FBS Independent 2023 college football preview

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FBS Independent 2023 preview

In 2022, seven teams lived the independent life, but in 2023, only four remain. BYU jumped to the Big 12 after being independent for 12 years, while Liberty and New Mexico State joined Conference USA. Notre Dame remains the most notable independent. A new TV deal with NBC could potentially keep the Irish independent for many more years to come, but the money available in conference life could ultimately entice Notre Dame to join the Big Ten. The Irish do have an agreement with the ACC and will play six ACC teams this year, in addition to clashes with Ohio State and USC. 

 

Army has been an independent since 2005 following a brief seven-year stint in Conference USA. The Black Knights have reached a bowl game in five of the last seven years. Only time will tell how long UConn will remain independent. After winning another basketball National Championship, there were reports of the Huskies potentially moving to the Big 12. UConn reached a bowl game last year for the first time since 2015. Lastly, UMass has been an independent since 2016. The Minutemen had a brief stint in the MAC from 2012-15. UMass had never won more than four games in the FBS ranks.

 

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The first season of the Marcus Freeman era was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Notre Dame finished with a 9-4 record and a thrilling 45-38 win over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. The Irish dominated Clemson, 35-14, but also inexplicably lost to Marshall and Stanford at home. Notre Dame went 6-1 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of seven or fewer points in 2022, while going 1-5 ATS as a favorite of seven or more points with two outright losses. 

The Irish massively upgraded the quarterback position this offseason, adding former Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman. However, the Irish lost offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to Alabama, legendary offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to retirement, and special teams coordinator Brian Mason to the Indianapolis Colts. Notre Dame opens up the season with a trip to Ireland against Navy, hosts Ohio State and USC, and plays six ACC opponents this year, including a visit to Clemson in November. 

Offense

It all starts with the quarterback and Notre Dame might have its best quarterback to start a season since Brady Quinn. Hartman comes to South Bend after a prolific career at Wake Forest. Hartman set ACC records for career passing yards and touchdowns. Shortly after Hartman’s arrival, however, Nick Saban poached Rees. (Rees also took QB Tyler Buchner to Alabama after the spring). Following a bit of a clumsy search for Rees’ replacement, Marcus Freeman promoted tight ends coach Gerard Parker to offensive coordinator. On the surface, the hire is questionable, considering the funds Notre Dame has at its disposal — as well as Parker’s lack of play-calling experience. 

On the good side, Notre Dame’s offensive line is anchored by a pair of potential first-round picks. Tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher could be the best duo in the country. Starting C Zeke Correll also returns, but the Irish need to replace G Jarrett Patterson, who was drafted by the Houston Texans. Running back Audric Estime had a breakout season in 2022, leading the Irish with 920 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Estime should have over 1,000 yards this season running behind that line. 

Notre Dame lost RB Logan Diggs to LSU (821 rushing yards) and Chris Tyree has moved from RB to WR. Tight end Michael Mayer moved on to the NFL and was drafted by the Las Vegas Raiders in the second round. Mayer led the Irish with 67 receptions, 809 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Wideout Jayden Thomas will likely be Hartman’s main target this fall. Thomas began to emerge down the stretch last season and had five receptions in the Gator Bowl (Mayer opted out). Wide receiver Tobias Merriweather could have a breakout season this year, and the Irish also brought in three four-star recruits at the position that could see some early action. 

Defense

One of the most stunning stats regarding Notre Dame in 2022 was its red zone defense. If an opponent entered the red zone, it almost always left with points. Notre Dame allowed a touchdown 79% of the time and allowed points on 94% of its opponents’ red zone trips (32-34). 

Defensive coordinator Al Golden enters his second season in South Bend and is coming off his first full offseason (Golden joined Notre Dame’s staff following the Bengals’ Super Bowl appearance in 2021). The strength of the defense will be at linebacker. JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser, and Marist Liufau all return. They were the top three tacklers on the team last year. Former five-star recruit Jaylen Sneed should see some more playing in his sophomore season as well. 

At cornerback, the Irish have a strong duo in Cam Hart and Benjamin Morrison. Morrison had six interceptions last year and was a Freshman All-American last year. The safety position is the biggest concern for Notre Dame this year. The Irish added FCS Rhode Island transfer Antonio Carter in the spring to help bolster the position, but there is still plenty of cause for concern. 

