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July 9, 2012
By Marc Lawrence
With college football conference expansion filling much of the airways these days, and talk of a presidential election just around the corner, it's refreshing to find one college FBS affiliation that is not into all the rhetoric… at least for the time being.
That would be the Independents who, like the Libertarian party in the world of politics, love doing their own thing.
After increasing membership a whopping 25% when BYU declared its independence and joined Army, Navy and Notre Dame to form the FBS Independent 'fighting four' in 2011, the same members return in 2012.
Like last year when the Independents had a small say in the title picture, expect the fearsome foursome to have a say on the participants that will be invited to BCS bowl games this year as these Indy's take on a total of 23 opponents that landed bowl bids last season.
Rest assured, without a conference affiliation, this self-governing group holds plenty of veto power when it comes to dashing the dreams of many BCS Championship Game aspirants.
And when handicapping the chances of these four INDEPENDENTS this season, keep this thought in mind: Collectively this contingent has shone in games under their current head coaches when taking points (as underdogs), going 55-32 ATS (Against The Spread) combined, including 24-6 ATS against foes off a straight-up and pointspread loss, and 12-1 ATS as 'dogs against an opponent with a losing record - with 10 wins coming in straight up fashion.
As they like to say in this loop, regardless of how and whom you plan on voting this year it might serve you well to think as 'independently' as possible this fall, if you know what I mean.
Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
ARMY - (*6/8)
Team Theme: MEN OF STEEL
As outlined on this page last year, the Cadets were hit heavily with graduation losses in 2010 and were forced to play more freshmen than any team in the country last season. Fortunately, SR QB Trent Steelman is back behind center for the 4th straight season. He looks primed to enjoy one of the more prolific offensive seasons in academy history in 2011 while commanding an attack that returns its top seven rushers from a team that led the country overland last year. To succeed, however, the Black Knights will need to shore things up defensively with a unit that excites head coach Rich Ellerson. "It's a much more physically mature group. That bodes well for us."
Stat You Will Like: The Cadets are 1-17 SU versus service academies since 2003.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Air Force (11/3)
BYU - (*7/7)
Team Theme: THE LIFE OF RILEY
Little did Bronco Mendenhall realize when he was forced to switch QB's from Jake Heaps to backup Riley Nelson in Game Four of the season last year that Riley would finish the season as the nation's No. 16 ranked signal caller in passing efficiency. Riley returns for his senior season with a strong SR and JR class, including a pair of DL with three years of starting experience who are returning from missionary duty. Interestingly, they will open the season at home against former alum Mike Leach and his Washington State Cougars while also looking to avenge their worst series loss since 1922 to state rival Utah last season, a game which Riley watched mostly from the sidelines.
Stat You Will Like: The Cougars are one of only two schools in the nation to have both its football and basketball head coaches in the Top 10 in winning percentage among active coaches.
PLAY ON: at Utah (9/15)
NAVY - (4/8)
Team Theme: FIRST UP
After eight straight bowl seasons, the Academy was primed for another assault on the gridiron when the torpedoes jammed. After opening 2-0, a six-game losing skid kept them home for the holidays. To get back, they'll have to overcome a lot of 'firsts' in 2012: first game of the season in Dublin against the Irish (ND, that is), first meeting with Penn State since 1974 and a first time-ever in the Army series that a team would win 11 straight contests. It's no surprise that the disciplined Middies were the least penalized team in the land in 2011, nor will it be a surprise to see them take advantage of the nation's softest schedule in 2012. However, first things first!
Stat You Will Like: The Midshipmen were 5-0 SU when leading after the first quarter, and 0-7 SU when tied or trailing after the first quarter last year.
PLAY ON: at East Carolina (10/27)
NOTRE DAME - (*8/6)
Team Theme: FEAR NO EVIL
Give the Irish their due. They may still be an Independent refusing to align with a conference but by season's end, in three years under Brian Kelly, they will have squared off against 27 foes that participated in bowl games, including all six home opponents this year. Thus, it's no surprise to find five preseason Top 25 squads on the 2012 slate. If they can keep him out of jail, QB Tommy Rees will lead an experienced, high-powered attack that gained more than 500 yards on five occasions last year (though he figures to be pressed by prize recruit, Gunner Kiel). Now if only Kelly can conjure up some better halftime speeches (1-7 with Irish when trailing at the half)!
Stat You Will Like: The Irish will face opponents that complied an 86-55 ATS ledger last season, the 2nd best in the nation.