The Independent group of teams expands this year with the addition of New Mexico State and Liberty. Idaho has left the FBS and will play at the FCS level. The Aggies decided to leave the Sun Belt conference, where they were a football only member. Liberty received a waiver from the NCAA to move up from the FCS. The Flames will not be bowl eligible this season, but will qualify in 2019. Because of the difficulty scheduling FBS opponents, both Liberty and New Mexico State will play a home and home series this season.
The Fighting Irish enter the 2018 season, with hopes of a National Championship. Head coach Brian Kelly has a loaded squad, with a championship caliber defense. Nine starters return to a defense that allowed only 21 points per game last year. The biggest loss on the defense is Coordinator Mike Elko who left for Texas A & M. He will be replaced by Clark Lea. Lea was the linebackers coach last season and he wants to run the same schemes employed by Elko. Kelly hopes that quarterback Brandon Wimbush will excel in his junior year. Wimbush has spent the off-season working on his throwing skills. Wimbush completed only 49% of his passes a year ago. Both leading rusher Josh Adams (1,483) and leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (515) yards left early. Adams was undrafted. Dexter Williams and Miles Boykin hope to replace the two-time All conference performers. I actually think Notre Dame plays one of the toughest schedules in the FBS. They open with Michigan and close the season with USC. Florida State and Stanford also visit the golden dome. The schedule is just too tough for a national championship run in 2018.
IMPACT NEWCOMER………..LT, Liam Eichenberg, expected to take over at left tackle.
FUN FACT………..The Irish are 18-4 in home openers, including six straight wins.
The Black Knights had a season to remember in 2017. The season ended with a thrilling 42-35 win over San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl. The win gave the Knights a 10-3 record, marking the first time they had achieved a 10 win season since 1996. Army also captured the “Commander in Chiefs” trophy for the first time since 1996. The losses are heavy this season as only 11 starters return. The offense takes the big hit with the graduation of quarterback Ahmed Bradshaw. Bradshaw rushed for 1,743 yards last season and leaves as the fifth leading rusher in school history. The Knights led the nation in rushing with 362 per game. Head coach Jeff Monken is also concerned about a depleted offensive line that must replace four starters. The defense will be the strength of this squad. The Knights gave up 5.3 yards per carry last year, but figure to be much tougher against the run in 2018. James Nachtigal and Cole Christiansen pack a punch from their linebacking spots. Despite the losses of talent, this team will once again play in the post-season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER………..OG, Peyton Reeder, at 6-6 290 he has uncharacteristic size for a service academy player.
FUN FACT………..The Knights completed just 20 passes all season long.
The Cougars are coming off their first nine loss season since 1955. We all knew BYU had a very difficult schedule, but I don’t think anyone imagined a 4-9 season. The embarrassment led to the departure of offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. The new offensive coordinator is Jeff Grimes. Grimes has stated that the offense will be “fast and furious”. The spring game was far from that, as all the quarterbacks struggled. Head coach Kalani Sitake hopes that an infusion of new recruits will help yield better results. Quarterback Tanner Mangum is back, but the truth is, he hasn’t lived up to his freshman campaign. Mangum may win the job, but keep an eye on Joe Critchlow. The Cougars return the top three rushers, but newcomer Zachary Katoa could be the next Jamal Williams. Tight end Matt Bushman could be next in line of a long list of greats from Provo. The offensive line could be a work in progress. Sitake hopes Notre Dame transfer Tristen Hoge can immediately fill one of three openings. The defense should be big and physical. Corbin and Devin Kaufusi will start at both defensive end spots. The Cougars success will likely be decided in September. They play Arizona, California, Washington and Wisconsin. Anything short of 2-2 will be a disappointment.
IMPACT NEWCOMER……………K, Skyler Southam, third ranked kicker coming out of high school in 2015.
FUN FACT………..BYU has lost seven straight “Holy Wars” to Utah
The Flames spent 30 years playing at the FCS level. The NCAA granted them the opportunity to move to the FBS level in July of 2017. The Flames will not be bowl eligible until next season. The University has poured millions of dollars into upgrading the facilities and football stadium. The expansion will be done by opening day when they host Old Dominion. Williams stadium will now seat 30,000 and has the capability of adding another 30,000 seats. Head coach Turner Gill is no stranger, when it comes to knowing what it takes to win. He was an outstanding quarterback at Nebraska, and has led both Kansas and Buffalo. He has an experienced quarterback with Steven Calvert under center. Calvert had a 29 to 6 touchdown to interception ratio as a sophomore. The Flames have nine starters back on offense, and play at a frantic pace (76) plays per game. They averaged 32.5 points per game last season. Those points came against ten FCS foes. Remember they did beat Baylor 48-45 last season. Defensively the Flames have a few holes to fill. Surprisingly they have good size on both sides of the ball. The Flames won’t embarrass themselves in year one of FBS play. However, going from one FBS opponent to ten will be a great challenge.
IMPACT NEWCOMER…………OT, Tristan Schultz, the sophomore should grab the only open spot on the offensive line.
FUN FACT………..Liberty has won 14 of the last 15 home openers.
NEW MEXICO STATE
The Aggies played in their first bowl game since 1960. They defeated Utah State 26-20 in overtime. That win moved the Aggies to 7-6, their first winning season since 2002. They won three of four down the stretch to go 6-6 in the regular season. The top three players on offense have departed. Quarterback Tyler Rogers leaves as the 2nd leading passer in school history. Transfer Mathew Romero had a narrow lead over Nick Jeanty to replace Rogers. Four offensive lineman return, making this the strength of the offense. Head coach Doug Martin loves the potential of his defense. “We should see big improvement” on that side of the ball he said. The Aggies had a hearty 43 sacks, which ranked second behind Miami. A soft schedule should give the Aggies a chance to go back to a bowl game. The Aggies face only one power five school.
IMPACT NEWCOMER………..WR, Tevis Abraham, This freshman has a chance to be a four-year starter.
FUN FACT……….. Going into 2017, the Aggies had just four winning seasons since 1967.
The Minutemen opened last season 0-6 and then turned the corner to a 4-8 finish. Optimism is high in Amherst with nine returning starters on offense. Quarterback Andrew Ford finished with a 22 to 4 touchdown to interception ratio. He also tossed for 2,924 yards. If he stays healthy he could finish as the second All-Time passing leader in school history. Marquis Young and Andy Isabella also return after having 1,000 yard seasons. The only big loss will be replacing All-Conference tight end Andy Breneman. The offense has a chance to set a few school records. The defense allowed 32 points per game. Head coach Mark Whipple has his hands full, trying to retool the defensive line. This unit allowed five yards per carry last season. I think the Minutemen have a shot to reach six wins, with only two Power five opponents on the docket.
IMPACT NEWCOMER…………..WR, Jessie Britt, graduate transfer from Georgia.
FUN FACT……….. The Minutemen haven’t been to a bowl game since 1972.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH
NOTRE DAME 10-2 ARMY 8-4 BYU 7-5 LIBERTY 5-7 NEW MEXICO STATE 4-8 UMASS 4-8