Notre Dame and independents college football offseason preview

Notre Dame football is one of the most widely followed college football programs in the country. To say that Notre Dame’s fan base is passionate is a gross understatement. The school’s historic success in the sport of football has spawned multiple fan bases, including the independent (ND) community.

The college football offseason has a way of transforming a head coach’s thoughts on a few key players. At the start of the season, Bob Diaco had an affinity for defensive end Stephon Tuitt. In a closer look at the Irish defense, Diaco thought the second-year defensive end was still a work in progress, but still had the potential to be a fine player. At this point of the season, Diaco has a different opinion on Tuitt. If the Irish defensive end stays healthy, Diaco believes Tuitt could make a big impact this year.

has always been very different for a club of seven independent FBS teams, but the year with the coronavirus created a series of destinies that could not have been more different. Two independents withdrew completely from the fall season (New Mexico State and UConn), while a third withdrew first and then suffered several setbacks (UMass). The most famous of all independent teams (Notre Dame) joined the ACC for one year, almost won, then went back to non-conference status while the other two teams had almost unprecedented success: BYU and Liberty had a combined 21-2 record and finished the year ranked 11th and 17th, respectively, in the AP rankings. Meanwhile, the Army, led by Jeff Monken, moved forward as if the outside world hadn’t changed one iota. Notre Dame and BYU are expected to replace key parts in 2021, Liberty has a potential first round quarterback, Army has more returning players than usual, and overall the three worst teams remain the three worst. Let’s take a look at each team. Each week throughout the summer, Bill Connelly will preview the upcoming Group 5 and Power 5 divisions, which will eventually include all 130 FBS teams, exclusively for ESPN+. The previews include a breakdown for 2020, previews for 2021 and a brief history of each team in a handy chart. The series currently covers the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East, and the upper and lower halves of the AAC. Go on: New Mexico UMass UConn Army BYU Liberty Notre Dame After missing the fall season and competing in only a few games in the spring, Doug Martin enters his ninth year in Las Cruces with a nearly new team and few serious signs of hope. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 130. Expected record: 2-10

  • Probable victories* : Dixie State (77% chance of winning)
  • Relative pulses : UMass (41%), UTEP (40%)
  • Probable losses : Utah State (25%), New Mexico (21%), Hawaii (14%), Hawaii (8%), SDSU (4%), SJSU (3%), Nevada (3%), Kentucky (1%), Alabama (0%).

* Win probabilities are those matches where SP+ predicts a point difference of more than seven points or a win probability of more than 65%. Probable loss is the opposite, and relative tie is all the games in between. 2 Connected There are five teams on the schedule that will be worse than 120th SP+. This gives hope for some victories….. But even those teams see NMSU as a likely winner.

What we learned about NMSU in 2020

Nothing particularly good. Martin has openly treated the Aggies’ two spring games as an experiment to wake up as many guys as possible. He testified: They were defeated 43-17 by Tarleton State and needed a touchdown in the final minute to beat Dixie State. NMSU enters the fall with few regulars for 2019 and a defense that has allowed 1,010 yards to two FCS freshmen. This is not the best situation. At least the offensive line will be strong. Left guard (and first choice in the Canadian Football League) Sage Dockstater is the team’s most proven talent, center Eli Johnson is a transfer from Ole Miss, and the line has both size and experience. RBs Juwaun Price and Alex Escobar are averaging 5.9 yards per carry this spring. They still need a QB – Jonah Johnson, Weston Eget or likely rookie Trevor Appelman – to step up, and the defense remains a black hole. But having a good figure is better than having none.

What we didn’t learn about NMSU in 2020

The best way forward. NMSU very much enjoys playing premier league football and will continue to do so for as long as possible. And, who knows, maybe another wave of conference realignment will save the Aggies from independence in the coming years. However, the glory of the 2017 Arizona Bowl remained far in the rearview mirror, and things looked pretty bleak this spring. Martin’s contract expires after this season, and the school will likely hire someone else to try to push the rock back up.

