Independents Preview

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Christopher Crawford
·13 min read
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Note: We've done win-loss predictions in our previous installments, but we won't in this one as these schools have had their schedules ravaged by conference's decisions to not play non-conference teams. Also, Notre Dame is technically unaffiliated, but because they're eligible for a conference title in the ACC this year, their preview will be in that group.

Army Black Knights

2019 record: 5-8

NFL Draft prospect to watch: N/A

The case for: Last year was a disappointing season for the Black Knights; it would be impossible to say otherwise. After winning 11 games and throttling Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl -- 70-14 (!) in case you forgot -- expectations were high for Army, but even with a weak schedule, those expectations weren't met. It could be a similar year for Todd Monken and company, but let's start with the positives.

Army is always going to be a difficult task to prepare for in their triple-option, and there are some talent options (note: absolutely no pun intended) to get the ball to in 2020. Sandon McCoy is a legitimate B-back who ran for 10 scores last year, and should improve on his 576 yards last fall. There are questions as to who will hand him that football, but because Kelvin Hopkins dealt with injuries, both Jabari Laws and Christian Anderson were able to play in 2019. Laws appears to be the favorite, and the quarterback in this offense is always capable of putting up fun numbers in this attack. There's also some issues at slot back, but this is the positives section.

The Black Knights also should be ok against the pass in 2020. Javhari Bourdeau and Malkelm Morrison only combined for one interception, but that stat doesn't indicate how good they were in 2020. Both are quality against the run, and Bourdeau in particular was impressive with five pass breakups. Jabari Moore is the third corner, and he impressed as a freshman with two pass breakups.

Also, we can't help but believe Monken will have this team motivated for 2020 -- assuming there's games in 2020, of course. Last year left a sour taste in this group's mouth, and while there's absolutely no reason to prove it, it's just hard to imagine they aren't more competitive in the games they do get to play.

The case against: Well, unless they aren't.

While Laws and Anderson have experience, neither player is as talented as Hopkins. Even in an injury-riddled year, he was still able to run for 721 yards and seven scores, and the previous year; he was a big reason that team was as good as it was. And it was really good. Similar to Navy with Malcolm Perry, it's very hard for these service-schools to lose talents like this.

And he wasn't the only impressive talent that graduated. Army allowed only 23 points per game last year -- good for 41st in the country -- but it'll be hard for them to be that productive again. Cole Christiansen and his 112 tackles is gone, Elijah Riley and his eight tackles for loss and four sacks is gone, and you can't help but note that this will again be an undersized unit, because of course it is.

Oh, and the other options on offense? Lacking. Kell Walker was the real "threat" in this offense to make big plays, and he graduated. And it's really not worth talking about the wideouts -- with all due respect to them, thank you for your service -- because this team won't throw the football, again, because of course it won't. Army might be more competitive, but on paper, it's hard to imagine this team will qualify whatever the heck we call a bowl this winter or spring.

BYU Cougars

2019 record: 7-6

NFL Draft prospect to watch: Matt Bushman

The case for: BYU has been a weird football team for the last couple of seasons. In what is going to be the weirdest -- and no, that is not making light of this pandemic, wear a mask -- college football season ever, we can't help but wonder what BYU can do.

One of the reasons to be excited about this BYU team is the offensive line. Brady Christensen and James Empey are getting Outland and Rimington Trophy consideration to begin the year, and have started the last 26 games for the Cougars. Blake Freeland might be the most talented offensive lineman of the bunch as a sophomore, and Tristen Hoge along with Kieffer Longson have experience as well. It's nice to have beef up front, and Brigham Young has quality beef.

Most teams that don't know who their starting quarterback is have a problem. Not really the case for BYU. There are three legitimate options for the Cougars in 2020, starting with Zack Wilson. Or maybe starting with Wilson, anyway. The sophomore wasn't quite as good as his freshman campaign, but talent is certainly there coming into his junior season. That being said, the talent is obvious in Jaren Hall, as well, and Baylor Romney is getting a shot to win this gig, as well. This is not a perfect group -- no group is -- but BYU should be ok under center this season.

And, whomever gets to throw the football will get to throw the football to Matt Bushman. Bushman likely would have been drafted if he left for the NFL, but he's back for one more year in Provo. After catching 47 passes for 688 yards and adding four scores, he might be the best tight end in the Group of 5 that isn't named Kylen Granson.

The case against: Offensive line: check. Quarterback(s): check. Skill position players: TBD. BYU lost three solid receivers in Talon Shumway, Aleva Hifo and Micah Simon. Gunner Romney should be back after missing the 2020 season, but this is a very inexperienced group.

The tailbacks are also a question mark; especially now that Devonta'e Henry-Cole is heading to Utah State rather than suiting up for the Cougars after transferring from Utah. No runner had over 358 yards rushing for the club last year, and there's no obvious answer as a starting tailback.

And on defense, well, can anyone get to the dang quarterback? Three players tied for the lead in sacks, which is fine. They tied for the lead with two, which is not. Coupled with a shaky secondary, if BYU is going to compete with whoever the heck they play this season, they're going to have to create more pressure, and we're not 100 percent sure who's going to do it.

Connecticut Huskies

2019 record: 2-10

NFL Draft prospect to watch: DT Travis Jones

The case for: Yep. UConn is an independent. You will forget this. We will forget this. But yep. UConn is an independent.

We'll be honest, this is more of a "case for" 2021 or 2022, but there were some flashes for freshman QB Jack Zergiotis in his freshman season. Throwing for nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions isn't particularly impressive, but if you squinted, you saw the makings of a future competent signal-caller.

He has a good one to hand the football too -- this is assuming Zergiotis wins the job, Micah Leon from NC State is expected to battle him -- in Kevin Mensah. He was able to run for 1,013 yards in 2019, and since there's no real second option behind him, he should put up similar or better numbers if given the chance to play in as many games.

