NOTRE DAME Last season, Head Coach Brian Kelly led the Irish to a perfect 12-0 mark, before the embarrassing loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game. Despite posting a 12-0 regular season record, the Fighting Irish averaged only 25.8 PPG. The Irish return just five starters on offense, losing two offensive linemen, both leading rushers, the top receiver from last years squad, and quarterback Everett Gholson. The good news is that two QBs with starting experience return in Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. Replacing running backs Cieree Wood and Theo Riddick, may be the bigger challenge, but George Atkinson III returns after averaging more than 7-yards per carry last season. The Irish have several talented receivers waiting to have breakout seasons in T. J. Jones, Da Varis Daniels and Amir Carlisle. If Rees can get these guys the ball, I look for improvement in the offense despite the loss of Gholson. On defense, the Irish get back eight starters and figure to have one of the top defensive lines in the country led by Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. The Fighting Irish also feature one of the best secondaries in the nation, and Jarrett Grace figures to be the man to replace Te’o and his 113 tackles at linebacker. Even with the loss of Te’o, I expect Notre Dame to once again dominate on the defensive side of the ball. The schedule is tough, as Notre Dame faces seven teams that should end the season in the Top 25. Road games at Michigan and Stanford will provide tough tests.
- KEY GAME- USC in South Bend
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH– LB Jarrett Grace, DE Sheldon Day, WR Amir Carlisle
- MY PREDICITON – 9-3
BRIGHAM YOUNG The Cougars are coming off an 8-5 season, that included a bowl game win and four road losses by a total of 13 points. This year, the offense will be led by Sophomore QB Taysom Hill, a dual threat quarterback who has drawn comparisons to BYU legend Steve Young. Hill played some as a freshman including two starts before suffering an ACL tear in the game against Utah State. The Cougars feature one of the nation’s best receiver duos in Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo who combined for 131 grabs a year ago. Sophomore tailback Jamaal Williams burst onto the scene last year, starting the last eight games, rushing for 802 yards and 12 TDs and also catching 27 balls. If Hill can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for this offense. On defense, the Cougars return just four starters and must replace the entire defensive line. They do have several highly-touted athletes waiting to step in, and third team All-American LB Kyle Van Noy decided to spurn the NFL and return for his senior season. He will be key in leading the defense this season. Last year, the Cougars “D” only allowed 14 PPG. With all the departures, I don’t see the Cougars coming anywhere near that number this season. Bronco Mendenhall enters his ninth season in Provo, having guided BYU to a bowl game every season he’s been there, including four straight bowl victories. The schedule is again loaded with top teams, including Notre Dame, Texas, Wisconsin and Boise State. The Cougars are locked into the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego if they become bowl-eligible. They should easily get the six wins needed!
- KEY GAME- AT HOME VS. UTAH (LOST 3 STRAIGHT)
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH – DL Bronson Kaufusi, DL Marques Johnson, DL Eathyn Manumaleuna
- MY PREDICTION 9-3
OLD DOMINION The Monarchs have one year as an independent, before joining Conference USA. Head Coach Bobby Wilder led ODU to an 11 win season last year at the FCS level. Nine starters return to an offense that averaged 45.2 PPG, led by junior quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Last year, all he did was pass for 5,076 yards and 44 scores, while completing 68% of his tosses. He also was second on the team in rushing with 671 yards! On defense, six starters return. Last season, the Monarchs allowed 30.5 PPG and that number will go up with the tougher schedule. I expect the Monarchs to have a solid season record-wise, but it should be noted the Monarchs will play only five FBS opponents this year, travelling to East Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Pittsburgh and Idaho. Next year they will take on a full Conference USA schedule.
- KEY GAME- AT EAST CAROLINA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH – WR Jakwall Bailey, LB D. J. Simon, DB Paul Morant
- MY PREDICITON 8-4
NAVY The United States Naval Academy returns 13 starters, which is rather high for a service academy team. Sophomore QB Keenan Reynolds returns to navigate an offense that scored 25 PPG last year. The Navy O is built on the running game, as the Midshipmen only put the ball in the air 167 times last year, with Reynolds completing 56% of his tosses with nine touchdowns. The Midshipmen lose leading rusher Gee Gee Greene, but have a boatload of running backs waiting for an opportunity. Two replacements will need to be found on the front wall, but I believe good things are in store for a veteran offense. I expect improvement over last year numbers as Reynolds gains more experience. On defense the Midshipman must replace the top four tacklers from last year. Getting pressure on the quarterback will be a priority as the defense accounted for only 18 sacks last season. The schedule looks manageable and a December victory over Army, who Navy has beaten 11 straight years, may be needed to secure that sixth win and bowl invitation.
- KEY GAME – HOME VERSUS HAWAII
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH – RB Desmond Brown, RB Trey Miller, DE Danny Ring
- MY PREDICTION 6-6
ARMY Last season, the Black Knights had a disappointing 2-10 record. A total of 15 starters return, making this a very veteran team. The offense will be led by tailback Raymond Maples who returns with his 1,270 yards. Last year, the Cadets defense gave up 35.3 PPG and with eight starters back on the field, they should easily improve on that mark. The major concern to me is a defensive line that clearly lacks beef with the four projected starters average only 240 pounds! The schedule is again challenging as all the tougher games are on the road.
- KEY GAME- HOME VERSUS WAKE FOREST
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH – QB A. J. Schurr, DE Holt Zaineraitis, LB Gino DeBartolo
- MY PREDICTION 2- 10
NEW MEXICO STATE The break-up of the Western Athletic Conference has the Aggies playing an independent schedule this year, and joining the Sun Belt next year. Also new is head coach Doug Martin who brings seven years of head coaching experience, and familiarity with the Aggies having served as offensive coordinator in Las Cruces in the past. The Aggies return seven starters to an offense that averaged only 18.7 PPG. Four out of five linemen return forming a strong nucleus up front, and Germi Morrison, last year’s leading rusher, and top receiver Austin Franklin return. The Aggies were outscored by an average of 20.7 per game last year. The defense gets back seven starters, and has the benefit of several transfers joining the team. I expect these transfers to really upgrade a defense that surrendered 39.4 PPG last season. The Aggies host Minnesota, UTEP, San Diego State, Rice, Boston College and Idaho in Las Cruces. The Aggies managed just one win a year ago and I see little improvement in the win column.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 14 HOSTING UTEP
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..NT Willie Mobley, originally at Ohio State, DB Randall Carroll, originally at UCLA, LB Kalei Auelua, originally at Washington
- MY PREDICTION 2-10
IDAHO The Vandals are another team in total transition. Head coach Robb Akey was fired after producing just three wins the last two years. Paul Petrino, considered an offensive guru, takes over in Moscow and will look to upgrade an offense that produced just 15.8 PPG. He does get back seven starters on offense, but must start by finding a quarterback. Last year the QBs combined to throw for 14 TDs and 22 picks! At this time Petrino is not tipping his hand to whom might get the call under center. The Vandals also lose top rusher Ryan Bass and tpp receiver Mike Scott. The strength of the offense will be a line that returns four starters. On the other side of the ball, the defense gave up a whooping 42.4 PPG. The Vandals recorded only 14 sacks all season, and the top six tacklers depart, including three in the secondary! Idaho will be playing an independent schedule this season, while waiting to join the Sun Belt next year.The Vandals get Temple, Old Dominion and Texas State at home, but Petrino is just beginning to build the program.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 28 HOSTING TEMPLE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Chad Chalich, RB James Baker, LB Matthew Willis
- MY PREDICTION – 2-10