If Notre Dame ever decides to become the 12th member of the Big 10 or an all-sports member of the Big East, it will leave Army and Navy as lone Indy's.
2006 should be an interesting one with the four teams involved. Notre Dame has the national title as its goal, and quarterback Brady Quinn is the early leader for the Heisman Trophy. The Irish have a super offense, but their defense could cost them the national title.
Navy has its best team in decades, possibly since Roger Staubach started at quarterback. The Midshipmen could come to Baltimore to face Notre Dame on October 28 with a perfect record of 7-0!
Army has an outstanding chance to post its first winning record since 1996. The Cadets could challenge for eight wins if the new quarterback can just match the performance of the outgoing qb.
As for poor Temple, the Owls were fired from the Big East Conference. They have won three games in three years, none of them coming in 2005. They have a new coach and a depleted roster. However, they face one of the other weakest teams in Buffalo to open the season in what could become a fun one to watch. If the Owls lose that one, they are almost assured of coming to Nashville on September 30 riding 16-game losing streak.
1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
PiRate: 120 National Ranking: 4 HFA: 7
Coach Charlie Weis has awakened the echoes in South Bend. Notre Dame is back among the national powers. If this were three years ago, you might have heard the same thing with Tyrone Willingham entering year two. However, I think this is a different situation. The Irish are ready to look more like the Ara Parseghian dynasty teams. They have one of the three best offenses in all of college football! What a great football season this figures to be for NBC sports—both Saturdays and Sundays!
What more can be said about the mighty Brady Quinn? In his first year with Weiss as his mentor, Quinn fired passes that produced better results than Joe Theismann, Joe Montana, and all the greats from the past like Johnny Lujack. He completed 64.9% of his passes for 3,919 yards with a TD/INT ratio of 32/7. He gained an average of 8.7 yards per pass attempt, which means he wasn't throwing just five and seven-yard easy passes. With a year of seasoning in the system plus the return of two standout receivers, Quinn should easily surpass 65% completions, 4,000 yards passing, and 35 touchdowns even if he heads to the bench early four or five times.
The Irish have three receivers who could wind up playing for pay one day. Rhema McKnight missed almost all of 2005 with a knee injury, but he was the top receiver the prior two years. Look for him to catch at least 60 balls for 900+ yards. Jeff Samardzija returns after leading Notre Dame with 77 receptions for 1,249 yards.
Running back Darius Walker caught 43 passes out of the backfield, and he could repeat that performance this season. He rushed for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per try. He could have one of those special years and garner Heisman Trophy consideration himself with 1,500 yards rushing and 50 receptions.
The offensive line returns four starters and seven of the two-deep. This unit should be one of the 10 best in the nation. Center John Sullivan could earn 1st team All-American honors. Guard Bob Morton should improve upon last year's performance as a part-time starter. Tackle Ryan Harris has NFL potential.
After averaging 36.7 points and 477 total yards per game last year, I expect Notre Dame to top 40 points and 500 yards per game in 2006.
If the Irish are to win another national title, the defense will have to step it up a notch this year. Notre Dame gave up 24.5 points and 397 yards per game last year.
The key to a possible national title run rests in a rebuilt linebackers' unit. Maurice Crum is a gamer and should make an NFL roster in two or three years. As a freshman, he made 57 stops. Mitchell Thomas, Joe Brockington, Anthony Vernaglia, and converted running back Travis Thomas will compete for time at the other two spots.
Notre Dame should be strong on the front line. Nose guard Derek Landri, tackle Trevor Laws, and end Victor Abiamiri combined for 26 tackles for loss. Expect the Irish to chop off 30 yards to the opponents' rushing yardage, most of which will come in the variety of more sacks.
The secondary has two all-star performers. Cornerback Ambrose Wooden and Safety Tom Zbikowski are the two leading returning tacklers. Last year, they also defended 16 passes, seven as interceptions. Notre Dame should easily improve on the 265 passing yards allowed.
What may ultimately prevent the Irish from winning another national title is a difficult schedule. Opening the season in the deep South at Georgia Tech is dangerous. Ask the 1977 Irish team that lost at Ole Miss to open the season. After that landmine, ND must play host to Penn State and Michigan and then travel to Michigan State. They close out September with the grudge match against Purdue. I don't think they can enter October 5-0. The season finale at Southern Cal should be an exciting game, but the Trojans should be favored.
