2023 College Football Independents Preview

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Mar 6, 2018

2023 college football independents preview: Burning questions, players to watch​


In 1988, the last time Notre Dame won the national title, four of the top five teams in the final AP poll -- the Irish, plus No. 2 Miami, No. 3 Florida State and No. 5 West Virginia -- were independents. So were Penn State (No. 1 in 1986), Pitt (No. 4 in 1981), Syracuse (No. 4 in 1987), Boston College (No. 5 in 1984), South Carolina (No. 11 in 1984) and East Carolina (No. 20 in 1983). There were 25 indies in 1988, 33 a decade before that.

Now there are four.

Granted, we were down to just three as recently as 2010 before BYU and some other hipsters tried to make independent living cool again. But the Cougars are off to the Big 12, and Liberty and New Mexico State hopped aboard the Conference USA train. So now it's just stalwarts Notre Dame and Army and two northeastern teams -- UConn and UMass -- that probably would join a conference if it made sense. (They should convince Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire to jump to FBS and reform the Yankee Conference of old!)

Despite all the maneuvering and the consolidation of brands within the SEC and Big Ten, Notre Dame remains an indie, meaning that remains a viable path. How much longer will that remain the case? It's hard to say. Forever would be nice. But for now, let's preview 2023's independents!

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 133 FBS teams. The previews will include 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for each team.

2022 recap​

On a broad scale, the four remaining indies achieved about what was expected of them in 2022. SP+ projected them to win 22.4 games on average, and they won 22, but three of them (Notre Dame, Army and UMass) all underachieved slightly and lent some wins to surprising UConn. The Huskies were projected 128th overall, with 2.5 wins expected, but they went 6-7 in Jim Mora's first season in charge, beating Fresno State, Boston College and Liberty, among others, and bowling for the first time since 2015. The other coaches didn't fare quite as well. Marcus Freeman dealt with quarterback uncertainty in his first season atop the Notre Dame org chart and started slowly (3-3) before his Irish rallied to go 9-4. UMass flashed glimpses of defensive competence in Don Brown's first season back in Amherst, but the offense was dire and only a win over Stony Brook prevented a winless campaign.

At West Point, Jeff Monken's Army Black Knights battled a bit of an existential crisis, still doing plenty of Army things -- triple option, fourth-down conversions and so on -- but not doing them quite as consistently after some rule changes. They went 6-6, thanks in part to a pair of wins over FCS opponents (plus UConn and UMass), but Monken weighed changes.

2023 projections​

Notre Dame18.9 (15)36.6 (25)17.7 (15)8.9
Army-9.0 (87)21.5 (88)30.5 (81)5.9
Connecticut-19.0 (120)12.8 (128)31.8 (91)4.3
Massachusetts-21.9 (127)10.5 (130)32.4 (94)4.0

SP+ in no way trusts either the UConn or UMass offenses to pack much of a punch this season, but their transfer portal work was intriguing, and it won't take too many upsets for one of them to make another bowl run. Army faces a tougher schedule and a slight system change on offense, and Notre Dame faces a schedule loaded with trap games and beatable opponents. Both the Irish offense and defense need some improvement, though.

Burning questions​

Can Notre Dame create some big plays? As a college football analyst, former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz was fond of saying, "You coach a different team every week." We talk about teams as if they are a single set of characteristics -- especially in offseason summaries like this -- but a team's offense, defense and sometimes special teams unit all evolve, or potentially devolve, throughout the course of a short season.

Notre Dame was a pretty clear example of that last fall. In his first year at the helm, Freeman kept incumbent offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, but he had to lean on a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks -- first Tyler Buchner, then Drew Pyne when Buchner suffered a long-term injury. Even so, the Irish offense slowly evolved into an effective, power-heavy attack as the season progressed. Rees was increasingly happy to deploy multiple tight ends (he did so 47% of the time) and occasionally used multiple backs. The output was inconsistent early, but beginning with a 44-21 thumping of UNLV, Notre Dame began to find itself.

