Independents College Football Season Preview & Predictions

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Notre Dame generally gets lumped in with the Power Five Conference teams, but the Fighting Irish, as we all know, do not have a conference affiliation when it comes to football. Annually, however, the Fighting Irish play one of the toughest schedules in college football and the 2019 season follows that same blueprint.

BYU, Army, UMass, New Mexico State, and Liberty are the others that don’t belong to a conference and are free to schedule whichever opponents they want. Sometimes that is a positive and sometimes it is a negative, as schools like UMass, New Mexico State, and Liberty willingly schedule games to be walked all over so that they can refill the athletic department coffers.

They aren’t alone, as many teams do this year in and year out, but it can lead to a lot of variance in the game spreads and a lot of games in which these schools don’t have a chance in hell of winning the game.

The Independents are sort of all over the map this season, as Notre Dame, BYU, and Army look poised for seasons that range from good to great. Liberty looks like a bowl contender with new head coach Hugh Freeze. UMass and New Mexico State are in for a very long season.

 

Independent Season Win Total Best Bet

BYU Over 6.5 (+110, BetOnline) – The BYU Cougars will be tested this season. Annual matchups against Utah, Utah State, and Boise State are the norm, but the Cougars also play USC, Tennessee, and Washington. Those are six extremely tough games, leaving the team next to no margin for error to go over the season win total. That being said, BYU gets Utah, USC, Washington, and Boise State at home, which does level the playing field a little bit.

This is also a year in which Boise State, San Diego State, and USC are down quite a bit, thus giving BYU more of a chance against those three foes, especially with two of those games at home. My personal power ratings and projected spreads leave BYU as a road favorite at San Diego State, albeit by a half-point, so it is a toss-up game. The Cougars also have what I project to be three easy wins over Liberty, Idaho State, and UMass.

We’ll need the Cougars to pull off an upset or two, but things are moving in the right direction. Kalani Sitake found a quarterback last year in true freshman Zack Wilson. He found the right OC in Jeff Grimes, as the Cougars went from 17.1 points per game to 27.2 points per game and also improved drastically in the turnover department.

A defense that allowed just 4.7 yards per play returns eight starters and the offense, with a second-year offensive coordinator, returns nine starters. South Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams isn’t a returning starter, but he had 70 carries for the Gamecocks last season.

My numbers have BYU with 7.16 wins, even with the brutal schedule. This is a deep, experienced team that now has the right quarterback and should improve in several facets with freshmen now sophomores and a lot of sophomore starters that are now juniors.

 

The Rest

Army Over 10 (-110, 5Dimes/BetOnline) – I went into my process thinking I would be worried about Army. Jeff Monken’s team has a 21-5 record over the last two seasons and 29 wins over the last three. Last season marked the first time ever that Army had back-to-back seasons with at least 10 wins. This is the most wins in a three-year span since 1944-46 when Earl Blaik ran the team and won three straight National Championships with a 27-0-1 record.

(This has nothing to do with the 2019 Black Knights, but the 1944 Cadets outscored the opposition 504-36; the 1945 Cadets outscored the opposition 412-46; the 1946 Cadets outscored the opposition 263-80, playing Notre Dame to a 0-0 tie at Yankee Stadium)

In other words, I expected regression. The loss of defensive coordinator Jay Bateman only fueled those thoughts in my mind. Then I saw the schedule. Army is rated 57th in my power ratings. In 13 games, Army is favored by double digits 10 times. The only obvious loss on the schedule is a visit to Ann Arbor on September 7, though no loss may be obvious after the Black Knights played right with Oklahoma last year in a 28-21 loss as a 30.5-point underdog.

Army will be laying doubles (in all likelihood) against Rice, UTSA, Morgan State, Tulane, Western Kentucky, Georgia State, San Jose State, UMass, VMI, and Navy in the season finale. They’ll be a road favorite at Hawaii and, in my estimation, at Air Force, though that game seems like more of a toss-up than anything else.

My numbers have Army down for 10.7 wins. Some sportsbooks have 9.5 lines with an insane amount of juice. It’s really hard to tie up money on those 9.5s at big vig for several months, but the worst-case scenario for Army is 10 wins.

Well, the worst-case scenario is that Kelvin Hopkins suffers a long-term injury and Army struggles in some of those games as a big favorite. After all, Army is replacing most of its key running backs and two offensive linemen. Still, the schedule is so bad that the Knights have a chance at another huge season, capped off by a win over Navy.

 

Notre Dame Under 9.5 (-150, BetOnline) – You can take a positively juiced under 9 at both Bookmaker and 5Dimes or shop around for other prices in the marketplace, but the schedule is tough for the Fighting Irish. We know that every year, but the Irish play not one, not two, but SEVEN teams coming off of bye weeks this season. Some of them aren’t very good, like New Mexico, Bowling Green, and Navy, but others could be tricky like Virginia Tech, Duke, and USC.