The case against: UConn's defense in 2018 was historically bad. That term gets thrown out there too long, but we mean it; they allowed 50.4 points a game. So the fact that they improved their PPG number by almost 10 points doesn't mean much when you're allowing 40.5. It's really hard to win games when you're giving up those kinda points, and it's hard to imagine it'll be that much better this fall.

You know what makes it even harder? When you're only scoring 18.9. Zergiotis is a work-in-progress, the wideouts are inexperienced or unproductive or some combination of both, and this offensive line was decimated with transfers and graduation.

It isn't fun to say a program doesn't appear to be moving forward, but it's very, very difficult to see a silver lining in Storrs right now.

Liberty Flames

2019 record: 8-5

NFL Draft prospect to watch: Joshua Mack

The case for: Did Liberty take advantage of a friendly schedule last year? You bet, but it was still impressive to see the former FCS school reach a bowl game -- a game in which they won over Georgia Southern -- this quickly. Credit to Hugh Freeze where credit is due.

Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert is gone at quarterback, but former four-star QB Malik Willis transferred in from Auburn last year, and should be able to help. Calvert was a better pure passer, but Willis is a dual-threat that should be able to make plays with his legs and arm.

Another player that had to 'wait" was Joshua Mack; and by wait, we mean had to play backup to Frankie Hickson. Even as that second option, the former Maine transfer was able to score seven touchdowns and rush for 774 yards. With Hickson gone and a decent offensive line on paper, Mack should be very productive in 2020. Or 2021.

There's some issues on defense that we'll talk about in a bit, but Javon Scruggs Jr. is not one of them. We have Mack listed as the top top draft prospect, but with Scruggs' ability to find the football with 58 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two picks last year, it just might be him.

Liberty is probably another year away from an eight-win pace again, but this program definitely appears to be heading in the right direction.

The case against: Liberty is on the way up, but it's hard to imagine they'll have a player like Antonio Gandy-Golden again. The Flames are going to have to replace a player that caught 79 passes for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns, and honestly, those numbers don't really speak to how important he was to the offense. DJ Stubbs is the new top option, but -- spoiler alert -- he's not Gandy-Golden.

We also can't ignore the fact that Liberty had a few key players enter the transfer portal, and we're not going to ignore why. Kei'Trel Clark was very productive as a starting corner for the Flames in his freshman season, but he's headed to Louisville. A potential replacement in Tayvion Land also is in the portal, and both left the program citing cultural insensitivity from the program. It's something that clearly needs to be addressed, and it's something that will hurt Liberty this season.

Also, we have to address that schedule last year. Here are the Flames' wins outside of the bowl game: Buffalo, Hampton, Maine New Mexico, New Mexico State twice, UMass. You can only beat the teams that are in front of you, but that's not exactly a who's who of college football teams. You can't help but wonder if that grouping masked some flaws.

New Mexico State

2019 record: 2-10

NFL Draft prospect to watch: N/A

The case for: Welp.

Ok, so let's assume for a second that New Mexico State is able to hold onto their 2020 schedule. If they do, there are some very winnable game here. Akron, New Mexico, UTEP, UMass and Texas Southern are all programs that are not exactly competing for a bowl game in 2020. They probably won't be favored in those games outside of maybe Akron and definitely Texas Southern, but they're all games that are winnable because those teams are bad. Optimism!

The case against: Yeah, that's really it in terms of the case for. Nothing got edited out.

This is just not a very good football team, and it wasn't even before Josh Atkins -- a quarterback who has had some success with the Aggies -- transferred to UTSA. Jason Huntley was also player who could make plays as a receiver and as a rusher. He will be trying to make plays as a receiver and rush for the Detroit Lions. If you're wondering who could possibly replace those players in 2020 or 2021, we are, too.

Oh, and the defense. There was exactly one school that allowed more points than the Aggies last year, and we're going to be talking about them in a second. They didn't get to the quarterback, they didn't stop the run, and they lost their best defensive player in Javahn Ferguson.

Would love to be nice here, but can't. This will be one of the worst teams in college football. But not THE worst, because...

UMass Minutemen

2019 record: 1-11

NFL Draft prospect to watch: N/A

The case for: Massachusetts is beautiful in the fall.

Similar to NMSU, this schedule is very friendly. Very, very friendly. They play every independent school but BYU -- remember, we're not counting Notre Dame this year with their ACC agreement -- and only three schools on their schedule made bowl games last year (Appalachian State, Florida International, Liberty).

The case against: Oh, gosh, pretty much everything. It's hard to describe how bad the Minutemen were in 2019. Yes, they were able to get one win against Akron; a team that had as many wins as you and I, but calling them non-competitive is an understatement. In fact, UMass didn't have a single one-score loss in 2020. Or two score. Their closest loss was 56-35. Please let that sink in. Their closest loss was by three scores, and it was to UConn.

And it's not just one unit. No quarterback threw for more than 864 yards. Bilal Ally was the one thing you could sort of call an offensive threat, and he's in the transfer portal. Brennon Dingle had some flashes in 2018 and 2019, and he decided to get out of town, as well; transferring to UTSA to join Josh Atkins.

Offense: bad. Defense: Oh so much, much, much worse. UConn's group was historically bad, but only for a year, because the Minuteman allowed an unfathomably awful 52.7 points per game. Exactly one player had more than one sack (Chinedu Ogbunna), and fortunately, he's back. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, so do a lot of the players here who were there to give up a total of 632 points in Walt Bell's first year as coach.

UMass may win a few more games because their schedule is, well, pathetic, but it's hard to imagine that they're not among the worst teams in college football.