Notre Dame, first six games: 23.7 points per game, 5.6 yards per play, 3-3 record

Notre Dame, last seven games: 38.7 points per game, 6.2 yards per play, 6-1 record

Over the last seven games, running backs Logan Diggs and Audric Estime combined to average 158 rushing yards per game (at 5.6 yards per carry) with 10 touchdowns. The offensive line was a mauler, and while Pyne was rarely asked to carry much weight -- he threw more than 30 passes in a game just once -- he mostly avoided mistakes and produced brilliant performances against Navy (in a win) and USC (in a loss). Buchner returned and threw for 273 yards, with 61 rushing yards and five combined touchdowns (and three near-devastating interceptions) in a Gator Bowl thriller against South Carolina.

The power identity ended up working pretty well. But Rees and Buchner left for Alabama, Pyne transferred to Arizona State, Diggs went to LSU, all-world tight end Michael Mayer ended up with the Las Vegas Raiders, and both star guards ran out of eligibility.

Estime is back, and the offensive line, led by All-America tackle Joe Alt, should still be excellent. New offensive coordinator Gerad Parker can probably get away with leaning on power looks quite a bit this year, too. But he will be crafting a new passing game around former Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, slot receivers Jayden Thomas and Chris Tyree (a converted running back) and whichever blue-chip wideouts -- junior Deion Colzie? Sophomore Tobias Merriweather? Freshman Braylon James? -- manages to live up to the hype.

Colzie and Merriweather combined to gain 233 yards in just 10 catches in 2022, but the Irish didn't generate nearly enough big plays through the air; only five FBS teams, in fact, completed fewer passes of 40-plus yards. If a couple of high-ceiling pass-catchers break through, it would make a massive difference. Of course, Hartman should be an upgrade no matter what. He threw for 12,967 yards and 110 touchdowns over parts of five seasons in Winston-Salem, and while he will be operating from a different system, he has an aggressive big-play streak that Notre Dame hasn't seen at quarterback for quite a while. He averaged 13.7 yards per completion last season; the Irish haven't topped 13.0 since 2016.

Do the Irish have enough beef on D? The Notre Dame offense took the brunt of the blame early -- it averaged just 4.9 yards per play and 15 points per game in those three early losses. But that distracted us from a defense that was itself pretty inconsistent. The Irish allowed 21 or fewer points in seven games but also gave up 32 or more three times in the final four games (and four times overall). Marshall, Navy and USC all topped 200 rushing yards on the Irish, who finished the year just 61st in rushing success rate allowed, then lost second-round edge rusher Isaiah Foskey. Inside linebackers Marist Liufau and JD Bertrand return, as do five of the seven linemen who saw at least 120 snaps last year. But only one of those five tops 300 pounds (sophomore Gabriel Rubio); there's not a ton of beef here.

The secondary should still be excellent. Notre Dame ranked seventh in passing success rate allowed, sophomore corner Benjamin Morrison is one of college football's best, and transfer safeties Thomas Harper (Oklahoma State) and Antonio Carter II (Rhode Island) should fit in well. But Foskey was the only player with at least five sacks, so the pass rush needs a couple of new difference-makers. (Seniors Jordan Botelho and Javontae Jean-Baptiste, an Ohio State transfer, could be those guys.) The run defense also needs to hold up. Will it?

The schedule is a "see whatever you want" experiment. If you think Notre Dame has top-10 potential, then there might be only two games all season in which the Irish are underdogs: Ohio State on Sept. 23 and at Clemson on Nov. 4. But if you think this is more of a transitional, top-30 team, then suddenly road trips to NC State, Duke and Louisville are all losable, as are visits from USC and maybe Pitt or Wake Forest. SP+ projects an average of nine wins but gives the Irish at least a 10% chance of going 10-2 or better or going 6-6 or worse. A more consistent run defense could be key to making the former more likely than the latter.

What does a modernized Army offense look like? Last spring, the NCAA rules committee moved to ban all cut blocks -- blocks below the waist, even if from the front or side -- outside of the tackle box. It also limited who was allowed to throw cut blocks at all. Player safety and knee injuries were cited as the rationale for the change, but it basically seemed to be targeted at two offenses in particular: the flexbone triple-option offenses of Army and Navy. (Air Force runs a ton of option, too, but its scheme has long been a bit different.) There was no long-running record of increased injuries suffered against the Black Knights or Midshipmen, but that didn't seem to matter.

On paper, Army's rushing numbers didn't suffer because of the change. The Knights averaged 4.8 yards per carry and ranked 53rd in rushing success rate while going 9-4 in 2021, and they improved to 5.4 and 29th last year. But that success came against one of the weakest schedules in FBS, and it appears Monken saw the writing on the wall. Just as new Navy head coach Brian Newberry hired Kennesaw State offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut to add some modern touches to its option attack, Monken dipped one level further down, bringing in Drew Thatcher from Division II Nebraska-Kearney.