NMSU history in a table

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. After racing for nearly 3,000 yards in college, Charlie Johnson became NMSU’s most successful player at the professional level, with 24,410 yards and a spot in the Pro Bowl.
  2. Johnson was behind center when the Aggies went 11-0 in 1960, won the Sun Bowl and were 17th in the AP poll.
  3. The last time NMSU finished more than one game above .500 was in 1967, when Warren Woodson’s last Aggies team went 7-2-1.
  4. The long, slow decline has reached its nadir: From 1984 to 1991, NMSU went 10-78. Then began a noticeable, albeit small, increase.
  5. Arizona Cup 2017: one of my best soccer memories in recent memory. NMSU defeated Utah State in extra time, and fans ran onto the field like it was a national championship game. Glorious.

word-image-3451 About 2,000 miles northeast of Las Cruces, another program is struggling with an existential crisis, with no permanent home in the conference and, judging by what we saw on the field last fall, a minimal amount of proven talent. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 129. Expected record: 3-9

  • Probable victories* : Rhode Island (66% chance of winning)
  • Relative options: at NMSU (59%), UConn (50%), Maine (36%).
  • Probable losses : EMU (26%), Toledo (12%), Boston College (7%), at Army (6%), at Florida State (3%), at Pitt (2%), at Liberty (2%), at Coastal Carolina (1%).

After going 0-4 with an average score of 40-3, Walt Bell’s team faced several opponents to beat. Bell is 1-15 so far, so a win against two of them would be quite an improvement.

What we learned about UMass in 2020

There are plenty of places in two groups to choose from! Based on last year’s results, here’s the full list of guys who finally earned a starting spot for 2021: linebackers Reggie Marks III and Max Longman, defensive linemen Uchenna Ezevike and Avien Pea, cornerbacks Josh Wallace and Noah Boykin, and running back Tanner Davis, who made five TFLs in just 206 snaps. That’s better than nothing, but against four opponents in the Group of 5, UMass ranks 127th in hitting percentage and 125th in opponent points. The Minutemen scored one total touchdown and averaged 188 yards per game. They defended the passer pretty well and limited the number of big passes, but the opponents were free to dispose of the ball. In other words: It was awful.

What we didn’t learn about UMass in 2020

Something about who’s going to take those seats. Bell has been active in the transfer portal, adding potential starters for nearly every team, from Colorado quarterback Tyler Lytle to Rutgers running back Key’Ron Adams to Louisiana Tech left guard Willie Allen (who transferred to Michigan) to UNC DJs Bryson Richardson and Bryce Watts. It’s unclear who will win the QB battle between Lytle, sophomore Garrett Zuro and freshman Zamar Wise, and the skills are hopelessly untested. But the line has to get better and defensive coordinator Tommy Restivo’s defense has to be really good. It’s easy to imagine the Minutemen getting better, but on the other hand, getting worse is almost impossible.

UMass history in a table

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. UMass has a strong history in the FCS, winning the national title in 1998 and reaching the finals in 2006. The fact that the Minutemen want to switch to the FBS makes sense.
  2. The timing of the jump was terrible: They were a .500 team in the FCS the last four seasons, and were just 2-22 in their first two years in the FBS.
  3. Mark Whipple, head coach during the 1998 title, returned in 2014 and things have improved a bit. He has won 16 games in five years.
  4. Tajae Sharpe: 2,600 receiving yards in 2014-15, then 1,167 yards and on his way to the Tennessee Titans. The best UMass product in recent memory.
  5. Bell was hired to improve recruiting and bring energy to a languishing program. It’s not too late, but nothing’s happened yet.

word-image-3452 Like UMass with Whipple, UConn asked a former successful coach to come back and save the program from ruin. Like Whipple, it hasn’t worked for Randy Edsall yet. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 127. Expected record: 3-9

  • Probable victories* : No
  • Relative pulses : Holy Cross (60%), to UMass (50%), Yale (39%), MTSU (37%).
  • Probable losses: at Vanderbilt (24%), Wyoming (15%), Houston (11%), Fresno State (9%), Army (8%), Purdue (5%), UCF (2%), Clemson (0%).

UConn returned a significant portion of its 2019 core after sitting out last fall, but that core went 2-10 and finished 126th in the SP+ rankings. Either way, if you beat Holy Cross, UMass and Yale – which is far from a guarantee – and finish 125th, you can enjoy an upgrade.

What we learned about UConn in 2020

Maybe the culture is changing? UConn didn’t suffer as much as it could have – the team got back its best pass rusher (Jack Zergiotis), offensive linemen (Kevin Mensah) and receiver (Cameron Ross), as well as five of its top six defensive linemen and five of its best linebackers. The offensive line and secondary are starting from scratch, but the experience and continuity isn’t bad, all things considered, and if you squint your eyes, you can see a reason to believe the culture Edsall wants to create is growing.

