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College football 2018: Independent preview

Independent

Leading up to the kickoff of the 2018 college football season, The Game Haus will be previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. As we continue today with the independents, we’ll offer league predictions and look at the top performers while also highlighting key games.

Here we go.

Breakdown

Notre Dame
Firmly entrenched on the hot seat last season, Brian Kelly held firm and the Irish rebounded from their 4-8 2016 finish with a 10-3 record and bowl win over LSU. Alex Bars anchors an offensive line that will see some new additions and quarterback Brandon Wimbush could be more consistent. The defensive line is deep and linebacker Te’von Coney returns after recording 116 tackles in 2017. With Michigan, Stanford and Florida State at home, another 10 wins wouldn’t be a stretch.

BYU
The Cougars have been ready to move on from last year’s disastrous 4-9 season – their worst since 1970 – for a long time. Former LSU assistant Jeff Grimes takes over as offensive coordinator and is tasked with trying to improve a unit that uncharacteristically averaged just 17.1 yards per contest and was held to 10 or fewer points five times.

Independent
Jeff Monken (Photo by washingtontimes.com)

Army
Army has followed five straight losing seasons with back-to-back winning campaigns that have produced 18 victories. The Black Knights’ option attack averaged an FBS-leading 362.3 yards on the ground, but they must replace quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw. However, Jeff Monken’s team features solid depth at running back.

New Mexico State
Following four seasons as a member of the Sun Belt, the Aggies are back as an independent this year. They’ll face three teams from the Sun Belt while trying to build on a 7-6 season and their first bowl appearance since 1960.

Massachusetts
A 4-8 record from 2017 wouldn’t normally be associated with progress, but the Minutemen had not won that many games in a season since joining the FBS in 2012. Quarterback Andrew Ford returns after he threw for 2,924 yards with 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions last year.

Liberty
The Flames will play as an FBS independent this season, then earn full membership, including bowl eligibility, in 2019. Their schedule includes games at Virginia, Auburn and a home-and-home with New Mexico State. Liberty, which stunned Baylor in 2017, returns quarterback Stephen Calvert, who threw for 3,363 yards, 29 touchdowns and only six picks.

Players to watch

OFFENSE
Matt Bushman, TE, BYU: One of the few bright spots during the Cougars’ rough 2017 season was Bushman. As a freshman, the 6-foot-5 target led the team with 49 receptions and 520 yards. He’ll again be BYU’s top receiving threat in 2018.

Independent
Jerry Tillery (Photo by indystar.com)

DEFENSE
Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame: At 6-foot-6 and over 300 pounds, Tillery is a beast. He returns for his senior season with the Irish after recording 56 tackles – nine for loss – and 4 1/2 sacks. Offensive lineman must again beware.

 

 

Key Games

Sept 1: Michigan at Notre Dame. For the first time since 2014, the Irish and Wolverines will hook up while kicking off their seasons. Notre Dame has won the last two meetings played in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.

Sept. 29: BYU at Washington. The Cougars and Huskies will square off for the first time since 2013, when Washington snapped a three-game slide in the series. BYU won 28-27 the last time these teams met in Seattle in 2008.

Dec. 8: Army vs. Navy. Always the biggest game of the season for both service academies. Army has not won three straight over their arch-rival since a five-game run from 1992-96.

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