Thatcher's UNK attack averaged 32.8 points per game and 6.6 yards per play last year -- excellent numbers -- while rushing nearly 45 times per game. It created a lot more big plays than Army or Navy have seen in a while. UNK quarterback TJ Davis attempted about 16 rushes and passes per game, which would be pass happy only by service academy standards, but considering Cade Ballard led Army with 46 total passes last season, it's pretty clear that change is coming.

Will the changes take? And does Army have what it needs at quarterback? The top three on last year's depth chart (including Ballard) are all gone, leaving Bryson Daily (one pass attempt, 11 rushes) as the most experienced option. Daily scored touchdowns of 64 and 54 yards among those 11 rushes, and he -- or whoever wins the job -- will have an experienced line and a pair of veteran fullbacks (Tyson Riley and Jakobi Buchanan) at his disposal. But after a No. 92 ranking in offensive SP+ last year, Monken needs Thatcher's tweaks to take root.

He also needs a rebound from a defense that fell from 18th to 44th in defensive SP+. This is a veteran unit -- 10 of 14 defenders with 250-plus snaps are back, and all of them are seniors -- but tackle Kwabena Bonsu, star linebacker Andre Carter II and safety Marquel Broughton were the only real playmakers, and they're all gone. The schedule is trickier (only five opponents are projected lower than 77th in SP+), so Army will probably need to improve just to match last year's .500 record.

What does Jim Mora do for an encore? Sure, there's context. Among UConn's six wins were four against teams ranked 112th or worse in SP+ (the Huskies lost to two others in that category), and the two wins against better teams (No. 58 Fresno State and No. 73 Liberty) were offset by quite a few blowout losses. Despite reaching six wins, UConn still ranked only 116th in SP+ (124th on offense), suggesting that Mora might struggle to match those same heights in his second year.

Still, UConn bowled! A team that went 4-32 from 2018 to 2021 (and 3-9 in each of the two years before that) went 6-7! That's a massive accomplishment even if my spreadsheets weren't totally impressed. With Mora serving as his own defensive coordinator after Lou Spanos took a personal leave of absence right before the season, the Huskies held five opponents to 14 or fewer points (and went 5-0 when doing so), and despite a ridiculously young two-deep they finished with their best defensive SP+ ranking (73rd) since 2016.

Not wanting to wreck a good thing, it appears Mora will again serve as his own DC this fall. And of the 15 players who recorded at least 200 snaps last season, 12 return, including defensive ends Eric Watts and Pryce Yates, linebacker Jackson Mitchell (11 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 16 run stops) and outstanding safeties Malik Dixon-Williams and Durante Jones. Yates was a freshman and both of those safeties were sophomores in 2022. Mora added five transfers to the secondary as well; it would honestly be surprising if the Huskies didn't top their No. 91 defensive projection.

Theoretically, the offense could clear a low bar, too. And it's a low bar. UConn topped 5.3 yards per play in only three games last season and finished 113th in success rate, 125th through the air. Penn State transfer Ta'Quan Roberson tore an ACL in the first game, and the reins went to freshman Zion Turner. Despite attempting mostly short, safe passes, Turner managed just a 58% completion rate with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). Among 123 eligible quarterbacks, he ranked 117th in Total QBR.

Any of Turner, Roberson, junior Cale Millen or Maine transfer Joseph Fagnano could end up with the starting job in 2023, but Mora plumped up the receiving corps with transfers like New Mexico's Geordon Porter (14.2 yards per catch) and blue-chip sophomore tight end Louis Hansen from Michigan. Receiver Cameron Ross, who led the Huskies in receiving as a freshman in 2019 and has basically fought injuries ever since, could be ready to provide another boost, and Louisville transfer Jalen Mitchell could add some oomph to an already decent run game. It's pretty easy to understand why the offense is projected so low -- the Huskies have ranked in the 120s in offensive SP+ six times in the past 10 years, topping 103rd only once -- but you can talk yourself into overachievement here.

