2019 Independents Preview

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Sitake’s Ups And Downs

During its first six years as an independent team, BYU won 52 games, with never fewer than 8 victories in any one season. In 2017, however, the Cougars’ fortunes suffered a major plummet, winning just 4 games behind an offense 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 – in 2018.

The Mormons rebounded, as expected, in its mission season last year, when the routed Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It marked the first time the team actually improved both is offensive and defensive numbers from one year to the next under Kalani Sitake.

Status Quo

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 in 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. Liberty joined the Independents in 2018 as the revolving door continued to swing like a turnstile. Now, however, for the first time in seven years, the same 6 teams comprise the Independents this season that did in 2018.

The numbers following each team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. The RPR represents each team’s overall, offensive and defensive rankings in overall returning production experience.

ARMY (Offense - *7/3, Defense - 4/0, RPR: 47/16/102)


How does a team that won 11 games last season for the first time, took Oklahoma to the wire before falling in overtime and hammered Houston, 70-14, in the Armed Forces Bowl, tying the FBS record for the most lopsided result in a bowl game, improve on those kinds of numbers? We’re not sure it’s possible but we do know the Black Knights are one of only two teams that will face only three opponents that owned a winning record last year (UAB the other). Then consider this: Army has defeated Navy and won a bowl game the same year four times. They’ve gone 9-3, 10-3 and 11-2 the following seasons. Stay tuned.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After bowling just two times in 27 years, the Cadets have now done so three years in a row.


BYU (Offense - *9/4, Defense - 8/3, RPR: 65/48/85)


To his credit, Kalani Sitake went with a youth-infusion during last year’s “mission season” and it looks as if it’s going to pay off in spades in 2019. That’s because the Cougars’ freshmen started the 4th most amount of games in 2018 (22.1%). Defensively, BYU returns 8 starters from a unit that ranked No. 18 in total defense. In addition, the special teams unit was 4th best in the nation last year according to ESPN. QB Zach Wilson returns after starting the final seven games in 2018. Wilson was a perfect 18 for 18 for 317 yards and 4 TDs in last year’s bowl win over Western Michigan.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: For the first time in their history, BYU and Utah meet to open the season. The Cougars blew a 20-0 halftime lead in an 8-point loss to the Utes last year.

PLAY ON: vs. Utah (8/29)

LIBERTY (Offense - *9/4, Defense - 7/2, RPR: 25/19/52)


After successfully debuting as the “New Kids On The Block’ last season, the Flames suddenly welcome an experienced unit back in 2019 as they evolve from ”Boys to Men.” They enter Year Two in FBS waters having gone 94-55 the past thirteen seasons – all six-plus win years – and would be bowl eligible should they continue the skein in 2019. A nasty 4 game road trek starting in late October will be the real test as to whether or not they are, indeed, bowl worthy. Meanwhile, new head coach Hugh Freeze has risen from the ashes to take over the program knowing it will be hard to top last year’s 52-10 over Old Dominion in their FBS debut.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Hugh Freeze is 17-5 ATS versus non-conference foes, including 10-1 ATS versus foes coming off a loss.

PLAY ON: at UMass (11/2)

NEW MEXICO STATE (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 6/2, RPR: 58/20/109)


After playing in and winning its first bowl game-ever in 2017, it appeared that the Aggies had finally broke on through to the other side. After all, 57 years is a long, long time between drinks of water. The defense improved over 100 yards per game and nine of those starters were back. And then just as injuries, death, and taxes will do, the grim reaper rolled in and reminded Frank Martin that success is never a given. Now after a dreadful return to the mean in 2018, NMSU is tasked with getting things back to where they were two years ago. A deeply experienced offense becomes the starting point as the ascent begins.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Martin is 1-10 ATS in his career in conference games when coming off a SU favorite loss.

PLAY ON: at New Mexico (9/21)

NOTRE DAME (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 6/2, RPR: 97/86/95)


Notre Dame had visions of a perfect season last year until they crossed paths with Clemson in a CFP semifinal game in the Cotton Bowl. Nonetheless, the Fighting Irish holds the college football record with 42 straight winning seasons from 1889-1932. A quick check of the calendar reminds us it will be at least 2059 should they tie that record, provided they put 40 more winning seasons in a row together between now and then. Before we get ahead of ourselves, QB Ian Book returns this year along with four starting OL and two of their top three wide receivers. With no back-to-back away games, they’ll be as popular as ever in 2019.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since 2011, Kelly has won only 14 of 29 games played from Halloween on out.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Michigan (10/26) - *KEY as a favorite

UMASS (Offense - 5/2, Defense - 5/3, RPR: 128/121/114)


When Mark Whipple stepped down as head coach at the conclusion of last season, the Minutemen hired promising young coach Walt Bell. A former assistant at Maryland, Florida State, Southern Miss, and Arkansas State, Bell inherits a bare-bones roster that was gutted by graduation losses. Gone is star WR Andy Isabella, drafted in the 2nd round of the draft by Arizona, along with both starting QBs, their leading rusher and five of its top six defenders. It’s one thing to take over a program familiar with winning. It’s another to seize one that is allergic to winning. Remember, they were loaded with returning starters last season and lost twice as many games as they won.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since entering the FBS, the Minutemen are 5-1 ATS as underdogs of 29 or more points.