Conference Breakdown: Ranking the FBS Independents

RunTellMattContributor IJuly 27, 2009

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 29:  Jimmy Clausen #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks to hand off the ball against the USC Trojans on November 29, 2008 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.  USC won 38-3.  (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)

Every summer, I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.

In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season. It will be complete with last year's win-loss record, and my predictions for each team's 2009 win-loss record.

Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree; whatever.

Part 4: The no-conference conference.

3. Army Black Knights

Last Year: 3-9

My 2009 Prediction: Coming Soon

New head coach Rich Ellerson has become the third coach in the last four years at Army, probably because they’ve won a mere nine games in the last three years combined. In fact, Army hasn’t had a winning season since 1996.

Ellerson comes over from a Cal Poly team that was a few missed extra points away from upsetting Wisconsin last season in an overtime scare.

This season, 12 starters return, but there still must be a depth problem, considering the 6’10” 283-pound Ali Villanueva, who started 12 games at left tackle last year, is now a starting WR.

Ellerson brings the triple option offense similar to Navy, but with a lot more passing. The new offensive scheme could take a while to implement properly, especially with no clear-cut starter at quarterback. Right now, it looks like returning starter Chip Bowden will be the guy under center, but he only threw for 282 yards, two touchdowns,\ and three interceptions last year.

The defense is undersized, but it will make up for that with speed, toughness, and by going 100 mph all the time. Army may get aggressive on defense, however, and the Black Knights will be exploited by teams with the ability of throwing the ball down field in one-on-one matches against the cornerbacks.

Although the schedule is as easy as it could get for most other programs, Army still doesn’t look to have all the pieces together to break its streak of losing seasons. It does, however, have what might be the perfect fit for a head coach, and the program looks to be headed in the right direction.

Expect improvements this year, and a much better season next year.

2. Navy Midshipmen

Last Year: 8-5

My 2009 Prediction: 9-4

Paul Johnson, now the head coach at Georgia Tech, brought the triple option offense to Navy back in 2002. And after his first season, his Navy team lead the nation in rushing four of the next five seasons.

Last year, new head coach Ken Niumatalolo took over, and the Midshipmen didn’t miss a beat, once again leading the nation in rushing for the fourth straight season. Last year's defense played unexpectedly well, considering it was supposed to be the weakness of the team.

But this year, the defense needs to be the strength now that the three-headed monster of quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and running backs Shaun White and Eric Kettani, who ran the triple option so well last year, are gone. The defense certainly has some key components in place with linebackers Clint Sovie and Ross Pospisil, who combined for 166 tackles last year.

While you may not recognize the new names at running back, Navy does a good job of putting the right personnel in place to run the offense. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who filled in nicely last year when Kaipo-Noa was injured, will take over under center. This Navy team seems to be a much more balanced team than in the past, but it will continue to run the triple option that can give even the best of teams fits.

While there are some tough games on the schedule, including Ohio State, Pitt, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame, the rest of the games are very winnable. Navy is well-prepared to earn its seventh straight bowl appearance.

1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Last Year: 7-6

My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

After a few down seasons, this is the year Notre Dame gets back to being a national powerhouse and coach Charlie Weis’ seat cools down.

This should also be quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s breakout season, although if he hadn’t thrown 17 interceptions last season, his 25 touchdowns and 3,172 passing yards would have looked that much better. Clausen won’t have as many mistakes in his junior season, and with a star playmaker in wide receiver Golden Tate, the passing game could be electric.

One weakness might be the lack of a solid No. 1 running back, but three running backs from last year that each have at least 90 carries are all back. The offensive line that gave up a league-worst 58 sacks in 2007 improved to just 22 sacks allowed last year, and it should be even more improved this season.

It remains to be seen if running back Armando Allen can step up and provide the desperately-needed spark to the ground game, but Clausen will be better if the offensive line can control the line and pave the way.

Defensively, the team looks very solid and experienced. With a talented secondary, the linebackers can afford to be more aggressive and put pressure in the backfield.

Although Notre Dame plays a very difficult schedule, it has the pieces in place to finish the season in the top 10 and to play in a bowl game come January.


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