It’s hard to believe that there were 26 Independent football programs in 1989. With Navy joining the AAC (American Athletic) in 2015, Notre Dame is the only program that has never been affiliated with a conference. Army has been on their own since 2005. The Black Knights spent 7 years (1998 to 2004) as a member of C-USA.
BYU joined the Independent ranks in 2011. Prior to that the Cougars were members of the Mountain West from 1999 to 2010. UMass became an Independent in 2016 after playing the MAC from 2012 to 2015.
This year two more programs are added to the list. New Mexico State returns as an independent. The Aggies were an Independent for the 2013 campaign before joining the Sun Belt, where they have belonged the past 4 years.
Liberty is making the jump to the FBS this season. The Flames spent the previous 30 years at the FCS level.
Independent College Football Preview & Predictions
The biggest thing to look for when handicapping the Independent teams is the schedule. While these teams don’t play in a conference, their schedule can sometimes be harder than what a team would typically go up against. For example, most teams play 8 or 9 conference games during the season. Notre Dame has 10 games against a Power-5 opponent this year and the other two are far from cupcakes.
That’s not to say every Independent’s schedule is that overwhelming. In fact, the only other Independent with more than 2 games against Power 5 teams is BYU with just 5.
In terms of making the playoffs, the only team with an even remote shot of crashing the party is Notre Dame.
I’ve taken a close look at each of these six teams and put together my projected standings for 2018. Find out if I’m high or low on them by looking at the Vegas win totals. You can also get a jump start on the new season with the Week 1 betting odds.
Want to see how I have each conference playing out this year? Check out my 2018 predictions page for a complete breakdown of the NCAA football landscape.
2018 Independent Projected Standings & Rankings
|4th||New Mexico St||5-7|
After a dismal 2016 campaign, where the Irish finished just 4-8, Notre Dame emerged as one of the best teams in the country. The Fighting Irish started out 9-1 with their only loss a 1-point defeat to Georgia. They were No. 3 in the country before an embarrassing 41-8 loss at Miami. They would later lose by 18 at Stanford, but did rebound to win their bowl game over LSU to finish 10-3.
The offense gets back junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who they believe is going to turn into a star. Notre Dame needs him to be great, as they have to replace their top two running backs, three of their top five receivers and two NFL draft picks on the offensive line. The good news is the defense brings back 9 starters from a unit that only gave up 21.5 ppg and 369 ypg.
While I think the Irish are going to figure things out on offense and be one of the more talented teams in the country, I can’t see them running the table with that schedule. They have four difficult road games against Wake Forest, Va Tech, Northwestern and USC, as well as three home games against Michigan (opener), Stanford and Florida State.
As you can see there’s a pretty big drop off from Notre Dame and the other five Independent schools. UMass is the only other team I have making a bowl, but keep in mind that the ranks here are based on overall record, not who I think is better.
The Minutemen went a combined 8-40 in their 4 years as a member of the MAC. After going just 2-10 in 2016, UMass finished 4-8 and weren’t far off from a bowl. Out of their 8 losses, 7 came by 11 or less, including a mere 4-point loss at Tennessee and 11-point defeat at Mississippi State.
This year the Minutemen are loaded with 15 returning starters, including 9 on the offensive side of the ball. Last year UMass put up 30.6 ppg and 433 ypg and should have no problem topping that. They have two likely losses on the road against BC and Georgia, but those are the only two that they figure to be completely outclassed. I have them at 6 wins and wouldn’t be shocked if they won more.
The Cougars are coming off a 2017 season they would like to forget. BYU finished 4-9 (started out 1-7), which was the first time they posted a losing record since going 5-6 back in 2004. Most thought the Cougars might be down a little given a schedule that had them play LSU, Wisconsin and Utah over their first four weeks, but this was far worse than what anyone thought.
This year BYU has 14 starters back and will be one of the more experienced teams in the country, which are two big positives to them getting this thing back on track. However, the schedule is brutal once again. BYU has road games at Arizona, Wisconsin and Washington, as well as a home game against Cal over their first 5 games. They also later have to host Northern Illinois and go to both Boise St and Utah.
I expect a better product on the field, but don’t see the Cougars improving all that much on their win total.
The Black Knights are coming off one of their best two-year stretches in school history. After failing to win more than 4 games in five straight seasons, Army finished 8-5 and snapped a 14-game losing streak to Navy in 2016. They made it two in a row against the Midshipmen and tied their school record with 10 wins at 10-3.
Each of the past two years the Black Knights have had an amazing 16 returning starters. This year they have only 11 and just 3 of those come on the offensive side of the ball. Triple-option teams like Army aren’t built to play from behind and I just think this year’s team will have trouble scoring enough to keep games close early, especially against the better competition.
New Mexico State
The Aggies are a program that’s trending in the right direction under head coach Doug Martin. New Mexico State finished 6-6 and were invited to a bowl game for the first time since 1960. They made the most of it and pulled out a 26-20 win in overtime over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl to finish 7-6.
While the Aggies have 15 starters back, the offense losses their starting quarterback and both their top rusher and receiver. They also play a much tougher schedule this year after leaving the Sun Belt. The good news is there are a lot of winnable games on the slate and I have them just one upset away from back-to-back bowls.
We have seen a number of FCS teams transition very well to the FBS level. However, most of those have come from teams that joined the Sun Belt, which is by far the worst of the FBS conferences. Liberty definitely has the makeup of a program that can compete at this level. The Flames haven’t had a losing season since 2005 and their athletic facilities aren’t far off from what you see at some Power 5 schools.
Not to mention they have 16 starters back from a team that went on the road and upset Baylor last year 48-45 as a 30-point dog. I could definitely see this team flirting with a bowl eligibility, but I’m taking the more cautious approach and calling for the Flames to struggle in their first go of things at the FBS level.
Future Betting Odds
|Players (Pos, School)||Odds|
|Brandon Wimbush (QB, Notre Dame)||+3500|
Find out where these two players rank overall in our Heisman odds section.
Not a big surprise to see these two as the only teams with betting lines to make the 4-team playoff. Find out where they rank against the other top programs in our championship odds page.