Group of 5/Independents "Evens"
With our 2019 NCAA Football Previews just over the midway point, here is a look at the top Independent/Group of Five programs and what to expect from them. First up the evens…
2. Notre Dame – 12-1 – Last season the Notre Dame faithful (and we know who they are, they won’t shut up about it) were all telling us that the Irish were back, that Brian Kelly was going to finish what he started in 2012. Well, kind of. Just like in 2012 the Irish ripped through their schedule in undefeated fashion. Also like 2012, they were unceremoniously clubbed once the postseason started. With much of last season’s offense returning, Head Coach Brian Kelly hopes that he can get a different result from Ian Book (Sr-QB) and company. The line protecting Book is nearly intact as well, with only sophomore Jarrett Patterson being new. The defense will be led by the secondary this season, led by safeties Alohi Gilman (top returning tackler-95) and Jalen Elliott (led team with 4 INTs). Also, look for more from senior DE Julian Okwara who returns after dropping opposing QBs eight times last year.
If everything goes right – The Irish will get out of October undefeated, having beaten the likes of Georgia, USC, and Michigan with only the season finale @Stanford as a real test.
If everything goes wrong – The Irish see their CFP dreams evaporate before Halloween with two losses from the three teams listed above, if that happens, there isn’t enough quality wins on their schedule to make up for them.
Prediction – The Irish will be walking a tightrope all season long after a September loss to Georgia in Athens. I’m not sure they lose another game, but they’ll need everyone on their schedule to play well before and after their game Vs the Golden Domers.
4. Army – 11-2 – After Head Coach Jeff Monken’s fifth season in West Point it’s safe to say that the turnaround is complete. For the first time in program history, the football team won 10+ games in back-to-back years (Army HAS had a number of undefeated seasons, but only played 9 games in them) and a possibility of a third consecutive 10+ win season. That possibility is tempered by the loss of starters from last year’s squad, the Black Knights only bring back nine starters (five offense, four defense). Fortunately one of those returnees is senior QB Kelvin Hopkins Jr. who last year totaled over 2000 yds of total offense and racked up 17 TDs. While the ball is certainly spread around in Army’s offense, Hopkins will see the ball in his hands more often than not in crunch time. On defense the biggest loss isn’t a player, but rather former DC Jay Bateman who left for Chapel Hill, NC and Mack Brown’s staff at UNC. Bateman’s defense was ranked 10th in the FBS in 2018, allowing a bit under 18 points a game. His replacement, John Loose, was the DC for the Armed Forces Bowl Vs. Houston where Army sacked the Cougars QB 10 times.
If everything goes right – Army could be looking at an 11 win season going into their bowl game or (if they can beat Michigan) even be in the discussion for a CFP spot (SOS would likely keep them out.)
If everything goes wrong – Army could lose as many as four games. They’d still make a bowl, but would drop a lot of precious recruiting momentum.
Prediction – 11-1 going into the postseason. A record like that could make them attractive to a better bowl game and more attention.
6. Memphis – 8-6 (5-3 won West division of AAC) – With five consecutive season of 8+ wins in Memphis, it’s official, there are expectations to be met. It doesn’t matter that there are seven new assistant coaches (including both coordinators). It doesn’t matter that First-Team All-American RB Darrell Henderson is in L.A. now. What matters are expectations, that’s what riles up fans and gets coaches fired (when not met) and what gets you P5 jobs and fat contracts (when they are). Fortunately for the coaching staff they return junior QB Brady White with most of his weapons (sans Mr. Henderson) and while not an All-American, senior RB Patrick Taylor (1,122 Ru yds, 16 TDs in 2018) should be more than capable toting the ball. On defense the Tigers have a “good news-bad news” situation. The good news is that they return eight starters. The bad news is that the returning players were part of a Tigers team that was 89th in FBS last season and one that gave up 25 plays of 40+ yds.
If everything goes right – The Tigers are 8-0 going into November with a win over geographical rival Ole Miss and finish it up undefeated to face UCF in the AAC Championship Game.
If everything goes wrong – Ole Miss spanks the Tigers to start the season and while the Tigers recover, they drop at least four more, finishing the season on a three-game slide against AAC opponents.
Prediction – The Tigers likely drop at least three games and at least one of them is a head-scratcher. If they can beat Houston (@Houston, Nov 16) they still take the West division.
8. Toledo – 7-6 (5-3 3rd in MAC West) – it was a bit of a shock to Rockets fans, the 7-6 follow-up to a 2017 MAC title, as it was only the second season in the last nine in which they failed to win at least 8 games. What happened? It’s pretty simple really, an injured QB (Sr Mitchell Gaudagni – broken collarbone) and a defense that couldn’t stop anyone (finished 80th FBS). Gaudagni is healed up and back, along with a veteran offensive line, and a pair of running backs that combined for almost 1,500 yds and 19 TDs (So Bryant Koback and Jr Shakif Seymour). The receiving corps will need to be rebuilt with the loss of Cody Thompson, Jon’Vea Johnson, and Diontae Johnson who’re all gone to the NFL. As for the defense? Well, there are pieces there. Safeties Kahlil Robinson and DeDarrallo Blue return and Jamal Hines shows promise as an edge rusher after starting ten games as a freshman. How the Rocket’s season turns out will depend on if they can get the middle of their defense straightened out.
If everything goes right – Toledo enters conference play at no worse than 3-1. Not having to play Ohio in the regular season is big and they get Western Michigan and Northern Illinois (projected as 2, 3 in the division) at home this year and could pave the way for another MAC Championship.
If everything goes wrong – The Rockets are limping into conference play after going 1-3 and have to face division contender Western Michigan in the conference opener. If they lose that one it could be a long season in northwestern Ohio.
Prediction – Everything comes down to how the Rockets start the season. If they can go 4-0 or 3-1 they could be propelled to a Division title. A 1-3 start could be bad news if they can’t shake the losses. I think they win enough games to win the division but wins total is iffy.
10. Ohio – 9-4 (6-2 3rd in MAC East) In the 15 years that Frank Solich has been the Head Coach at Ohio University we’ve seen things that had, previously, been rarely seen (appearing in the AP poll for the first time since 1968) or never seen (zero bowl wins Pre-Solich, four since). One thing eludes the former Nebraska Head Coach though- he’s never won a MAC Conference title. This might be the year he and the Bobcats break through. With Jr QB Nathan Rourke under center, we know the Bobcats will have an offense that hums right along. Thought the O-line only returns a pair of starters, on the left side, Solich uses a system he learned from his time at Cornhusker U. Offensive line recruits will spend the better part of two (and sometimes three) seasons in the weight and film rooms building their bodies and minds in preparation to start their junior or senior seasons. On defense Ohio brings back most of a defense that was 44th in the FBS with 24.1 points allowed/game. That stat is a little misleading as the group found its stride in the second half of the season allowing only 17.2 point/game. Senior safety Javon Hagan returns to lead a secondary that itself returns three of four starters, he also might be the best DB in the MAC.
If everything goes right – We see the Bobcats start the season 5-0 or 4-1 and survive an opening to the season that sees them playing three away games in their first five (including last season’s MAC East Champs, Buffalo). If they can pull that off, they should be in line to win the division.
If everything goes wrong – Ohio is opening conference play @Buffalo with a 2-2 record and things are off the rails before they get going.
Prediction – Look for Ohio to get through the non-conference season with a 3-1 record and get past Buffalo on their way to a MAC East title.