How quickly can Don Brown get something going on offense? In his first stint as UMass' head coach, from 2004 to '08, Don Brown got the Minutemen to the FCS national title game. In his second go-round, UMass might be happy with a 5-7 season. The school mistimed its FBS jump about as badly as possible: The Minutemen were just a .500 team over their final four FCS seasons, and in 11 FBS seasons they've averaged 1.9 wins and an SP+ ranking of 121.0. Mark Whipple went 4-8 twice; turns out, those were the salad days.

Brown's 1-11 debut, then, was pretty familiar. But after more than a decade of mostly stellar and aggressive work as a defensive coordinator, he was able to generate a bit of momentum on that side of the ball. UMass rose from 129th to 107th in defensive SP+, its best such ranking since 2015, and finished with a respectable 71 tackles for loss (70th). This was a genuine Don Brown defense -- fifth nationally in blitzes per dropback, third in percentage of passes playing man coverage -- and it would have fared even better if opponents ever had to actually pass. But with UMass' constant deficits and general run deficiencies, those opportunities were rare.

Brown's reputation has helped him in the transfer portal. He has brought in eight power-conference defenders, including former blue-chippers in tackle Shambre Jackson (Florida State) and safeties Jalen Harrell (Miami) and Steven Ortiz Jr. (Miami). Most of last year's core -- 13 of the 18 players with 200-plus snaps -- returns, too. This could be an incredibly fun defense to watch.

Lest you think this is a totally optimistic preview, we should probably talk about the offense, too. UMass has ranked 127th, 126th and 129th in offensive SP+ over the past three years and was held to 13 or fewer points in an incredible nine games in 2022. Former Michigan analyst Steve Casula had little to work with in his first season as offensive coordinator, but like Mora, Brown tried to improve a destitute attack through the transfer portal.

He brought in nearly an entire starting lineup's worth of transfers, including former blue-chippers in quarterback Taisun Phommachanh (Georgia Tech) and receiver Mark Pope (Miami/Jackson State), and the starting QB of choice, be it incumbent Brady Olson, Phommachanh or Western Carolina transfer Carlos Davis, will have a decent receiving corps to throw to. Pope joins slot man George Johnson III and App State transfer Christian Wells as likely primary targets.

Is there a lot here? No. But Brown does seem to be building something on defense, and the Minutemen have five games against teams projected 114th or worse in SP+. Going even 2-10 would be an accomplishment UMass hasn't pulled off since 2018; I figure they do at least that much.

My 10 favorite players​

QB Sam Hartman, Notre Dame. Most passing yards from a Notre Dame quarterback over the past 20 years: Brady Quinn's 3,919 in 2005. Only one other passer topped even 3,500 yards (Jimmy Clausen in 2009). Hartman averaged 3,965 over the past two seasons.

FB Jakobi Buchanan, Army. New or old option, what is Army's attack without a stellar fullback? The 260-pound Buchanan has been a red zone master for three seasons, scoring 24 touchdowns among his 348 career carries.

WR Cameron Ross, UConn. After catching 60 passes for 723 yards in 2019, Ross sat for all of 2020 amid UConn's canceled season, suffered a season-ending injury two games into 2021, and broke his foot in the 2022 preseason. He returned to catch two passes in the Myrtle Beach Bowl, and he could finally be ready to thrive again in 2023. Perseverance!

LT Joe Alt, Notre Dame. Notre Dame has signed plenty of blue-chip linemen through the years, but Alt, who signed as a three-star tight end in 2021, might end up as good as any of them. He allowed one sack with a 0.5% blown block rate last year. As a left tackle!

LG Cole Garcia, UMass. Garcia is the most mistake-free player on the UMass offense. The 300-pound Rice transfer produced a 1.4% blown block rate, allowed one sack and committed no penalties while logging at least one snap in four different positions on the line.

DT Rylie Mills, Notre Dame. Mills, a 296-pound senior, made the most of an increased workload last year, leading the Irish line with nine TFLs and six run stops. If Notre Dame holds up on the edge, Mills could make plays between the tackles.

DT Billy Wooden, UMass. A 2.5-year starter from Towson, Maryland, Wooden is as active a 310-pounder as you'll see. He made tackles on 13.5% of his snaps and finished 2022 with 15 run stops and 8.5 TFLs in only nine games. This UMass line could be feisty.

DE Eric Watts, UConn. After a decent 2021 performance, Watts, a senior from Sumter, South Carolina, raised his havoc game last fall, leading UConn with eight sacks and two forced fumbles, and he contributed a solid seven run stops as well.