Up front, Notre Dame needs to replace DE Isaiah Foskey (second-round pick by Saints) and the Ademiloa twins. The Irish added Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste to fill Foskey’s role, but the front line seems to be missing some much-needed beef. 

Outlook

Notre Dame will play in the first college football game of the 2023 season against Navy over in Ireland in Week 0. After playing its first-ever FCS opponent (Tennessee State) on Labor Day weekend, the Irish will visit NC State on September 9. Notre Dame will be an underdog against Ohio State and Clemson, and around a pick ‘em against USC on October 14. The Irish have several tricky games, including trips to Duke and Louisville, as well as a home game against Pitt the week before Clemson. 

I predict Notre Dame will go 1-2 against Ohio State, Clemson, and USC but will drop at least one game as a favorite. Marcus Freeman’s early track record of losing games as a big favorite does not bode well with a number of unique road games this year. The most likely outcome for the Irish is a nine-win season, but Notre Dame is more likely to win eight games than 10. 

Pick: Under 9

 

Army Black Knights

The goal remains the same for Army every football season. Beat Navy, beat Air Force, win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, and reach a bowl game. The Black Knights defeated Navy in double overtime last year but failed to win the CIC Trophy and did not reach a bowl game. Head coach Jeff Monken enters his 10th season in West Point and has done an incredible job turning the program around. Army has reached a bowl game in five of the last seven seasons and has just one losing season since 2015. 

The Black Knights are making some tweaks to the offense in 2023 and will no longer run the triple option from under center. Army will still use an option attack but will operate mainly out of the shotgun. Drew Thatcher is the new offensive coordinator in West Point, coming over from Division II Nebraska-Kearney. The schedule is challenging this season. In addition to rivals Navy and Air Force, Army will play three P5 teams (Syracuse, Boston College, LSU), as well as three G5 programs that reached a bowl game in 2022 (UTSA, Troy, Coastal Carolina). 

Offense

It is hard to envision right now but come September 2 at UL Monroe, Army’s offense will operate primarily out of the shotgun. Due to NCAA rule changes that eliminated blocking below the waist anywhere but inside the tackle box, Monken decided to make the massive change this spring. Monken told The Athletic, “We kind of limped through last season. I just didn’t feel like it was sustainable.” Army made a change at offensive coordinator, bringing in Thatcher. Still, expect plenty of rushing for the Black Knights in 2023. Army rushed for 289.4 yards per game (2nd in FBS) last season. Nebraska-Kearney finished fifth in Division II with 264.1 rushing yards per game. 

The Black Knights have zero combined starts in its quarterback room entering 2023. Tyhier Tyler, Cade Ballard, and Jemel Jones all graduated. Tyler was Army’s leading rusher last season, and Ballard attempted a team-high 46 passes. Despite losing Tyler, the Black Knights’ top four leading running backs return in 2023. Tyson Riley, Jakobi Buchanan, Tyrell Robinson and Ay’Juan Marshall combined to rush for 1,353 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Marshall also had six receptions for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Isaiah Alston could see more action this year. Alston was Army’s leading receiver last year (16 catches, 269 yards, 1 TD). The offensive line has a combined 76 starts but could struggle at times with the new offensive scheme.

Defense

Eight starters return this season from last year’s defense, and defensive coordinator Nate Woody is back for his fourth season in West Point. Army’s defense benefits from lack of possessions due to lengthy offensive possessions. However, last year Army’s offense finished 29th in time of possession (Air Force and Navy finished 1-2). Three players from last year’s team were invited to three NFL mini-camps (LB Andre Carter, LB Marquel Broughton, and DE Kwabena Bonsu). Andre Carter is a big loss after compiling 20 sacks over his career (15.5 in 2021). 

Outlook

It will be a transition year for Army, with drastic changes to the offensive in the works. The Black Knights schedule in 2023 is more challenging than the 2022 schedule. Army opens at UL Monroe, hosts UMass on October 28, and plays a pair of FCS opponents, but the other eight games will either be toss-us or expected losses. 