What we didn’t learn about UConn in 2020

Is there enough real talent here The last time we saw the Huskies, they ranked 125th in SP+ both offensively and defensively. In the three seasons of Edsall’s second term, the team won six games and finished 122nd. I wouldn’t be surprised if the front seven, led by veterans D.J. Morgan, Omar Fortt and Dillon Harris and rising defender Travis Jones, takes a good step forward, and in the offensive backfield, senior Kevin Mensah is solid and Miami transfer Robert Burns can prove himself. But neither Zergiotis nor sophomore Stephen Krajewski have excelled behind center in 2019, and there may only be one or two seniors on each line and in the secondary. A strong culture is good, but real guys who want to work in FBS is even more important.

The history of UConn in a table

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. Under Edsall, UConn was a true newcomer to the FBS. The Huskies went 9-3 in 2003 and then joined the Big East, where they posted an 8-4 record in their first season.
  2. UConn’s best team of all time is the 2007 team (9-4), which defeated Pitt and beat No. 11 USF to briefly move up to No. 16 in the AP rankings.
  3. Edsall’s team, the worst in years, won the program’s biggest prize: a split title in the 2010 Big East tournament and an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl. Edsall left for Maryland that season and Bob Diaco took his place.
  4. After five Cups in seven seasons, the Huskies have won just one since 2010: the 2015 St. Petersburg Cup, in which Diaco’s top-50 defense played a key role.
  5. The Diaco era quickly fell apart, and Edsall has yet to find his niche a second time.

word-image-3453 After dropping from 11 to 5 wins in 2019, Army came back strong with a young team, no less. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 72. Expected record: 7-5

  • Probable victories* : Bucknell (99% win rate), UMass (94%), UConn (92%), Miami (Ohio) (81%), WKU (72%), against Navy (69%).
  • Relative tie: against Air Force (63%), Wake Forest (49%), Georgia State (47%), Ball State (44%).
  • Probable losses : Liberty (26%), Wisconsin (7%).

It will take strong performances on the road – the Black Knights play Wisconsin, Liberty and two other top-80 teams – to match last year’s 9-3 record, but another bowl appearance is likely.

What we learned about the Army in 2020

Jeff Monken’s program is built to last. From 2000-2015, Army won an average of 2.8 times per year and was 112th in the SP+ rankings. Since 2016, Monken’s third term, the Black Knights have climbed to 102nd place, then 91st, 84th, 72nd and 69th. In five years, they have won an average of 8.6 times. They were a little lucky to get 11 wins in 2018 and unlucky to get five the following year, but the trajectory is undeniable. Monken was considered for the recently filled position at Kansas, but as long as strong conference teams continue to resist the pull of the triple option, he will continue to build the infrastructure at West Point.

What we haven’t learned about the military in 2020

Is this defensive wave sustainable? In Nate Woody’s first year as defensive coordinator, the former Appalachian and Georgia Tech head man went from 80th to 43rd in the SP+ defensive rankings. The Black Knights actively attacked the run (fifth highest run success rate) and did not allow any big passes. They blew at every opportunity and raised their game in the red zone. Thirteen of the team’s 18 players who completed more than 150 units are back, including linebacker Cedric Cunningham, cornerback Julian McDuffie and attacking midfielders Aric Smith and Malkem Morrison. The offensive linemen dropped to 96th in offensive SP+ in transition, but the team returns three QBs who played at least 130 units (Christian Anderson, Jemel Jones, Thayer Tyler), as well as Jabari Laws, who missed last year with a torn ACL. The line replaced four key players, but the four replacements surrendered over 100 tackles. If the defense can’t hold on to the win, the offense has to take over.

Army history in a table

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. Thanks in part to war transfers, Army was the best team in history in 1945, posting a 9-0 record and defeating four top-10 teams by a combined score of 169-20.
  2. After a slow decline in the postseason, Army got off to a fast start in 1958, Red Blake’s final season: 8-0-1 and third in the AP Poll. Best result since then: 19th place.
  3. After spending most of the 1960s in the top 40, the program quickly fell out of favor. From 1969 to 1983, Army averaged 107 SP+ with 3.7 wins per year.
  4. The hiring of Jim Young in 1983 provided a short-lived turnaround. The Cadets won nine games in 1985 and 1988, but won just two seasons in the 19 years after Young retired in 1990.
  5. The twentieth century was mostly unfavorable for Army football until Monken was dropped in 2014.

word-image-3454 After producing BYU’s best team since 1984 and then losing many players, Kalani Sitake wants to minimize the inevitable decline. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 52. Expected record: 7-5

  • Probable victories* : Idaho State (99% win probability), at Utah State (88%), USF (85%), against Arizona (74%), at Georgia Southern (68%).
  • Relative pulses : Virginia (57%), Boise State (47%), Baylor (44%), Washington State (39%).
  • Probable losses : Utah (29%), Arizona State (29%), USC (17%).

