rich Ellerson
Notebook: Army gave themselves a manageable schedule last year, but could only finish 3-9 because they couldn't keep quarterback Trent Steelman healthy (and they weren't very good to begin with!). The schedule is once again fairly easy. There aren't any paycheck games that you know are going to be brutal. The Black Knights have a chance to shoot for .500 and a bowl berth if things break right. Let's see how September goes against SDSU, Northern Illinois, Wake Forest, and Stony Brook. The rest of the schedule is basically going to look a lot like that...so September will be a good indicator for what to expect in October and November.
Next week we begin our look at the major conferences with a two-day study of the Atlantic Coast. We'll do the Atlantic Division on Saturday, and the Coastal Division on Sunday. More conference previews will run on weekends through the month...leading up to an opening week bonanza of big games highlighted by the likes of Boise State-Michigan State and Alabama-Michigan (at the Cowboys cathedral in Texas). We hope you're printing out all of our summer weekend previews so you can have them at your fingertips once the seasons starts. Please check the July archives for prior entries. You need to know what's so interesting about SMU this year. You need to know about the experienced MAC quarterbacks who will be playing in important non-conference games in September.
Don't forget that early bird football rages are available right here at the website. The NFL Preseason starts a week from tonight with Arizona playing New Orleans in the Hall of Fame game August 5th. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. We do have combination packages for football AND baseball if you want to keep building your bankrolls for college and pro action on the gridiron with summer bases. Hey, the Dollars of August roll over through the football season whether you're getting the summer money in baseball or football!
Back with you Monday for showcase series coverage in Major League baseball. We'll see you football fans again next Saturday as we study the ACC. With JIM HURLEY, ACC means ALWAYS COLLECTING the CASH!
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