With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 10 things to know about the four teams without a conference: the FBS independents.
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1. The number of major college football independents stays at four for another year, before Sun Belt outcast New Mexico State joins the group next year. Once again, it's Notre Dame, BYU, Army and Massachusetts. While Notre Dame and Army played last year, the four teams have only one game against each other in 2017, the Nov. 18 UMass trip to BYU. The Fighting Irish continue their ACC scheduling relationship with games against Boston College, North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Miami.
2. Army is coming off its most successful season in two decades. The Black Knights finished 8-5. They won a bowl game for the second time since 1985. They won more than seven games for the first time since 1996. And, most importantly, they beat Navy, finally ending a 14-game losing streak in the storied rivalry. After doing it once, Army seeks to beat the Midshipmen in consecutive years for the first time since a five-game win streak from 1992-96. While they play only one FCS team instead of last year's two, the Black Knights do find themselves in solid position to repeat their bowl trip, with especially winnable home dates with Fordham, Buffalo, UTEP and Eastern Michigan and only one guaranteed loss, at Ohio State.
3. Jeff Monken has done a superb job turning Army around, and matching last year's success is possible. The Black Knights return their top five rushers, all of their quarterbacks, four offensive line starters and 11 of their top 14 tacklers on defense. While linebackers Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King are huge losses -- they played the biggest role in Army ranking 25th in yards per play allowed -- there's time to adjust defensively against a schedule that includes no proven offenses in the first half of the season, beyond the Ohio State game. Monken is in Year 4 now, and with this core in 2016, the Black Knights averaged 5.6 yards per rush with their option attack, their highest since 2011. Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter both have substantial experience at quarterback, and FB Andy Davidson nearly hit 1,000 yards. If a veteran team takes better care of the ball (-3 turnover margin), there's a lot to like, and it won't be a surprise this time if Army beats Navy again and goes bowling again.
4. Massachusetts' ascent to the FBS level continues to look strange. After four years in the MAC, the Minutemen played as an independent last year and went 2-10, bringing their five-year FBS record to 10-50. Their wins in that time have come against Akron, Miami (Ohio), Kent State, Eastern Michigan twice, Ball State, Buffalo, FIU and Wagner. Last year's team did show some signs of life -- an eight-point loss to Mississippi State, a six-point loss to South Carolina, a six-point loss to Hawaii -- but thus far they've been a strange fit for an FBS move, yet to find a permanent home and yet to flirt with bowl eligibility.
5. This can be the best UMass team since its FBS leap, but that doesn't mean it can get to six wins. The Minutemen had some passing success last year with quarterback Andrew Ford, who started nine games and threw for 2,665 yards, 26 TDs and 14 TDs, with the help of a solid receiving corps featuring Andy Isabella and tight end Adam Breneman. Breneman in particular is worth watching, as he's a former blue-chip recruit at Penn State who decided to return to football after knee injuries caused him to step away from the team in Happy Valley. A healthy Breneman caught 70 passes for 808 yards and eight TDs, living up to that recruiting potential with the Minutemen. With some hope on offense and much of the defense back, four or five wins could be on the table for UMass, although the margin for error is thin with a tough road schedule featuring Temple, Tennessee, South Florida, Mississippi State and BYU.
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1. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
2. Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
3. Tanner Mangum, QB, BYU
4. Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame
5. Adam Breneman, TE, Massachusetts
6. Nyles Morgan, LB, Notre Dame
7. Fred Warner, LB, BYU
8. Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame
9. Tejan Koroma, C, BYU
10. Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame
11. Andy Davidson, FB, Army
12. Alize Mack, TE, Notre Dame
13. Drue Tranquill, S, Notre Dame
14. Alex Aukerman, LB, Army
15. Andrew Ford, QB, Massachusetts
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6. Kalani Sitake picked up right where Bronco Mendenhall left off at BYU. Mendenhall's Cougars made 12 straight bowl appearances, mostly sitting comfortably between eight and 11 wins. Despite a frustrating start, Sitake guided BYU to a 9-4 record in his first season, capped by a Poinsettia Bowl win over Wyoming. Of course, despite the typical ending to the season, BYU sent its fans on a roller-coaster ride: The Cougars did not make it easy on themselves, playing a bunch of down-to-the-wire games. Their first five games were decided by a total of 11 points, resulting in a 2-3 start. Then they blew out Michigan State, edged Mississippi State in double-OT and lost a bizarre game to Boise State by one. In total, eight BYU games were decided by a touchdown or less, and the Cougars went 4-4 in those games.
