2013 Independents Preview
July 7, 2013
By Marc Lawrence
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With conference expansion maddeningly filling the college football airways these days, you might be surprised to learn the one loop that has grown the most the past three years is none other than the Independents.
When BYU declared its independence and joined Army, Navy and Notre Dame to form the FBS Independent ‘fighting four’ in 2011, the contingent is now up to a ‘skirmishing six’ with the additions of Idaho and New Mexico State this season.
By our math, that’s a 50% increase of members in two years.
And like last year when a member of the ‘fighting four’ had a say in college football’s title picture (the Irish fell to Alabama in the championship game), expect more of the same this year when these six Indy’s take a total of 40 opponents that landed bowl bids last season, with Notre Dame leading the charge against a whopping 11 bowlers.
Keep this thought in mind when handicapping the chances of these six INDEPENDENTS this season: Collectively, under their current head coaches, this contingent shines in games when taking points, going 56-44-1 ATS combined, including 19-8 ATS against foes off a SU and ATS loss, and 9-3 ATS as underdogs against an opponent with a losing record (8 wins straight up).
Then again, on the opposite side of the ladder, this sextet combined to go just 4-14 ATS as home chalk last season.
Regardless of how you approach handicapping this contingent this season, don’t be influenced by stories and promises from other parties. Stand your ground and remain Independent, if you know what I mean…
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
Team Theme: HIGH ON A FEELING
Loaded with 60 returning lettermen from a team that improved its offensive numbers nearly 40 YPG last season, head coach Rich Ellerson is high on his Black Knights. After assessing his team in spring camp, Ellerson gushed, “I’m really pleased with the progress we made. It was very combative… We made some tremendous gains physically.” The top rushing team in the land the last two years, Army returns leading RB Raymond Maples, the 3rd running back in school history to run for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons last year, and FB Larry Dixon who pounded the ground for 839 yards in 2012. Now if they can just improve on a 2-18 SU mark against fellow service academies since 2003, morale will be sky-high at West Point.
Stat You Will Like: Army has won 6 Commander-In-Chief trophies, the last in 1996.
PLAY ON: vs. Navy (12/14)
Team Theme: BRONCO RESTORATION
Hired on after the Cougars suffered through three consecutive losing seasons back in 2005, Bronco Mendenhall not only put the program back on a winning track but has also elevated it to all-time high levels (see ‘Stat You Will Like’ below). As a result of winning an average 9.25 games per season, Mendenhall fields one of only four teams in the land to win four bowl games the last four years. Not satisfied, he brings in five new offensive coaches this season, including former OC Robert Anae. Should the offensive unit improve like the defense did last season (No. 3 in the nation), the 20 seniors on this squad figure to go out winners again as the restoration process at the ‘Y’ continues.
Stat You Will Like: Bronco Mendenhall owns the highest win percentage (.718) of any football coach in BYU history.
PLAY ON: vs. Utah (9/21)
Team Theme: COMING HOME
When Idaho hired Paul Petrino, it appeared to be an odd fit. Why would a high-profile coach who’s been the master architect (offensive coordinator) of major powerhouses at Arkansas, Illinois and Louisville move to Moscow to make his head-coaching debut? It turns out that Petrino was an assistant with Idaho from 1992-94 and loves the area. Born and raised in Butte, Montana, he’s at home in Vandal country. Unfortunately, he inherits the nation’s worst offense, a team that averaged just 15.8 PPG in 2012. That doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm, however. “We want to score a whole bunch of points, be explosive on offense and hit that quarterback on defense. We want to win a whole bunch of games and go to bowls.” However, with little talent on hand, Petrino will likely have to ‘want on’ in his first season.
Stat You Will Like: The Vandals are 3-13 ATS as home favorites, including 1-11 ATS off a loss.
PLAY AGAINST: at New Mexico State (11/30)
Team Theme: IN THE NAVY, NOW
Long the laughingstock of the military academies, the Middies have made a u-turn of dramatic proportions since going 3-30 from 2000-02. That’s confirmed by an 83-45 mark the last 10 years – and their 19-2 record in games against other military schools over the same period has turned the laughs into wows. Last year, QB Keenan Reynolds became the first freshman to start behind center for the Middies since 1991. With Reynolds at the controls, the Swabbies’ 5 losses in 2012 came at the hands of foes that were 44-19 on the season. For a team that was ranked No. 2 last year and No. 1 in 2011 in fewest penalties per game, Navy has suddenly become a now-team.
Stat You Will Like: Navy’s 19 wins versus BCS schools since 2003 is the most in the nation by a non-BCS team.
PLAY ON: at Duke (10/12)
NEW MEXICO STATE (7/7)
Team Theme: MY FAVORITE MARTIN
Thank goodness for Georgia State. Were it not for the Panthers making their FBS debut this season, the Aggies would be, hands-down, the dregs of college football. And with the announcement that redshirt junior QB Andrew Manley has been granted a release to transfer, they still might be. While he may not own up to it, Manley started all 12 games last season, throwing for 2,764 yards and 18 TDs. The good news is the entire starting cast of OL returns. The bad news is that the entire starting cast of OL returns. New head coach Doug Martin, a former 7-year head coach at Kent State, was the OC at Boston College last year and OC here with New Mexico State in 2011. Note: those two teams finished 47th and 26th in passing offense under his lead.
Stat You Will Like: The Aggies are 0-9-1 ATS as home favorites of less than 9 points.
NOTRE DAME (5/8)
Team Theme: 4-LEAF CLOBBER
Brian Kelly was in select company last season when he became the 5th coach in Irish history with a chance to win the national championship in his third-year at the school. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz each accomplished the feat. Kelly did not. The luck of the Irish – half of the Dame’s 12 wins were by single-digit margins – ran out when they were battered from pillar-to-post in a 42-14 annihilation at the hands of Alabama in the BCS title game. A brutal schedule in 2013 finds them taking on 11 teams that went to bowl games last season. Complicating matters is the suspension of starting QB Everett Golson for academic reasons. Senior QB Tommy Rees with 18 career starts under his belt looks to fill Golson's shoes provided, of course, the school assigns him a designated driver.
Stat You Will Like: The last 10 teams to lose a BCS title game have not returned to win it since that loss.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Michigan (9/7)