Army faces three Power Five teams in Syracuse, Boston College, and LSU, and three other quality G5 programs in UTSA, Troy, and Coastal Carolina. Last year, Army lost to UTSA 41-38 in OT, lost to Coastal Carolina 38-28, and slipped past Troy 10-9. All three teams have win totals of 7.5 or better this season. Additionally, Army will play rivals Air Force (in Denver) and Navy (in Foxborough). Last year, the Black Knights won six games but played just one Power Five program (Wake Forest). This season, the schedule intensifies, and I’m not sure how much Army has improved. 

Pick: Under 6

 

UConn Huskies

Jim Mora worked a miracle in his first year in Storrs. Entering last season, UConn had won a total of four games since 2018 (UConn did not play any games in 2020). Despite a preseason win total of 2.5 and losing its starting quarterback in the first game of the season, the Huskies somehow won six games, including three wins as a touchdown underdog or more. UConn also played in its first bowl game since 2015 (lost in the Myrtle Beach Bowl to Marshall, 28-14). 

While Danny Hurley and Geno Auriemma have National Championships under their belts, Mora should walk around the athletic department with his head held high after last year’s magical season. Now what will Mora and the Huskies do as an encore? The Huskies open the season with a nationally televised primetime game against NC State at home (UConn is a 16.5-point underdog). In UConn’s last home game, the Huskies defeated rock-solid Liberty, 36-33, as a 14-point underdog. Can UConn pick up where they left off?

Offense

Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Roberson opened the 2022 season as the Huskies starting quarterback. Unfortunately, Roberson tore his ACL in the first quarter of UConn’s season opener at Utah State. True freshman Zion Turner started the rest of the season and threw just nine touchdown passes. This year, Roberson is expected back, but UConn added Maine transfer Joe Fagnano. UConn offensive coordinator Nick Charlton was Fagnano’s head coach from 2019-21 at Maine. Fagnano and Roberson will likely compete for the starting quarterback role in the fall. 

The Huskies lost a pair of talented players to Power Five programs this offseason. Running back Nathan Carter transferred to Michigan State, and WR Aaron Turner moved on to Cincinnati. Carter rushed for 405 yards on 65 carries in four games last year before getting hurt and missing the remainder of the season. Victor Rosa and Devontae Houston combined to rush for 1,218 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Rosa and Houston return in 2023. The Huskies also added Louisville transfer Jalen Mitchell. Mitchell rushed for 722 yards in 2021. 

Aaron Turner’s production will be difficult to replace. Turner finished with 57 catches for 527 yards and three touchdowns despite a limited passing attack. UConn also lost WR Keelan Marion (BYU) to the portal. 

On the offensive line, the Huskies return four starters that started all 13 games last year. RG Christian Haynes was UConn’s first All-American since 2010 and announced in December that he would be back in 2023. 

Defense

A week before the 2022 season, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos resigned. Jim Mora took over play-calling duties and will remain calling plays in 2023. The Huskies return eight starters from last year’s defense that allowed 380.5 yards per game (70th nationally). LB Jackson Mitchell is back after leading the Huskies with 140 tackles in 2022. LB Brandon Bouyer-Randle had 98 tackles last year and a team-high seven tackles for loss, but Bouyer-Randle is currently in training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Corner Tre Wortham also departed after leading the Huskies with four interceptions last year. The defensive line should be a strength, with DE Eric Watts returning after registering a team-high seven sacks in 2022. The Huskies added some depth via the portal: LB Eriq Gilyard (Kansas), CB Mumu Bin-Wahad (West Virginia), Armauni Archie (Washington State), Zakhari Spears (Washington). 

Outlook

UConn reaching a bowl game in 2022 was one of the biggest surprises of the college football season. Mora’s squad went 9-4 ATS, and the Huskies won and covered all three games they were favorites in. UConn’s three other wins came against Fresno State (+23), Boston College (+7), and Liberty (+14). Under Mora, the UConn program seems to be headed in the right direction. Stability at quarterback would be helpful after not getting much production last season. 

