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Team Previews

Independents Preview

by Christopher Crawford
Updated On: July 23, 2019, 1:44 am ET

Leading up to the start of the season, Rotoworld will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios. This week: The Independents. 

Independent Fantasy Projections

Quarterbacks PaYD PaTD RuYD FPPG
Ian Book (Notre Dame, SR) 3166 24 199 21
Zach Wilson (BYU, SO) 2592 20 261 21
Kelvin Hopkins Jr. (Army, SR) 823 4 970 19
Josh Adkins (New Mexico State, SO) 3483 18 111 19
Stephen Calvert (Liberty, SR) 3283 24 -122 17
Michael Curtis (Massachusetts, JR) 1440 8 64 16

 

Running Backs RuYD RuTD ReYD FPPG
Jason Huntley (New Mexico State, SR) 483 7 498 18
Jafar Armstrong (Notre Dame, SO) 734 8 252 16
Frankie Hickson (Liberty, SR) 906 10 55 15
Connor Slomka (Army, SR) 787 12 5 14
Lopini Katoa (BYU, SO) 608 8 117 13
Christian Gibson (New Mexico State, SR) 567 6 70 10
Kevin Brown (Massachusetts, FR) 525 5 24 8
Sandon McCoy (Army, JR) 483 4 5 7
Tony Jones Jr. (Notre Dame, JR) 337 4 83 7
Kell Walker (Army, SR) 344 1 148 7
Ty'Son Williams (BYU, SR) 297 4 119 7
Joshua Mack (Liberty, JR) 402 4 25 6
Peytton Pickett (Liberty, JR) 275 4 46 6

 

Receivers Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Antonio Gandy-Golden (Liberty, SR) 73 1065 7 19
Chase Claypool (Notre Dame, SR) 65 829 6 15
OJ Clark (New Mexico State, SR) 56 549 3 11
Damian King (Liberty, SR) 38 574 3 10
Tony Nicholson (New Mexico State, SR) 44 537 3 10
Chris Finke (Notre Dame, SR) 41 476 3 9
Brennon Dingle (Massachusetts, JR) 33 513 3 9
Gunner Romney (BYU, SO) 33 436 3 8
Aleva Hifo (BYU, SR) 30 374 2 8
Samuel Emilus (Massachusetts, SO) 34 400 2 7
Michael Young (Notre Dame, JR) 27 384 7

 

Tight Ends Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Matt Bushman (BYU, JR) 31 419 3 7
Cole Kmet (Notre Dame, JR) 31 355 4 7
Johnny Huntley (Liberty, JR) 21 222 2 5

 

Projected Standings

 

STANDINGS

Notre Dame 9-3

Army 9-4

BYU 6-6

Liberty 5-7

New Mexico State 3-9

UMass 2-10

 

Notre Dame Fighting Irish 

2018 record: 12-1

Best NFL Draft prospect: Senior EDGE Julian Okwara. Chris Finke and Chase Claypool both are receivers who have a chance to play in the NFL, but Okwara's length (6'5/241) and production (8.0 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss) make him a potential Day 2 selection next year.

The case for: Notre Dame was undefeated before they made the switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book -- people seem to forget that -- but there is absolutely no way you can argue that the offense wasn't better in Book's hands. He can make plays with his legs (not at the level Wimbush can, of course) but he's an accurate passer who is better at getting the ball down field. Even with Miles Boykin gone, Book should have some quality targets to throw to. Chase Claypool  is very similar in size and skill set, and Chris Finke gives the junior signal-caller a reliable possession option. The Fighting Irish should be able to get the ball down field in 2019 again. 

Notre Dame's backfield is a bit more of a question mark, but there's certainly talent here, as well. Jafar Armstrong could be the next Theo Riddick/C.J. Prosise as a former wideout who can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield, and Tony Jones Jr. should be a thunder to Armstrong's lightning. The Irish also have some young, talented backs who don't have experience, but they always have that. 

The Irish do lose Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, but there's experience on the offensive line. Robert Hainsey is one of the best right tackles in the country, and Liam Eichenberg showed flashes of brilliance last year; although he'll need to show more consistency. Even if the talent in South Bend isn't quite at the level of years past, the experience (60 starts returning) should make this closer to asset than detriment. 

The Fighting Irish defense was elite in 2019, and even with some Notre Dame defenders now on NFL rosters, this should again be a sturdy unit. The safeties are the strength here, with former Navy safety Alohi Gilman breaking out as a star for Notre Dame in 2019. Jalen Elliott isn't at Gilman's level, but he's a solid player in his own right, and there aren't many programs that have a better 1-2 punch here.

