I-A Independents Preview
Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and Temple are the last of a dying breed. The once populous major college independent ranks, as high as 25 teams just a quarter century ago, are now down to just this quartet, and Temple's term as an Indy will be a short-lived one season. The Owls will move to the Mid-American Conference in 2006.
Last year Notre Dame and Navy earned bowl bids. Both teams face heavy rebuilding jobs on the defensive side and will struggle to become bowl eligible. Meanwhile, Army continues to slowly improve back toward mediocrity under second year coach Bobby Ross. Temple actually faces a tougher schedule now that they have been exiled from the Big East. Nine Owl opponents enjoyed winning records last year and eight went to bowl games. Clemson would have been invited and made it nine if not for the season-ending melee with arch-rival South Carolina.
There is no organized Independent media poll, so I cannot tell you how these four teams have been officially picked to finish. There isn't much competition here, so it comes as no surprise that Notre Dame starts the season rated highest among this group followed by Navy, Army, and Temple.
Notre Dame becomes the first team in this series of articles to earn more than three points home field advantage. The Irish rate a five in this spot. The other three schools get three as that is the minimum. If I doled out less, Temple might actually get no points in this category. They routinely draw 15,000 fans to cavernous Lincoln Financial Field (capacity around 70k); sometimes, over half of these patrons are fans of the opponent.
1. Notre Dame PiRate: 106 HFA: 5
Former New England Patriots offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis took a slightly above-average group of offensive players in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and he led them to back-to-back and three out of four Super Bowl Championships. In his first year in South Bend, he inherits an offense that returns all 11 starters from last year! The Irish will have to score points quickly this season, as their defense has been decimated, losing eight starters and a few key backups.
Weis finds himself working with another quarterback named Brady. Brady Quinn (photo right from Getty Images) returns after completing better than 54 percent of his passes last year good for close to 2,600 yards with a TD/Int ratio of 17/10. Look for his numbers to improve a good bit this year. If he stays healthy and starts all 11 regular season games, I look for his accuracy to approach 60 percent and his passing yardage to top 3,000. Quinn will have a bevy of quality receivers to work with this year. Anthony Fasano is the most prolific pass-catching tight end at Notre Dame since Ken MacAfee was receiving spirals from Joe Montana. Rhema McKnight has snared 89 passes in the last two years; in the new offense, he could come close to equaling that production this year. Notre Dame has two other receivers who can break open a game with a big play. Maurice Stovall has a flare for the dramatic making multiple acrobatic catches last season. Collierville, Tennessee, native Matt Shelton reminds me of a smaller version of former Colorado receiver Jeremy Bloom. The track star has a history of knee injuries, but when he was healthy last year, he averaged in excess of 25 yards per reception.
The Notre Dame running game averaged less than 130 yards per game last season, and it may produce only a little bit more this year. The difference is last year's rushing game produced only 3.3 yards per attempt while this year the same total yardage may average around four yards a pop. Tailback Darius Walker set the all-time Irish record for yards rushing by a freshman when he scampered for 786 yards last year. Fullback Rashon Powers-Neal can sneak through the middle of the line on a quick trap and sting defenses for a quick six. He can also fill in at tailback.
The Notre Dame starting offensive line could all be playing in the NFL one day. Center John Sullivan is equally tough blocking for the run and the pass. Guards Bob Morton and Dan Stevenson are both quick and strong. Tackles Ryan Harris and Mark Levoir have strong hands and good feet.
Defensively, Notre Dame finds themselves short on experience. One starter returns in the defensive line, one at linebacker, and one in the secondary. The Irish surrendered 281 yards per game through the air in 2004, and allowed opposition QBs to throw for close to 60% accuracy. To be fair, Notre Dame faced some excellent signal callers last year, such as Matt Leinart, Chad Henne, Kyle Orton, Paul Peterson, Tyler Palko, and Derek Anderson.
Last year Notre Dame averaged 24 points and gave up 24 points. I see them scoring 30 points per game this year and giving up 28 to 33. Look for another down year.
2. Navy PiRate: 94 HFA: 3
The Midshipmen are the only team in all I-A football to return fewer total lettermen than they lost last season. Only two starters return on offense and four return on defense. Last year, Navy won 10 games for the first time in their storied history including a victory over New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl.