UConn plays four Power Five programs in 2023 and will be an underdog in all four games (NC State, Duke, at Boston College, at Tennessee). UConn will also be an underdog on the road against James Madison on November 11. The Huskies should be a favorite and beat FIU, FCS Sacred Heart, and UMass. The win total will likely come down to four toss-up games: at Georgia State, Utah State, at Rice, South Florida. With a strong offense and defense line, there is certainly a chance UConn heads back to a bowl game for a second straight season, but I expect a little regression following last year’s unexpected six-win season. Four or less wins are more likely than six or more. 

Pick: Under 5

 

UMass Minutemen

UMass joined the FBS ranks back in 2012 and the Minutemen have not won more than four games in a season since. Over the last four seasons, UMass is just 3-37. Additionally, the Minutemen are 1-3 against FCS opponents during that span. Head coach Don Brown is entering year two of his second stint as the head coach of UMass. Brown was the defensive coordinator for UMass in 1998, when the Minutemen won the FCS National Championship. He was also the head coach in 2006, when UMass lost in the FCS National Title game. 

Believe it or not, UMass was a successful program once upon a time, but that was over a decade ago. Brown left UMass in 2009 to become the defensive coordinator at Maryland. Prior to his return, he spent time as the defensive coordinator at UConn, Boston College, Michigan, and Arizona. While the record did not indicate it, the Minutemen improved from 2021 to 2022 and will open the season on the big stage in Week 0. UMass will visit New Mexico State for a primetime game on ESPN.

Offense

Quarterback play was a disaster in Amherst last season. Four QBs combined to throw four touchdowns and 14 interceptions over the season. UMass finished last in FBS with 12.5 points per game and racked up just 266.0 yards per game. QB Taisun Phommachanh will take over the starting quarterback role this year. Phommachanh was a four-star recruit in the class of 2019 and spent the first three years of his college career at Clemson before transferring to Georgia Tech last year. 

UMass lost leading rusher Ellis Merriweather from last year’s team, but Kay’Ron Adams is back. The Minutemen also added Arizona transfer RB Jalen John. WR George Johnson returns after leading UMass with 402 receiving yards last year, and UMass adds a pair of transfers that will likely start alongside Johnson. Wide receiver Anthony Simpson transferred in from Arizona, where he saw the majority of his action as a kickoff returner. Wideout Mark Pope spent last year at Jackson State but caught 33 passes for 403 yards in 2020 for Miami (FL). Tackle Max Longman transferred to Indiana, so the offensive line could be an issue. But with improved quarterback play, the UMass offense should be improved in 2023.  

Defense

Eight starters return for UMass in 2023 after drastically improving in Brown’s first season back. The Minutemen finished 55th in the nation in yards allowed per game (369.6), but they will be without three key pieces of last year’s defense. Corner Josh Wallace hit the portal in May and ultimately landed at Michigan. The secondary did add Vanderbilt transfer S Dashaun Jerkins and Minnesota transfer CB Steven Ortiz. Corner Jordan Mahoney had a solid freshman year with six pass breakups and three interceptions. Up front, DE Marcus Cushnie is gone after compiling 5.5 sacks a year ago. Leading tackler LB Jalen Mackie also departed. But linebacker Jerry Roberts transferred in from Arizona. He started all 12 games for the Wildcats last year and had 78 tackles. 

Outlook

UMass has been one of, if not the, worst FBS program on a yearly basis since jumping from FCS in 2012. In the first year under Brown, UMass was outgained by 103.8 yards per game, an 80-yard improvement from 2021. The quarterback play last year was horrendous and should see a massive improvement this year. 

The Minutemen are a 9-point underdog at New Mexico State in Week 0 and a 39.5-point underdog at Auburn over Labor Day weekend. While assuming a victory for UMass is a reach, the Minutemen should defeat FCS Merrimack on November 4. New Mexico and Arkansas State both visit Amherst in September, and both of those games are potential toss-ups. UMass also plays three other MAC schools (Miami OH, at Eastern Michigan, Toledo). While the Minutemen will be an underdog in all three of those games, it is not crazy to think UMass could sneak out a win in one of those games. UMass wraps up the season with a neutral-site game against UConn. The Minutemen have not won more than one game in a season since 2018, but this year, UMass has a chance to win three or four games. 

Pick: Over 2