And Notre Dame should be able to get to the quarterback, too. Khalid Kareem as well as Okwara combined for 12.5 sacks, and both decided to pass on playing on Sundays -- although it's worth pointing out Notre Dame does play a game on Sunday this year (it probably wasn't worth pointing that out, actually) -- to return to South Bend. 

The case against: Let's talk about the schedule, because quite frankly, when you're Notre Dame, you're gonna have your scheduled talked about. Is it a brutal stretch? No. There's no Clemson, USC is down, and there's some games where Notre Dame is going to be favored by three or four touchdowns like Bowling Green, New Mexico and Navy; among others. There's also Georgia and Michigan -- two playoff contenders -- and Stanford won't be easy. There's also this: Seven (!) of the 12 opponents Notre Dame plays this year will play the Fighting Irish off of byes. Just something to keep in mind. 

One of the biggest question marks for Notre Dame on the field -- if you don't count Notre Dame's schedule 'problem' as on-field -- is how Notre Dame will handle the run. Gone are Te'Von Coney, Jerry Tillery and Drue Tranquill; three players that were stout against the running game in 2018. Daelin Hayes, Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa Amosa are talented -- but unproven -- and with the Fighting Irish facing some excellent running backs in 2019, this could be a big problem.

The secondary has experience at the safety and corner position, but the talent at the latter could be problematic against better passing teams. Remember what happened when Julian Love had to leave the playoff game against Clemson? Well, now Love is gone for good. Troy Pride Jr. is solid, but Shaun Crawford, Houston Griffith (a converted safety) and Tariq Bracy are either unproven or struggled when given a chance. That's not a great combination. A young talent, or perhaps Griffith in his new role -- is going to have to step up.

Vegas over/under win total: 9

Prediction: PUSH


Army Black Knights 

2018 record: 11-2 

Best NFL Draft prospect: LB Cole Christiansen. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker has picked up 161 tackles over the last two years, and he should be given a shot at a special teams role, if able to after leaving the service academy.

The case for: The fact that Army could win double-digit games again in 2019 is surprising. The fact that it might be a DISAPPOINTMENT if Army doesn't win 10 or more games this year is just insane, but it's true. A great deal of that credit goes to Jeff Monken. He's taken a program that many believed should lower itself to the FCS level because it was so inept, to one that won 11 games and put up a 70-burger on Houston in their bowl game and took Oklahoma to overtime in Norman. Monken is legit.

You know who else is legit? Kelvin Hopkins. That's who. The senior signal-caller is not just a great athlete who can run past defenders, he also excels at running the option offense, and made several big throws in the rare occasions it was necessary to do so. When you have a star at quarterback and you run this type of offense, you have a shot at beating anyone.

It also helps when you run the option if you have a quality offensive line, and the Black Knights should in 2019. Sixty percent of the starters are back, but it's worth pointing out that the loss of center Bryce Holland is one that could give them trouble. The good news is the depth should be solid, and they return Mike Johnson, who missed the previous season with an ACL injury.

The Army defense was a revelation last year, and it helped Jay Bateman get the UNC defensive coordinator job after his work with the Black Knights. It should be good again in 2019, as the back seven should be among the best of the non-Power 5 schools in 2019. We talked about Christiansen, but Elijah Riley is a do-everything defender who can help against the run and pass as a "boundary" corner. The defensive line takes a bit of a hit to graduation, but 65 percent of the tackles-for-loss are back, and barring injures that eat up the depth -- something you always have to be concerned with in service academies -- this should be a good group again. 

And now, the biggest reason to be optimistic about Army. (Looks left, looks right, looks up, looks down)

This schedule is a joke. 

Yes, Army gets Michigan, but that's the only Power 5 school that the Black Knights play. They also get such powers as Morgan State and VMI along with FBS stalwarts like San Jose State, Rice, and UTSA. Army is going to be favored in an awful lot of games, and it's definitely something to keep in mind if, well, you know. 

The case against: Hopkins is great at getting the ball to the right player. The question we have is who he's going to get the ball to. The "B" back is a big part of Monken's offense, and Darnell Woolfolk along with Andy Davidson accounted for a large portion of the offense there. The likely replacement is Connor Slomka; a productive player, but one who doesn't offer the upside of Wolfork or the sturdiness of Davidson. 

 And while Hopkins did make several clutch throws in 2018, there's still a lot to be desired about the passing game. After all, the QB completed just 52 passes last year, and a 53.3 completion percentage is not exactly awe-inspiring, is it? We don't think the Black Knights are going to trail very often -- have we mentioned how awful this schedule is? -- but if Army does get behind, they're going to be in trouble.

Vegas over/under win total: 9

Prediction: PUSH


BYU Cougars 

2018 record: 7-6

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Matt Bushman. This is a down year for the tight end class, and there's already been talk about him being one of the first tight ends off the board -- assuming he decides to give up his senior year of eligibility, of course.

