TGS 2018 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE INDEPENDENTS
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
Following is our preview of the Indies, which have expanded by two this season (New Mexico State and Liberty). Teams are listed in order of "power preference" with 2017 straight-up, spread, and over/under ("O/U") results included.
Notre Dame (2017 SUR 10-3; PSR 8-5; O-U 6-6-1)...In 2017, Notre Dame bounced back from a horrible 4-8 SU mark in 2016 to go 10-3 and score a January bowl win for the first time in a quarter century. The 2016 season was not only HC Brian Kelly’s first losing year in South Bend, it was also the only time in his eight seasons with the Irish that the team won fewer than eight games. Therefore, with 15 returning starters and some impact transfers coming onboard, the Irish have a chance to build on the 2017 recovery and step into the CFP Championship discussion again. Kelly has a 69-34 mark in South Bend, and last season’s turnaround allowed him some breathing room after the heat was turned up a notch by angry alumni with the collapse of 2016.
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The Domer offense, which ranked 7th in rushing while scoring 34 ppg in 2017, shredded the defense in the spring game, exploding for 913 total yds. on 123 plays. That performance came despite the fact that the squad lost a pair of offensive linemen on the first round to the NFL, top rusher Josh Adams to Philly as a free agent and their top TE and WR on the 4th and 6th rounds in the draft.
Junior Brandon Wimbush returns at QB, and although he completed just 49.5% of his passes, he was second on the team in rushing, and threw for 1870 yds. with a 16-6 TD-int. mark. Wimbush beat back a challenge for the starting position from jr. Ian Book, who threw a pair of TD passes to rescue the Citrus Bowl victory against LSU in last season’s bowl game. Explosive sr. RB Dexter Williams ran for 360 yards (9.2 ypc), and soph Tony Jones gained 5.3 ypc on his 44 totes.
The defense, which held foes to 21.5 ppg (31st in the country) but was a bit vulnerable at the back end, allowing 215 ypg passing a year ago, returns nine starters and will have a new coordinator. The third man to hold the o.c. position in the last three years is Clark Lea who takes over for Mike Elko (moved on to Texas A&M). Lea was on the staff with Elko for the Irish LY after both moved from Wake Forest for 2017. The scheme will be the same, but the “D” needs depth. The good news is that three players who might’ve tested the NFL waters remained in school, as LB Te’von Coney (ND’s top tackler LY), LB Drue Tranquill and DT Jerry Tillery (56 stops, 4½ sacks) are back and being shifted into position to replace key losses. The defense is confident and, other than being a bit thin at linebacker, has few worries despite what happened in the spring game.
Kelly’s recruiting has been solid over the current window (2015-18), and Notre Dame will be at home with a chance to avenge two of its three losses from last season (Miami and Stanford). The opener against Michigan is also in South Bend; if things break well, the regular-season finale in Los Angeles against the USC Trojans as the major hurdle standing between the Irish and a berth in the playoff.
Army West Point (2017 SUR 10-3; PSR 7-6; O-U 7-6)...HC Jeff Monken’s Black Knights might’ve peaked last year when they won the Commanders-in-Chief’s Trophy, beat Navy for 2nd straight season and went to their second bowl game under Monken . After all, key QB Ahmad Bradshaw, the team’s lynchpin the past few seasons, who ran for a school-record 1746 YR LY, will be enrolled but is awaiting a decision on being granted another year of eligibility. However, the coaching staff isn’t expecting him to play. With just three offensive starters returning, Monken will have to try and “plug-and-play” and hope his system can pick up with jr. Kevin Hopkins pulling the strings of Army’s option, which led the nation in rushing in 2017. Settling the QB situation and rebuilding the offensive line are the main concerns. Still, the Black Knights rushed for 4710 yds. and 50 TDs as a team a year ago, and seven backs who combined for 2685 YR and 32 TDs return along with sr. C Bryce Holland (26 starts in the last two years) to lead the offensive line.
Six of the top seven tacklers are among the eight starters returning from a defense that ranked 32nd in the nation last season. With six of last year’s front seven returning, d.c. Jay Bateman should be able to improve on his platoon’s 5.3 ypc allowance on the ground in 2017. Five seniors will start up front, including LB James Nachtigal, who led the team with 103 tackles in 2017. Nachtigal plays alongside jr. Cole Christiansen, who was second on the team with 84 stops last year. Six players started at least five games in the secondary last season for a unit that ranked 14th in passing yards allowed.
Monken’s team has won nine straight home or neutral games, and with winnable road games at Buffalo, San Jose St. and Eastern Michigan on the schedule, Army has a chance to qualify for its third straight bowl under Monken. If Bradshaw is eligible and committed to the team, then the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy could again reside at West Point. Pointspread note: Army is just 5-10 in its last 15 at Michie Stadium.