Seven opponents from strong conferences, four predictable opponents from the top 40….. The Cougars have the kind of program that would have been great last year.

What we learned about BYU in 2020

The prospects for this programme remain enormous. In their first nine seasons of independence, the Cougars have reached a comfort zone of seven to nine wins (seven times) and 35th to 46th in the SP+ rankings (seven times). Things went awry for a while in 2017, but in 2018 Sitake brought in offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and quarterback Zach Wilson. Three years later, after moving up to seventh in SP+ and 11th overall, Wilson was picked second in the NFL Draft and Grimes went to Baylor. Coach QB and new coordinator Aaron Roderick has a solid running back Tyler Algier and a strong receiving corps (lock Neil Pau’u, Gunner Romney, transfers Pac-12 Pooka and Samson Nakua). The line lost two fantastic defenders, but there is experience inside. But all eyes are on the QB position. The battle between sophomores Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall and freshman Jacob Conover will, of course, continue into the fall.

What we didn’t learn about BYU in 2020

Can depth prevent regression? BYU is dead last in the FBS in terms of returning players, and turnover on both lines and in the second line, along with Wilson’s departure, are the main reasons. Thanks to the depth of the roster and the fact that BYU routinely beat weaker opponents on the schedule last year, 27 defenders made at least 100 tackles in 2020 – that may be comforting. Sitake has produced three top-40 defenders in five years, and there are no significant long-term problems. But can the return of young prospects like midfielder Max Tooley, cornerback Micah Harper and defender George Udo, as well as 2019 prospects Chaz Ah Yu (linebacker) and Atunais Mahe (defensive back) help stop the fall in the short term?

BYU’s history in a table

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. After an unspecified story, BYU took on LaVell Edwards, who decided to go crazy and throw the ball all over the creation. Everything went well.
  2. From 1979-85, with QBs like Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco, BYU averaged 11 wins, five AP top 20 rankings and a surprise national title in 1984.
  3. Ty Detmer won the Heisman in 1990 and went 14-1 with Steve Sarkisian as BYU’s head coach in 1996, but Edwards resigned in 2000 after a brief, late break.
  4. Independence brought both stability and stagnation to the Coogs under Bronco Mendenhall, who left for Virginia in 2016.
  5. Under Sitak, things became more unstable, for better and worse. But if he still has a few 2020s in stock, fans can forgive him the occasional 2017.

word-image-3455 After Hugh Freeze’s team scored just one point (11-0) and has a potential premier quarterback in Malik Willis, it will be the subject of unprecedented hype and attention this fall. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 42. Expected record: 9-3

  • Probable victories* : Campbell (99%), UMass (98%), ODU (94%), at ULM (94%), MTSU (93%), at North Texas (83%), at Syracuse (77%), Army (74%), at UAB (65%).
  • Family ties: in Troy (59%), in Louisiana (40%).
  • Probable defeat: at Ole Miss (30%)

A busy schedule could allow for a strong start before three of the four top-ranked opponents (Ole Miss, Louisiana, Army) make their appearance in November.

What we learned about freedom in 2020

Gus Malzahn may have picked the wrong quarterback. In two seasons with Malzahn at Auburn, Malik Willis was only occasionally used in situations with the Wildcat QB (28 throws, 14 passes). He changed teams, and while Auburn ranked 46th in offensive SP+ last season, Liberty rose to 34th. Willis was devastating as usual with his legs (1,059 yards without an interception to 8.7 per interception), but he also showed a hot arm and Liberty ranked fifth in passer rating and 18th in passer rating. Willis is still a runner at heart, and Liberty’s ground game, which also includes linebackers Joshua Mack and Shedro Louis, Utah transfer T.J. Green and a near-fullback, should again be among the best in the country. But the hype surrounding the draft guarantees that we’ll all be paying attention to what happens when Willis arrives at the pass. Six of the seven best wideouts from last year are back, and Freeze has added Austin Ogunmakin from North Texas and Stetson Moore, a great junior college player. Let’s see if there’s another round in Willis’s development.