Fortunately for Notre Dame, USC and Stanford both appear to be down from their recent successes and so are programs like Virginia Tech and Duke. The game at Georgia looks like the most likely loss on the docket, with the game at Michigan not far behind. Even still, my numbers based on my projected spreads have Notre Dame with 8.82 victories this season. So, 9-3 is the most likely scenario, but 10-2 is also a distinct possibility, if the Irish run the table in every game they are favored.

My lean here is based on trusting my numbers, which may, admittedly, be a little low on the Irish. Ian Book is not in a timeshare or a quarterback battle anymore. It is his team. The Irish only have six returning starters on defense, but they have experience at every level and talent as well. Four returning starters are present on the offensive line, so Book should be well-protected.

Full disclosure, Notre Dame will probably get a boost when I reevaluate my power ratings closer to the season as position battles are settled and I take another look at all 130 teams. The Fighting Irish have a very high floor, but the ceiling appears to be capped as well. If they slip up in one game, it means 9-3, so the lean is to the under 9.5, but it is far from a strong position.

 

Liberty Over 5.5 (-135, 5Dimes) – Hugh Freeze doesn’t have the level of talent that he paid for at Ole Miss anymore, but the Liberty Flames aren’t a bottom-feeder by any means. After winning six games last season, but not going to a bowl because of the mandated FBS transitional phase, the Flames have their sights set on a bowl game this season with a new head coach.

To put it kindly, the opponents on the schedule are not tough. Games against Syracuse, Louisiana, BYU, and Virginia look like a challenge, but Liberty draws a depleted Buffalo team at home, FCS Hampton and Maine, New Mexico, New Mexico State twice, Rutgers, and UMass. My numbers have the Flames at 5.72 wins, so I’m not far off from this number, especially with the juice factored in, but Liberty would be much higher if not for six road games.

The Flames play three straight road games on October 26, November 2, and November 9 before the second of their two bye weeks. They’ll be on the road again at Virginia on November 23. The game against New Mexico State could be the difference between a bowl game and staying home and that is Liberty’s biggest favorite role against an FBS opponent.

Steven “Buckshot” Calvert is a good quarterback for Freeze to build his offense around and Frankie Hickson was a 1,000-yard rusher. Antonio Gandy-Golden was a 1,000-yard receiver. Freeze has some work to do with a defense that allowed nearly 37 points per game, but the schedule is weaker this season.

 

New Mexico State Under 3.5 (+115, 5Dimes) – Paycheck games against Washington State and Alabama, in which I have the Aggies getting 89 points worth of underdog spreads, will give Doug Martin’s team an 0-2 start. After that, the schedule is a lot more manageable, with Liberty twice, New Mexico, Incarnate Word, UTEP, and a trip to Central Michigan. Unfortunately, even with the bad schedule, I’ve only got the Aggies favored twice for the upcoming season. They’ll be a home favorite against Incarnate Word and Liberty.

New Mexico State served up 41.3 points per game last season. The Aggies may return 14 starts, but that was from a team that was outgained by 105 yards per game and went 3-9. Color me unimpressed. Maybe Josh Adkins takes some positive steps in his sophomore season, but the skill position talent is severely lacking around him and he’ll be running for his life behind an offensive line that allowed 40 sacks.

My numbers only give NMST credit for 3.12 wins, so this isn’t the strongest of plays. Four players had over 100 tackles for the Aggies last season and three of them are gone. The margin for error is very thin and four wins looks like a struggle for this bunch.

 

UMass Under 3.5 (-160, BetOnline) – The juice is largely prohibitive on a UMass under, but many people, myself included, have UMass ranked as a bottom-two team in the country from a power ratings standpoint. Andy Isabella is a hard player to replace and first-year head coach Walt Bell inherits a real ugly roster.

Ross Comis and Andrew Ford are both gone, so most of the year will be spent trying to find a quarterback. The hole left by Isabella is massive. He had 102 of the team’s 263 receptions last season. The top returning rusher had 25 carries last season. There are only eight starters back and only three on the defensive side. That may not be a bad thing for a new coaching staff installing new schemes, but starting from scratch doesn’t lend itself to many wins.

The schedule is hardly full of world-beaters, but UMass, unlike the other Independents, plays only one FCS opponent and plays six road games. My numbers actually have UMass down for just 2.82 wins. Considering they are dead last in my power ratings, that’s actually not bad, but the only favorite role outside of Southern Illinois is against UConn and the Minutemen may not even be favored when we get to that point.

UMass could be favored at home against Akron, but that’s about it. It will be a long year for Bell, who will serve as his own OC, and will have to dial up some magic to move the football down the field.

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