7. There's little reason to expect anything different from BYU in 2017. After Taysom Hill returned to the lineup at QB last year, it's Tanner Mangum's turn, again, his first season starting under offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. With Hill injured in 2015, Mangum threw for 3,377 yards, 23 TDs and 10 INTs to lead BYU to a 9-4 record in a season most remembered for his relief appearance Hail Mary to beat Nebraska. The Cougars lose prolific running back Jamaal Williams and their top three receivers, but Mangum will be paired with a veteran offensive line and a promising tailback in Squally Canada. The defense faces a few key losses but is particularly strong at linebacker, although that unit took a hit in the preseason with the announcement that junior Francis Bernard will redshirt. A 13-game schedule features some quirks, with LSU in Houston; Utah, Wisconsin and Boise State visiting Provo; and six road games, with Mississippi State standing out as the toughest. Expect more close finishes, but expect another eight- or nine-win BYU team, only this time with the postseason destination uncertain because of no direct bowl tie-in.
8. Notre Dame can only get better. There's no way to call 2016 anything but a disaster. After going to the Fiesta Bowl in 2015 with an injury-plagued roster, the Fighting Irish crumbled despite having a second-round pick at quarterback in DeShone Kizer. The defense was especially a mess early on, resulting in the midseason firing of coordinator Brian VanGorder, and the Fighting Irish ended up going 4-8. Brian Kelly has had a few mediocre seasons as head coach at Notre Dame; this was by far the worst, coming right after he landed a contract extension. But after a hard-luck 2015 in terms of injuries, this was a hard-luck season in terms of results: Remarkably, seven of Notre Dame's eight losses came by eight points or less, giving the Irish a 1-7 record in close games. Combine that with a negative turnover margin, and significant improvement is inevitable. Will there be enough improvement to save Kelly?
9. Notre Dame replacing VanGorder with Mike Elko at defensive coordinator is one of the best coaching moves of the offseason. Elko did a terrific job at Wake Forest, working around talent disadvantages to generate pressure with a disruptive defense that forced turnovers. That was basically the opposite of what Notre Dame did defensively in 2016. The Demon Deacons had 41 sacks in 13 games, and Elko will be charged with sparking much-needed improvement in the Notre Dame pass rush after the Fighting Irish merely had 14 sacks in 12 games. Wake Forest also forced 27 turnovers, compared to 14 for Notre Dame. Elko inherits a defense that lacks proven D-line production, but sophomore DE Daelin Hayes in particular appears set for a breakout campaign. The Irish also have standouts in LB Nyles Morgan and safety Drue Tranquill. This is unlikely to become an elite unit right away, but at least expect some more havoc and disruption.
10. Despite last year's team struggles, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Stanford landed the Western Kentucky head coaching job. Kelly brought in Chip Long from Memphis as the new offense coordinator, and he'll be tasked with getting the most out of a potential star QB in Brandon Wimbush. A touted recruit, Wimbush played sparingly in 2015, then redshirted last year. With a big arm and mobility, he has a ton of potential, especially with the help of a solid line, led by stars Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey on the left side, and plenty of talent in the supporting cast, headlined by WR Equanimeous St. Brown, TE Alize Mack and RB Josh Adams. If Wimbush develops as expected, Notre Dame will be a top-25 team. Just how close the Irish can get to 2015's stellar results is tough to say. The path is not easy, with several toss-ups: The Irish have road games at Boston College, Michigan State, North Carolina, Miami and Stanford, and they host Georgia, USC, N.C. State and Navy. The bet here is that Kelly does enough to keep his job for 2018, but there's undoubtedly a sense of urgency and extreme pressure that will make the Irish one of the nation's most fascinating teams to watch this fall.
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1. Notre Dame 9-3
2. BYU 9-4
3. Army 7-5
4. Massachusetts 4-8
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