What we haven’t learned about freedom in 2020

How can this defense be improved? In two seasons under defensive coordinator Scott Simons, the Flames have gone from 122nd to 86th to 61st in SP+ defense. Using the same 4-2-5 that Freeze used at Ole Miss, Liberty was ineffective against the run, but attacked relentlessly once the opponents were out of the game: The Flames rank 12th in pass success rate and 18th in sacks. Ten linebackers return to the team, including top pass rushers Darell Johnson and Tre’Shawn Clark, and linebackers Javon Scruggs and Juavan Treadwell. Freese also made great use of the transfer portal, signing top defenders from ULM and UTEP (midfielder Rashaad Harding and cornerback Duron Law, respectively), as well as a defender from Washington State (Skyler Thomas). The Flames may not be able to significantly improve their play against the run, but anything about their already strong pass defense could improve.

History of freedom in a painting

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. LU peaked in FBS in 2014: The Flames defeated James Madison and suffered a loss against Villanova in their first FCS playoff appearance.
  2. After winning or sharing eight Big South titles under Danny Rocco and Turner Gill, LU decided to switch to the FBS in 2017.
  3. LU’s start went well, 6-6 with an occasionally exciting attack. After the season ended, Gill retired.
  4. In Freeze’s first season as Gill’s successor, the Flames went from six to eight wins and from 121st to 75th in the SP+ rankings.
  5. Despite the loss of QB Stephen Calvert and star receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, Willis and his teammates again guaranteed significant improvement in Freeze’s second year.

word-image-3456 Notre Dame has its best team since 1993 in the first 10 games of 2020. It ended with a bang, though: Losses to Clemson and Alabama that could have been worse than their combined 51-point victory. Forecasts for 2021 Expected SP+ rating : 25. Expected record: 7-5

  • Probable victories* : Navy (94%), Toledo (87%), Georgia Tech (74%), Stanford (73%), Purdue (69%), Florida State (68%), Virginia (66%).
  • Relative options: at Virginia Tech (53%), USC (45%), Cincinnati (44%), UNC (40%).
  • Probable losses : Against Wisconsin (33%)

The five likely draws and losses above? They appear systematically in the middle of the season, from 25. September (Wisconsin) to 30. October (UNC).

What we learned about Notre Dame in 2020

Brian Kelly has created one of the most consistent programs in the country. In Kelly’s 11 seasons in South Bend, the Irish have won eight or more games 10 times and finished six consecutive years in the top 20 of the SP+ rankings – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma are the only other programs to accomplish this feat. He loses star players and assistants and the train just keeps going. The Irish recruit at or near top-10 level, and in terms of consistency of quality, Kelly leads a top-10 program.

What we didn’t learn about Notre Dame in 2020

What is the current level of Notre Dame? In a year where everyone seems to have their starting quarterback back and 80% or more of last year’s team, the Fighting Irish need to replace starting quarterback Ian Book and two top WRs, four offensive linemen (!!) and stars at fullback, halfback, cornerback and strong safety. They are 123rd among returning players, and according to the first SP+ projections, they are dropping to their worst position since 2014. I’d be surprised if they fell that low. The Irish still have established players and new stars: running backs Kieren Williams and Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer, center Jarrett Patterson, guard Kurt Heenisch, center Drew White and, of course, the world’s best defender Kyle Hamilton. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan should provide solid play at the QB position – if he’s succeeded by a youngster like Drew Pine or star recruit Tyler Buechner, that suggests a pretty high level of play – and a strong set of players should lead to new stars in the near future. But will the necessary growth and cohesion come about without some setbacks? What is a ceiling? Consistently playing in the top 20 is a handsome feat, but the Irish have only once finished above 12th in SP+ with Kelly (8th in 2015). Last year it looked like they had a higher ceiling, but the last two games have shown that it is still well below the big FBS teams. Kelly, the school’s longest-serving head coach since Knute Rockne, will certainly continue to get results at a high level, but is there a way to close the gap with the top programs?

History of Notre Dame in a painting

Bill Connelly/ESPN

  1. Frank Leahy’s postwar Irish teams were among the most talented in college football history. From 1946 to 1949, they went 36-0-2 and won three AP titles.
  2. After Leahy’s retirement in 1953, the program fell into decline, but was immediately revived after the arrival of Ara Parseghian in 1964. He has finished in the top ten nine times in eleven years.
  3. The 1981 hiring of Jerry Faust remains one of the most creative and mediocre in school history. Before Lou Holtz took over in 1986, he led the business with 30-26-1.
  4. From 1988 to 1993, the Irish averaged 11 wins under Holtz, won the national title and finished second twice.
  5. In 11 seasons, Kelly has rebuilt Notre Dame’s reputation to a high level, but he has just one top-10 finish after SP+. Will it be able to develop further improvements?
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