The case for: Give BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and his staff a lot of credit. In 2017, this was a four-win team that had way more questions than answers, and many projected this team to be another 8-to-10 loss program again in 2018. Instead, they won seven games, and they were a few plays away from winning a couple more. Sitake likely bought some time with the solid, if not spectacular, season.

One of the reasons for the improvement was that sophomore QB Zach Wilson, and the impressive numbers he put up over the back-half of the campaign are a reason to be optimistic, to be sure. He does an excellent job of spreading the football around -- more on that in a bit -- and his ability to avoid turnovers (three interceptions) is another excellent sign for the Cougars' offense in 2019. 

Now about that spread-out attack. You could argue that some of that is due to the fact that there's no go-to receiver, but we think it's more of a case that Wilson just has a lot of decent weapons to get the ball to. Tops among them is Bushman, who -- as we mentioned in the intro -- has a chance to be a high draft pick in 2020 if he gives up his eligibility. Expect plenty of third-down/red-zone throws to come his way. 

The wideouts don't have that kind of pro potential, but there are six guys returning with double-digit catches. Talon Shumway has to show he can stay healthy, but he has the best chance to breakout as the go-to wideout. Aleva Hifo and Neil Pau'u both have a chance to compete for that role, as well. No, these aren't stars, but they don't have to be to keep BYU competitive. 

The case against: Let's talk about schedules one more time. BYU's is weird, folks. Weird and kind of brutal, particularly from the start. In those first four weeks, the Cougars get Utah (rival/good team), Tennessee (potentially good team), USC (who the heck knows) and Washington (good team). Could Brigham Young win three of those games? You bet. Could they lose all four? Oh yeah, no question. 

One of the reasons they could lose all four games is we're really not sure about this running game. The Cougars did bring in Ty'Son Williams from South Carolina along with Emmanuel Esukpa from Rice as transfers , and Lopini Katoa did score eight touchdowns as a freshman. That being said, the offensive line -- while returning several starters -- was mediocre at both opening holes and protecting the BYU quarterbacks last year. Wilson could be great, but there has to be a reason to respect the run game if this team is going to be successful. It remains to be seen whether or not they can. 

There are also questions on the defensive side of the football. This was a decent group last year (28th in scoring, 33 in S&P+), but they weren't good at making plays behind the line of scrimmage against the run (117th in run-stuff rate), or creating turnover-worthy plays (123rd in 'havoc' rate). And that's with Corbin Kaufusi and Sione Takitaki part of the defense. They're not this year. 

The BYU offense could be solid, but the defense is likely to just be an average unit, and that likely means another average season for the Cougars in 2019.

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: UNDER


Liberty Flames 

2018 record: 6-6 

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Antonio Gandy-Golden. There are questions about his athleticism and route-running, but his ability to track the football with 6-foot-4, 220-pound size along with his production is sure to have NFL scouts checking out Liberty's tape this year. 

The case for: Hugh Freeze comes in to take over for Turner Gill, and at least on the field, we're intrigued to see how this goes. His time at Ole Miss was riddled with scandal, but on the field, the Rebels were a pretty solid SEC program, and he had success in his one year at Arkansas State. It could work out. Moving on.

Sometimes you hear people talk about the "big three" on a college football/NFL/whatever level team, and they're usually referring to the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. The Flames have the potential for a pretty darn good big three. 

The best of these is Gandy-Golden, who we talked about in the intro. Just in case you skipped that, here's a play that shows how talented the senior wideout is, and it features a decent pun from the announcer. 

Yeah, he's good, and if you play in fantasy football format that allows Group of 5 programs, you might want to check that guy out. 

It's not just Gandy-Golden on offense, however. Frankie Hickson is a very solid tailback -- solid might be underselling it, honestly -- who should be a thousand-yard back again for the Flames and pile up the touchdowns. 

And then there's Buckshot. Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert has frustrated in his time with the Flames as the starting quarterback, but he's also shown flashes of brilliance. There's absolutely reason to believe that he'll be better/more consistent in his senior season.

The case against: Just how much improvement Calvert shows in his senior year is going to determine a lot. He threw 18 interceptions last year, and the number of quarterbacks who threw more than that is nope. That 54.7 percent completion percentage ain't exactly delectable, either. 

It's also worth pointing out that Buckshot isn't guaranteed to be the starter, here. Some of that will depend on whether or not Malik Willis is granted eligibility. He transferred to the Flames after spending the last couple of seasons with Auburn, and while there are certainly questions about his accuracy, he's a potential dual-threat that might be a better fit in the Freeze offense. Either way, the quarterback position has more questions than answers right now.