All told, I expect Notre Dame to win 10 games in the regular season and play in another BCS bowl. They have the talent to run the table, but the schedule is just too demanding. The national champ usually gets a beneficial schedule.
2. Navy Midshipmen
PiRate: 100 National Ranking: 59 HFA: 3
On paper, the Naval Academy doesn't have the total talent to win six games most years. This year, the Middies do have that talent. Since Coach Paul Johnson gets the maximum effort out of his talent, 2006 should be one for the ages at Annapolis. Navy returns enough talent to replicate or even better the 2004 team's results. If you don't remember that 2004 team (how can Vandy fans forget?), they finished 10-2.
The Midshipmen run the 21st century wishbone, using multiple veers and option plays out of a run and shoot alignment. Having four wide receivers at the line forces defenses to bring seven or fewer men into the box. It takes eight defenders to stop most of their running plays, and when defenses bring that eighth man up, the Middies burn them with a pass to a wide open receiver.
This year's offense should surpass the 34.2 points and 436 yards per game produced by its predecessor. Even with a new quarterback, Navy should top 300 yards rushing and 100 yards passing. That new quarterback will be senior Brian Hampton, who saw limited duty in 2005. I expect Hampton to lead Navy with close to 1,000 yards rushing and pass for about 1,250 yards.
When Hampton isn't keeping on the option or load, expect fullback Adam Ballard to be the next most used option. Ballard is a bull who will force two or more defenders to bring him down most of the time. He averaged an unbelievable 6.1 yards per carry last year; I think he should change his number to 39, as he runs like Larry Csonka. Backup fullback Matt Hall can give Ballard a rest a couple times a game and give Navy a change of pace.
The slotbacks mostly get the ball on wide open pitches as the final option. Their rushing averages are inflated due to the fact they almost always have open space in front of them when they get the ball. This year's starting pair, Karlos Whitaker and Reggie Campbell, are coming off a 2005 season in which they combined for 804 yards on just 94 carries (8.6 per carry). They happen to be excellent deep route receivers as their 25.3 yard aggregate average per reception shows. Wide outs Jason Tomlinson and Tyree Barnes averaged a nifty 19.3 yards per catch last year. Obviously, when you have to bring in an eighth defender to stop the option plays, you are going to be burned when Navy runs a play-action pass off that option and throws long. As a result 10.1% of Navy's passes last year resulted in touchdowns.
What will make the Middies offense so much stronger this year is one of the most experienced lines in school history. Four starters return and four backups return. Given the fact that option blocking by experienced linemen is deadly to defensive lines, Navy should run weaker teams into the ground. I predict Navy will rush for close to 350 yards, pass for 125 yards, and score 38-42 points per game.
The Middie defense should be stronger this year as well. Only two regulars are gone, and a majority of the backups return. Navy gave up 26.1 points and 378 yards per game, and those numbers should improve to 23 points and less than 350 total yards allowed.
Linebacker Rob Caldwell is the star of this defense. He's coming off a 140-tackle, 7.5 for loss season. Tyler Tidwell and David Mahoney combined for 143 tackles with 35 tackles behind the line (and an incredible 18 sacks) from their linebacker positions.
The leader of the three-man front is end John Chan, who made six stops behind the line last year. Nose guard Larry Cylc should make a few more tackles this year.
The secondary returns intact this year, and cornerback Keenan Little leads this unit. Last year, he defended 10 passes and 73 tackles.
Navy's schedule includes several almost-sure wins. Home games against East Carolina, UMass, and Temple, and road games at Connecticut, Air Force, Duke, and Eastern Michigan should guarantee bowl eligibility. If Navy can get by Stanford in the re-dedication of Stanford Stadium on September 16, they could head to Baltimore to take on Notre Dame on October 28 sporting a 7-0 record. It's been 43 years since Roger Staubach led Navy to a 35-14 victory over Notre Dame. It probably won't happen this year, but if it does, Navy could run the table. At 12-0, it would be awfully hard for the BCS to be unpatriotic enough to ignore them.