New Mexico State (2017 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-5-1; O-U 5-8)...NMS HC Doug Martin did what no Aggie coach had done in 56 years...lead the football team to a bowl game. The Aggies broke the longest such drought in the NCAA by going to (and winning) the Arizona Bowl in a thrilling 26-20 OT upset of Utah State.
The offense lost some skill players, as 6-5 WR Jaleel Scott (1079 receiving yards, 9 TDs LY) was drafted into the NFL, and QB Tyler Rogers (No. 2 career passer at NMS) graduated. RB Larry Rose III (4558 YR, 5.8 ypc, 42 TDs in an illustrious college career) also ran out of eligibility and is seeking employment in the NFL. That being said, Martin recruited juco hotshot Matthew Romero to compete with fifth-year senior Nick Jeanty (60%, 1028 YP, 6 TDP in three seasons as Rogers’ backup) for the QB slot. Romero looked impressive in the spring despite limited familiarity with the offense and likely has an inside lane to beating out Jeanty and three other contenders at QB. Jr. RB Jason Huntley had 420 YR with a snazzy 6.0 ypc in relief of Rose last season, and Royce Caldwell will add some speed to the backfield after making a move from wideout this spring. Five players return who combined for 177 receptions and 12 TD catches a year ago, and the receiving corps added three juco players who are hoping to get into the action in the aerial circus that is the Aggie spread attack.
The defense returns nine starters from a respectable crew that ranked in the middle of the national standings in rushing defense and was 49th in pass efficiency defense. Losing LB Dalton Herrington (team-high 134 tackles) is of concern, but 14 of the next 15 leading tacklers return to the stop unit, which was flexing its muscles in spring, leaving the coaching staff confident of impending improvement.
This season, Martin leads the Aggies from recent conference affiliations with the Sun Belt (and before that the WAC) into the realm of NCAA football independent. While much of the schedule is the same, with rivals New Mexico and UTEP joining three old Sun Belt foes on tap. However, trading “payday” visits to Arizona State and Arkansas for road games at Minnesota and BYU this season in addition to the unusual move of scheduling Liberty twice, it should be an easier road to a repeat bowl appearance for the Aggies. Pointspread note: NMS was 7-2 vs. the number outside of Sun Belt play and 10-4 off a loss the last two years.
BYU (2017 SUR 4-9; PSR 4-9; O-U 5-8)...Last year was a surprising disaster in Provo. After going 9-4 in HC Kalani Sitake’s first season in 2016 and averaging more than nine wins per season the previous 10 years and playing in 12 straight bowls, the Cougars collapsed under the weight of numerous injuries and fell to 4-9. The nine losses were the most for a BYU football team since 1955...that was before TGS began publishing!. Feeling a bit of heat with many boosters believing this might have been a blown hire by AD Tom Holmoe, and noting how quick the school parted with Gary Crowton after things went sour in 2004, Sitake shook up his coaching staff. The 118th-ranked offense saw all but one of its position coaches fired, as Sitake brought in LSU’s Jeff Grimes to coordinate the attack. With Grimes calling the shots, there will be a new system in place. Grimes has handled the offensive line and been a run game coordinator in the past, and has experience working at six Power Five schools on his resume (LSU, Virginia Tech, Colorado, Arizona State and Texas A&M).
One of the most notable and damaging Cougar injuries last season was to QB Tanner Mangum, who missed five games in 2017, including the final three after he injured his Achilles. Mangum saw limited action in spring while still recovering from the injury suffered at Fresno State November 4, and he will be challenged by Beau Hoge, Joe Critchlow and frosh Zach Wilson. Critchlow and Hoge combined to complete 74 of 140 passes for 899 yards with 5 TDs and 7 ints. in relief last season. Hoge himself was injured late in the season, opening the door for Critchlow to start the last three games. The offensive line needs some work, as three players who drew some interest from the NFL graduated, but Notre Dame transfer G Tristen Hoge comes on line after sitting out and will help. The backfield is three-deep at RB, if Squally Canada and Ula Tolutau are healthy. Those two combined for 1013 YR and eight TDs, and RS frosh Zach Katoa should eventually be an impact player along the lines of a Jamaal Williams, who had 1375 YR for the Cougs in 2016.
The defense lost top tackler LB Fred Warner to the San Francisco 49ers, but returns seven starters and this unit will again be the strength of the team. BYU gave up just 148 ypg rushing and a respectable 24.7 ppg, not bad considering the pressure the injury-hobbled offense put on it and the reversal from +12 net turnovers in 2016 to –10 in 2017. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki has made strides in improving this unit’s speed at linebacker in an effort to get more edge pressure from 6-9 DE Corbin Kaufusi (6 sacks LY) and OLB Sione Takitaki (5 sacks). The move of FS Zayne Anderson from free safety to OLB is a positive as well.