ILB Leo Lowin, Army. The Black Knights have a lot of playmakers to replace, but at least they still have Lowin, a senior from Austin, Texas. He did a little bit of everything in 2022: three sacks, five run stops and three passes defensed (including two INTs).

CB Benjamin Morrison, Notre Dame. A blue-chipper from Phoenix, Morrison quickly became indispensable, picking off six passes, breaking up five more and allowing a paltry 9.6 QBR as primary coverage guy. As a freshman! He's dynamite.


In 1958, 65 years ago, Army went unbeaten. Sure, there were some, shall we say, wartime recruiting advantages, but Red Blaik fielded three of the best teams in college football history while going 27-0-1 from 1944-46. After an honor code scandal cast a bit of a black cloud over the program in the early 1950s, Blaik's Black Knights resumed their top form with four ranked finishes between 1953 and 1957.

Before retiring for corporate life, Blaik fielded one last nearly perfect team. His 1958 Cadets beat three ranked teams (including Notre Dame) by a combined 73-17 score, finished in the top five in both scoring offense and defense and finished third in the AP poll with an 8-0-1 record. After Blaik's Hall of Fame-level dominance, Army would enjoy only sporadic success over the following six decades.

In 1993, 30 years ago, Notre Dame came achingly close. It has been 35 years since Notre Dame's last national title, but Lou Holtz's Irish came as close as possible to adding a second ring five years later. Powered by the nation's best offensive line -- tackle Aaron Taylor and center Tim Ruddy both earned All-America honors -- Notre Dame took home an epic 27-23 win at No. 3 Michigan early in the season, then knocked off top-ranked Florida State at home to move to No. 1 in late November.

It fell into a trap the next week against Boston College but overcame a 21-point deficit to take a 39-38 lead with 1:09 left. After a near-interception by Notre Dame's Pete Bercich, however, BC drove into field goal range in the closing seconds, and David Gordon knocked in a 41-yarder at the buzzer to secure a huge upset. The Irish beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, but their loss was enough to push Florida State back ahead of them in the final polls. FSU's Bobby Bowden had his first title, and Holtz never got his second.

In 1998, 25 years ago, UMass won the national title. The Minutemen haven't put their best foot forward at the FBS level, but UMass' football program was once as storied as it came at the lower levels. The Minutemen won or shared 22 conference titles between 1960 and 2007 and reached the finals of the FCS playoffs in 1978, 1998 and 2006. They won only one of the three title games, but it was incredibly memorable.

In the 1998 championship, Mark Whipple's Minutemen and Paul Johnson's Georgia Southern Eagles combined for 1,057 yards and 49 first downs as UMass broke out to an early 14-0 lead, expanded it to 38-14 late in the first half, then held on for dear life. Georgia Southern cut the lead to 5, but Marcel Shipp's 244 rushing yards and three touchdowns carried UMass to a 55-43 win.

In 2003, 20 years ago, UConn began playing at Rentschler Field. UConn won or shared nearly as many Yankee Conference titles as UMass (15 to UM's 17) and started dreaming big after its run to the 1998 FCS quarterfinals. (It was tripped up by Georgia Southern in another track meet, losing 52-30.)

In 1999, the Huskies hired former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Randy Edsall as head coach and applied to join the Big East in football. They jumped to FBS in 2000 and became full-fledged Big East members in 2004. (They would share the 2007 and 2010 conference titles.) In between, they began playing their home games at a facility much bigger than their on-campus Memorial Stadium. East Hartford's Rentschler Field became their home in 2003, and they christened it with a 34-10 walloping of Indiana. ESPN's own Dan Orlovsky threw for 307 yards and three TDs in the big win.

In 2018, five years ago, Army finished ranked. We'll see what comes of Monken's offensive tweaks, but Army had managed just one ranked finish between Blaik's retirement and Monken's hiring in 2014 -- Bob Sutton's 1996 team went 10-2 and finished 25th. Monken had the Black Knights bowling by his third year, then went 21-5 in 2017 and '18, winning a pair of Armed Forces Bowls, nearly knocking off Kyler Murray and playoff-bound Oklahoma in 2018 and finishing the 2018 season with a 70-14 destruction of Houston and No. 19 finish in the final AP poll.
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