2018 Independents Preview

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Declaration Of Independence

During its first six years of being an independent team BYU won 52 games, with never fewer than 8 victories in any one season. Last year, however, the Cougars’ fortune suffered a major plummet, winning just 4 games behind an offense that ranked that ranked No. 118 in the nation – worse than Kansas, Rice and Ball State. It was BYU’s first losing season since 2004, making them a true “mission team” - in more ways than one - this campaign.

If QB Tanner Magnum is good enough to fend off true freshman Zach Wilson the Cougars could find themselves bowling by season’s end. If not head coach Kalani Sitake could be issued a declaration of departure. Stay tuned.

Ups And Downs

The ranks of football independents have increased and decreased with each passing season since 2011, when BYU left the Mountain West Conference.

It increased by two teams in 2013 when the Western Athletic Conference dropped football, paving the way for the inclusion of New Mexico and Idaho. Then is 2014 it lost two teams when Idaho and New Mexico State became football only members of the Sun Belt Conference. In 2015 Navy bolted for the American Athletic Conference as a football-only entrant. 2016 saw the addition of UMass, with New Mexico State returning in 2017. The new kids on the block, Liberty, join the Independents in 2018 as the revolving door continues to swing like a turnstile.

Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

ARMY (Offense – 6/2, Defense – 8/1, 47 Lettermen)


Thanks to a 10-win effort last year, just the second of all-time, Army celebrated consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1990. Yet they managed it despite going backwards on both sides of the ball. The formula was simple: The Black Knights were the No. 1 team in the nation in Rushing Offense, as well as the No. 3 team in Red Zone Defense. This season they will put a new quarterback behind a rebuilding offensive front line. And while the defense returns a good portion of last year’s starters, it loses its two best playmakers in DE John Voit and LB Alex Aukerman. Having to tackle only 3 bowlers this season is a good thing. Facing only one losing foe away from home is not.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Last year was only the second time that Army defeated Navy and won a bowl game in the same year.


BYU (Offense – *7/1, Defense – 7/3, 62 Lettermen)


A combination of youth and inexperience, with 25 members of the two-deep missing time with injuries, contributed to a rare losing season for the Cougars last year. It marked their first losing campaign since 2004, making them a true “mission team” in every sense of the word this season. And it could well be lights-out for head coach Kalani Sitake should BYU continue to regress on both sides of the ball for a third-straight year under his watch. Worse, only four foes on last year’s itinerary owned winning seasons the previous year. More concerning is that in two seasons under Sitake, the Cougars have forgotten how to pass the football. Fortunately, senior QB Tanner Magnum returns after a ruptured Achilles tendon curtailed his season last year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Magnum passed for 3,377 yards in 2015 – Bronco Mendenhall’s final season as BYU head coach.

PLAY ON: vs. Utah State (10/5) - *KEY

LIBERTY (Offense – *9/3, Defense – 7/2, 44 Lettermen)


Liberty makes its FBS debut in 2018 and if the name sounds familiar, it should. The Flames torched Baylor, 48-45, as 34-point dogs in Waco in their season opener last year. The good news is head coach Turner Gill, the former Nebraska star QB, has had a winning record each of the six years he’s been in Lynchburg. The bad news is he was 25-49 at two other FBS schools (Buffalo and Kansas) before becoming the lead Flame. Gill did mange to win the MAC title in 2008. He also beat Coastal Carolina when the Chanticleers were No. 1 in the FCS at the time. And for what it’s worth, LU returns 81% of its overall production from last season, seventh in the FBS. Bon voyage.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Conference USA and the Sun Belt turned down Liberty, the nations’ largest private university, for admission.


NEW MEXICO STATE (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 9/4, 49 Lettermen)


Doug Martin was another head coach on the hot seat last season, sporting a 10-38 record in four seasons with NMSU. Last year’s surprising 7-win bowl effort staved off the inevitable, though. It was the first bowl season in 57 years for the Aggies – the longest drought of all FBS teams – and it was capped off with a win over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl. With that, Martin will finally have a chance to rely on a defense that improved over 100 YPG last season as just about everyone’s back for DC Frank Spaziani. So dramatic was the improvement that the Aggies yielded 500 yards in only two games last campaign – after coughing up a nickel or more 26 times in five previous seasons under Martin’s direction. Best of all the Aggies will go up against easiest schedule of all FBS schools in 2018 with foes going 54-91 (.372) last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Recently graduated four-year starting RB Larry Rose III rushed for 4,558 yards and 37 TDs in his career at NMSU.

PLAY ON: vs. Georgia Southern (10/20)

NOTRE DAME (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 9/3, 46 Lettermen)


As expected, the Irish bounced back from a disastrous 4-win effort in 2016 to a 10-win campaign last season. That cleansed a sour taste left from an underachieving November – a pattern that head coach Brian Kelly has recently developed (see Stat You Will Like below). Meanwhile, the Dame was hit extra hard by offseason losses with 3 NFL defections (among 4 players selected in the draft, including two All-American 1st-rounders from the left side of the offensive line), 12 returning starters and 14 players from the 2-deep now gone. In addition, five senior starters from the defense also graduated. Kelly will turn back to QB Brandon Wimbush, who will need to find receivers from a depleted unit. Despite Kelly’s insistence that this could be one of his best squads at Notre Dame, we three Hail Mary’s are in order.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since 2011, Kelly has won only 10 of 24 games played from Halloween on out.

PLAY ON: vs. Stanford (9/29)

UMASS (Offense – *10/4, Defense – 6/1, 47 Lettermen)


Last year’s 0-6 start lowered the Minutemen’s mark to 2-22 SU in the first six games of the season under HC Mark Whipple. The good news, though, is UMass rallied to close 4-2, lending promise to the 2018 season ahead. However, they’ll need to overcome a death-knell-like 3-14 record in one-possession games under Whipple in order to turn the corner. Behind a loaded offense that returns QB Andrew Ford (22 TDs and 4 INTs last season) and nearly his entire front wall, the turn signal has been activated. As our ‘Stat You Will Like’ below indicates, last year’s unit left a mark in school history behind a bevy of youngsters that witnessed 33% of all starts by underclassmen. Sound the alert... here come the Minutemen.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Minutemen gained more yards than they allowed last year for the first time since becoming an FBS team in 2012.