3. Army Cadets
PiRate: 94 National Ranking: 84 HFA: 3
Since enjoying a 10-2 season in 1996, Army has a cumulative record of just 21-81. The best record in that stretch has been 4-7. With abundant talent returning on both sides of the ball, Army could make a run at a winning season if the Cadets can win the close games.
The strength of this team will be on the defensive side, where the Cadets should reduce the number of points per game allowed (26.7) by about five this year. The front four should be stingier this year after giving up 173 yards rushing per game and recording just 13 sacks. Tackle Tony Fusco and ends Brandon Thompson and Cameron Craig should improve on their combined 19 stops for losses.
The second line of defense is led by Barrett Scruggs, who recorded 80 tackles and defended six passes. Luke Pell and Cason Shrode also return to give Army lots of returning experience.
The secondary is led by safety Caleb Campbell who led Army with 97 tackles and eight defended passes in 2005. The rest of the backfield is somewhat suspect.
With the loss of their starting quarterback and 1,000-yard-gaining running back, Army could take a step back this year.
The new quarterback will be David Pevoto. He might not be a star, but he could easily approach last year's numbers of Zac Dahman (1,864 yards).
Replacing running back Carlton Jones will be difficult, but Coach Bobby Ross has several options, and the total rushing yards per game should go up as Army runs the option more this year. Fullback Mike Viti will need to be a threat inside.
Army has two capable receivers returning in Jeremy Trimble and Walter Hill. Last year, the duo combined for 76 receptions and six scores.
The offensive line returns all five starters, and with a new emphasis on the option, they should open many holes. Center Pete Bier and tackle Jonathan Connon are the best of the unit.
Army opens the season in Jonesboro, Arkansas against Arkansas State. They host Kent State a week later, and then play Texas A&M in San Antonio. If they can start 2-1, they have a chance to win four or even five more games and earn bowl eligibility. I think they are a year away yet, so look for Army to win four or five games.
4. Temple Owls
PiRate: 74 National Ranking: 118 HFA: 3
In 2000 and 2001, Duke became the last team to go winless for two consecutive seasons; Northwestern turned the trick a generation ago. Kansas State was inflicted with this curse twice in the last 45 years. Temple has a chance to be the next one on this short list. The Owls went 0-11 last year, and believe it or not, they are not as good this season.
New coach Al Golden comes to Philly after serving as defensive coordinator at Virginia. He takes over a team that had only one opportunity to win a game last year; on the year, Temple was outscored by an average of 35.6 points per game.
To make matters worse, TU was devastated by graduation last year. On offense, they lost their quarterback, top two running backs, and top receiver, while only two starting linemen return. That's the good news, because the defense lost eight of the top nine tacklers, including the one legitimate pass rusher and the top pass defender!
The offense could outperform last season's #119-ranked offense. Temple averaged a paltry 9.7 points and 247 total yards per game. Just who ends up under center when the Owls open the season is anybody's guess. Four candidates are currently vying for the job. My guess is Colin Clancy will eventually win the job. He completed 10 of 19 passes last year.
Temple rushed for just 82 yards per game last year, so having to replace their top two runners isn't that big of a deal. Former starter Tim Brown should come close to matching the Owls' total 2005 production.
Jamel Harris returns to the pass catching corps, where he caught 20 passes for 241 yards. No other player on the roster caught more than 14 passes, but new starter Travis Shelton has world-class speed.
The offensive line actually has one rather good player. Elliot Siefert should be the man Temple runs behind at tackle.
The defense surrendered to the tune of 45.3 points and 461 yards allowed per game in 2005, and believe it or not, those numbers could be worse this year!
The lone returnee in the front seven is linebacker Ryan Gore. He recorded 60 tackles with two for losses, but he did not defend a single pass.
Only one secondary starter returns from 2005. Safety Chris Page defended two passes.
The schedule is still difficult, but the opening game will be the equivalent of the Super Bowl for the Owls. Temple opens the season at Buffalo on Thursday, August 31. It is their best chance to record a win. If they lose it, chances are better than 50-50 they will go 0-12.
Next Up: The PiRates begin looking at the BCS conferences starting with the Big East. Will Louisville or West Virginia be picked first?
Sources: The official websites of the four independent teams plus Scout.com.