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2013 Football Independents Preview
Army & Navy, BYU and of course, Notre Dame: some predictions.
The fighting Irish are back to relevance, but despite going unbeaten in 2012 until they faced Alabama, the qualitative difference between ND and the Crimson Tide in the title game showed that the Irish have a way to go before being picked in any preseason top 5 is a given. They're back to being a top program, back to justifying the nation's attention, and they're a dangerous opponent. They may even be a contender if the chips fall their way, as seemed the case last year. However, losing starting quarterback Everett Golson in the offseason - he temporarily left Notre Dame entirely - hardly qualifies as the chips falling their way.
On defense, Notre Dame won't be falling back into the pack now that linebacker Manti Te'o isn't around. Jarrett Grace or Carlo Calabrese will fill his role and the front seven still boasts DT Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt for at least another year, and senior LBs Prince Shembo, Danny Spond and Dan Fox. With three of four starting DBs back (and some 5-star recruits at every level of the defense), Notre Dame has star power and the depth of a championship team. In the kicking game too, they have what they need.
But on offense, Tommy Rees will have to step up in a way nobody expects. Now a senior, Rees was the starter in 2011, with a higher completion rate than Golson managed last season, but he lacks the second dimension as a running threat and threw a shade too many picks. If he can cut those interceptions, he can be an effective senior quarterback; if he's still untidy at that end of things, some of those close 2012 victories could become close losses in 2013. Given some early season lumps at QB, the visit to Michigan (Sept 7) may be tough, and as usual, even the home games are a series of bravado invites - Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, BYU. Notre Dame's schedule certainly earns respect. If Rees can be a leader to a receiving corps that loses TE Tyler Eifert, and an offense that returns only four starters, then by the time they visit Stanford, Nov 30, it could feel like a play-in game for a BCS bowl.
Let's not overlook what a great period the oast decade has been for Navy. Few teams have posted winning records as consistently, and Coach Ken Niumatalolo has a 40-26 record in his five years. And this is where I write 'However…', right? Not a bit of it. In Keenan Reynolds, the Midshipmen have a quarterback who can truly throw - not a 3,000 yard passer, but a guy whose 9 TD pass, 2 interceptions his freshman season showed that Navy needn't fear a balanced attack. Runner Noah Copeland contributed over 700 yards and 5 scores as a sophomore last season and the right side of the line returns. Senior inside linebacker Cody Peterson is a tackle magnet, and although only 6 defensive starters return, the two-deep is packed with juniors and seniors who saw significant time. This may well be Niumatalolo's best squad. A winning record and the resulting Armed Forces Bowl is the least of what they could accomplish. If they can sweep the Commander-in-Chief trophy and defeat either Toledo or Pittsburgh in late October, even ten wins is not out of reach.
The Cougars defense was special in 2012, and while a whole raft of key players (not least DT Ziggy Ansah) are now gone, there's more than a few still here, including linebacker Kyle Van Noy (13 sacks in 2012), NT Earthyn Manumaleuna (the starter ahead of Ansah before injury), the secondary is highlighted by Jordan Johnson and Daniel Sorensen, both playmakers, while free safety Craig Bills also saw plenty of 2012 action. On offense, the left side of the line returns, but the shape of things beyond that is unclear, with freshmen and JuCos transfers in the mix. Brett Thompson will be the next in BYU's impressive tight end tradition, and WR Cody Hoffman is a 6'4" target who tallied over 1200 yards, 11 scores and a round 100 catches last season; he'll likely leave BYU at the end of the year with a host of school records.
After the quarterbacking ranks were thinned by non-starters transfering out, Taysom Hill regains the start role he lost through injury last year. Hill is mobile and dangerous, though being mobile proved dangerous to his own knee last year on an improvised play. If the sparks Hill shows in practice light a fire under the up-tempo offensive scheme from former and re-employed offensive coordinator Robert Anae, the sophomore quarterback could be one of the breakout stories of the season. The schedule may contain Texas, Utah, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, but if they can avoid the traps, BYU faces none of those challenges in back to back weeks. The Cougars are going to be supplying some entertaining viewing.
A little more shotgun, a little less triple-option won't be a complete abandonment of Black Knight tradition, but would be wise considering the presence of Patrick Laird and Chevaughn Lawrence, two receivers who deserve more targets. The offense will still feature Raymond Maples heavily however - he topped 1200 yards last year. The defense, however was amongst the worst in the FBS in most categories in 2012. Former LB Geoffrey Bacon becomes a safety to give the secondary more hitting power. Last year's starting safety Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires (a name surely born for Army) fell afoul of academics and is apparently no longer at West Point. It's hard to find six winnable games on the schedule.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Last year's starting quarterback, Andrew Manley saw the writing on the wall and transferred. A new offensive scheme looking for a passer with something extra will likely see junior Trevaughn Colwell running a spread attack, and he has most of last year's line in front of him. WR Austin Franklin looks like a player who deserves to be on a bigger stage, the sophomore hauling in 74 catches and 9 scores last year. A shortage of returning players is offset by incoming transfers from bigger schools, and the secondary will be packed with seniors. The Aggies beat only FCS Sacramento State last year. They could muster 3-4 wins this time.
The Vandals loaded up on JuCo transfers to shore up the talent shortage - they return almost no starters on defense, although Maxx Forde remains at DE. Freshman Chad Chalich may start at quarterback, but the depth chart will be a work in progress under new coach Paul Petrino (brother of Bobby, and an experienced offensive assistant). Terrible as they may be, with games at North Texas, Wyoming and Temple in the early going, they'll be in enough games to get a sense of direction heading into Sun Belt action next season. Their season-ender against New Mexico State could be a battle for a fourth win.