The schedule is tough. Five Power Five teams are on the schedule and road trips to Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah could all be losses. Plus, hosting road warrior Northern Illinois (35-14 SU on the road the last eight seasons) is never an easy task. Pointspread note: The Cougars are still 14-7 as road dogs the past seven seasons (though much of that in the Bronco Mendenhall years).
Massachusetts (2017 SUR 4-8; PSR 6-6; O-U 6-4-2)...UMass was very competitive despite 0-6 SU start, covering six of its last nine games, claiming Temple, Tennessee, Miss. State, BYU, Ga. Southern and App State. as pointspread victims. Head coach Mark Whipple was rewarded for his efforts with a contract extension through 2020. Clearly close counts in horse races, hand grenades and Minuteman football, because his 12-36 mark over the past five seasons would at least put coaches on the hot seat at most programs.
QB Andrew Ford (2924 YP, 22-4 TD-ints. LY; 5589 YP, 48 TDs last two seasons) keyed the nation’s 17th-ranked passing game. Ford returns along with eight other starters, the top five rushers and five of the top six pass receivers (combined 185 catches for 2570 yards). Sr. RB Marquis Young (982 YR, 9 TDs) and WR Andy Isabella (65 recs., 1020 yds., 10 TDs) are among the incumbent playmakers, and there is depth. Backup QB Ross Comis (646, 4-1) returns, Syracuse transfer RB Jordan Fredericks (team-high 607 YR with the Orange in 2015) is now eligible, soph WR Brennon Dingle had five catches for 105 yds. in the spring game (including the game-winning TD catch) and jr. WR Sadiq Palmer made 35 catches last season.
The defense showed progress after a slow start in 2017, the first season with d.c. Ed Pinkham calling the shots. In the second half of the year, the Minutemen improved, holding five straight foes to an average of 346 ypg before being buzzsawed by FIU in the season-finale. For the season, the defense gave up 405 ypg. Seventh-year sr. MLB Bryton Barr decided to give it another go after leading the team with 105 tackles in 2017. The DL will be re-tooled, but changes might be an improvement for a team that ranked 99th against the run (198 ypg, 4.9 ypc) and managed just 23 sacks. This unit will take some lumps (like when it visits Geogia in November...ouch!), but generally the schedule is lighter (Duquesne, Charlotte, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, Connecticut, Liberty) and expect more wins from Whipple’s charges this fall. Pointspread note: The Minutemen are 8-2 in their last 10 as a road dog.
Liberty (2017 SUR 6-5; PSR 1-0; O-U 1-0)...Jerry Falwell Jr.'s Liberty Flames are moving up to the big time, and it’s interesting to note they are 11-1 vs. points in stepping up against “real” teams over the past nine seasons. That includes LY’s stunning SU win over Baylor, the 13th biggest upset since 1950. Head coach Turner Gill is in his seventh season here after a successful run at Buffalo and a not-so-successful two seasons at Kansas (5-19 overall, 1-16 in Big 12 play). Liberty won’t be playing the likes of Gardner Webb, Presbyterian, Morehead State, Kennesaw St. or Monmouth going forward, so any previous stats must be taken with a grain of salt.
Gill has 16 starters returning, led by jr. QB Steven Calvert, who threw for 3363 yds. with a 29-6 TD-int. ratio last year. Calvert threw for 447 yards and 3 TDs and ran for another score in the upset of Baylor in last year’s opener, so can’t help but be impressed with that performance in Waco. The Florida native also has some credentials, being mentioned for the all-Dade County and all-State teams as a senior at Miami Carol City HS. The OL should be a strength, as four starters return from a group that allowed just 15 sacks in 465 passing plays last season. The offense lost top rusher from last year (Carrington Mosley; 938 YR, 9 TD), but jr. Frankie Hickson and sr. Kentory Matthews combined for 601 YR and 4 rushing TDs, so there should only be a little dropoff in the run game. No matter. The main focus of the offense is Calvert, and he welcomes back his top four receivers from last season, including WR B.J. Farrow and Antonio Gandy-Golden, who each caught 10 TD passes last year.
The defense has to be a bit of a worry for co-defensive coordinators Robert Wimberly and Vantz Singletary. The Flame defense poured gas on the fire more often than not a year ago. That unit allowed 30.4 ppg and 449 ypg last season, allowing 5.5 ypc on the ground. Those were all the worst numbers in either coaches current stint at Liberty with Gill. If Indiana State, Kennesaw State and Monmouth can average 46 ppg and 552 ypg against you, what chance do you have at getting a stop when you need it to get the cover at West Point, Virginia or Auburn this season?
Still, Liberty will likely be getting plenty of points this year, and Gill had success building up the Buffalo team at the MAC level. Calvert can sling it, and the Flames might come up in some favorable spots this fall. How many will they be catching at Auburn Nov. 17 in a sandwich between the Tigers’ visits to Georgia the week before and Alabama in the Iron Bowl the week after?
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