Coach Paul Johnson (AP photo at left), king of the spread option offense, will coax enough production out of his inexperienced sailors to score 20-25 points this year. His defense gave up just 20 points per game in 2004, but don't expect a repeat in 2005. The Midshipmen have holes in their bough at linebacker and in the secondary. Not getting the benefit of practicing against any quarterbacks who can emulate the passers they will see hurts the pass defense. Navy will surrender well over 60% completions and 200-250 yards per game.
Quarterback Lamar Owens has a little experience running the Navy option offense. Subbing for Aaron Polanco last year, he got into six games rushing for 115 yards and passing for 38 on two completions in five attempts. He is actually the leading returning rusher, as the top four rushers from last year are now officers in the United States Navy.
An opening game in Baltimore against in-state rival Maryland highlights a slightly tougher schedule than the one the Midshipmen faced last year. It will be difficult to return to a bowl, as Navy may have to beat Army to get their sixth victory and still may come up one short.
3. Army PiRate: 88 HFA: 3
The Black Knights improved quite a bit last year in Coach Bobby Ross's first season on the Hudson River. Only 10 starters return this year, but look for this group of Cadets to continue to improve and possibly flirt with a winning record. The great annual season finale in Philadelphia could have bowl implications, but I think they are still one year away.
The Black Knights ran for 176 yards and threw for 206 yards per game last year as members of Conference USA. With their newly independent status comes an easier schedule. Even with several key contributors lost, Army could actually match or exceed those numbers this year.
Quarterback Zac Dahman will be given more opportunities to sprint out and roll out on the perimeter this year with an option to run or pass. Dahman is a hard-nosed Cadet who isn't afraid to stay in bounds and get an extra yard or two.
Carlton Jones (AP Photo at right) rushed for 1,269 yards at a 6.1 average per carry last year. He flourished in Ross's two-back offense, after playing in a one-back scheme his first two seasons. Gone is fullback Tielor Robinson, who kept linebackers inside conscious, allowing Jones to spring off-tackle. New fullback Mike Viti isn't the runner Robinson was, but at 5-10 and 242 pounds, he is a much better blocker.
Dahman should have a couple of skilled receivers to keep defenses from loading up the front lines in an attempt to stop Jones. Jeremy Trimble is a threat to go the distance every time he catches the ball. Jacob Murphy doesn't have blinding speed, but he finds seams in the secondary.
The major question mark with the USMA offense is the offensive line. Four new starters will join center Pete Bier, who moves over from guard.
Defensively, Army has loads of experience in the secondary, adequate experience in the trenches. but no experience returning at linebacker. All three are starters gone, including Greg Washington, who led the nation with an average of nearly 14 tackles per game.
4. Temple PiRate: 84 HFA: 3
The Owls were not wanted in the Big East, but the Mid American Conference extended an invitation to join next year. Temple will play four MAC teams this season; unfortunately, they must play three of the four powers of the league (Toledo, Bowling Green, Miami). In addition, The Owls must pay visits to Arizona State, Wisconsin, Clemson, Virginia, and Navy. It looks like another long year, and it could spell the end for Coach Bobby Wallace, who has compiled a record of 19 and 60 in seven years in Philadelphia.
Defensively, Temple returns a solid nucleus from last season. The Owls gave up 36.3 points and 439 total yards per game in 2004. They allowed over 65% of opponent passes to be completed, while giving up five yards per rush. With the tougher schedule, those numbers could actually get worse.
The Temple offense has been consistent in the last five seasons, averaging between 18 and 22 points each year. They could match those numbers if quarterback Mike McGann can return to form after missing all but one game last year due to injury. MTSU fans can remember McGann coming off the bench in Murfreesboro in 2003 and torching the Blue Raiders.
Brian Holley, Jamel Harris, and Brian Allbrooks are decent but not flashy receivers. Temple should be able to top 200 yards per game through the air.
Tailback TIm Brown was expected to run for 1,000 yards last year after rushing for 1,354 at 8.0 yards per carry for the top junior college in the nation in 2003. Brown gained 432 yards and grabbed 33 passes.
Temple will struggle this year. Only a home game against Western Michigan guarantees the Owls won't go 0-11.
If All Games Were Played September 1st
(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)
Notre Dame 5-6