It may not matter what happens if this defense isn't drastically better. The flames were tied for 122nd in yards allowed with 5,817, and they weren't much better at preventing points; coming in 119th while allowing 36.8 points per game. They should be better in that regard, but some of that is just due to the fact that they can't get much worse. We certainly hope they can't get much worse. 

Vegas over/under win total: 5.5

Prediction: UNDER


New Mexico State Aggies. 

2018 record: 3-9 

Best NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Cedric Wilcots. This is slim pickings, but Wilcots has shown the ability to rush the passer as an inside-outside option with 15.5 sacks the last two years. 

The case for: Well, the offense might be ok. Josh Adkins wasn't abhorrent as a freshman last year, and he should be better in 2019. That's usually how this works, anyway.

He has some decent weapons to get the ball too, as well. Jason Huntley is a dual-threat who didn't have the breakout season many expected, but he's a capable receiver who also should put up a decent number of yards as a ball-carrier. He could compete with Wilcots as the top NFL Draft prospect if he takes that step forward in 2019, instead.

There are also some decent options on the outside. OJ Clark and Drew Dan are solid possession receivers, and Izaiah Lottie showed some playmaking ability last year for the Aggies. 

And while the defense is...well, just read the case against, Wilcots should help New Mexico State get to the quarterback, and Roy Lopez is a potential breakout candidate on the other side of the defensive line. 

The case against: Adkins was better than the other options, no question, and we do expect him to be better. That being said, this is still a mediocre passing attack -- at best -- and there are no guarantees here in terms of big plays. Tony Nicholson is a potential playmaker after transferring from Baylor, but again, no guarantees. This team ranked 115th in passing efficiency. It's not good.

And then there's the defense. Yes it hurt that Terrill Hanks missed time, but that still doesn't excuse a team that allowed a whopping 41.3 points per game last year, and guess what? Hanks is gone.

Only five teams allowed more yards rushing per game than the Aggies did in 2018, and we don't think that's going to improve in 2018. They also ranked 103 in stopping the pass, and hey, they open the year against Washington State (yikes) and Alabama (someone think of the children?)

Yeah, I lied about talking about the schedule. There's more. There are several winnable games here -- including two (again) against Liberty -- but there are guaranteed losses against the Crimson Tide, Ole Miss, Wazzu and tough ones against Fresno State, San Diego State and Georgia Southern.

This isn't a very good team, and the fact that New Mexico State was forced to schedule so many tough contests as an independent won't help the team on the field. Should help the pocket books for the higher-ups, though.

Vegas over/under win total: 3.5

Prediction: UNDER


UMass Minutemen 

2018 record: 4-8

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Sadiq Palmer. No, he's not Andy Isabella or anything close to that, but Palmer could be in an NFL camp because of his 6-foot-2 size and decent speed. 

The case for: Well, there's a new coach. And that's always a reason optimism, right? Walt Bell replaces Mark Whipple, and he comes to Massachusetts with a reputation as a quality offensive mind and quality recruiter. Both are going to be necessary to turn this ship around.

Yes, Isabella was the focal point of the offense last year, and honestly, focal point doesn't even begin to describe it. That being said, the Minutemen do have some interesting receivers, starting with Palmer, who averaged 15 yards-per-catch last season. Brennan Dingle was just behind with 14 YPC, and both should be "deep" threats for the UMass offense in 2019.

 

We don't know who is going to be the quarterback -- and you bet we'll talk about that in a second -- but the offensive line should give whomever wins the job a decent amount of time to throw the football. There are four returning starters for UMass, and they're among the bigger offensive line among this Independent group; averaging over 315 pounds per starter. The talent isn't elite, but, they're big. We're grasping for straws. We know.

The case against: Now, about that quarterback. The Minutemen split Ross Comis and Andrew Ford last year, and neither one was very good despite having Isabella and those wideouts we mentioned earlier to throw to. Both are gone, and honestly, with all due respect to them, that might be a good thing; as it should allow a younger quarterback to take the reigns for a young, rebuilding (again) UMass team. Michael Curtis is the favorite to win the job, but there's a host of challengers. Curtis was decent in his limited time, and his experience should allow him to begin the season. It's tough to get too excited.

The quarterback position might have more answers than the running back situation, however, and that's ... that's kind of scary. Bilal Ally is back after deciding not to transfer, and he's the overwhelming favorite to be the starting tailback because someone has to be. Behind him is a group of players that either have no experience or experienced a lack of success. Oh, and that big offensive line we talked about? That's fine and well, but UMass was a middling run team in 2018 with Marquis Young, and none of these guys is as good as Young. 

And once again, we have to talk about a bad defense. It's unfortunate, but, the good news is: This is the last one. UMass was dreadful on this side of the ball by any measure you want to go by. Isaiah Rodgers is a solid cornerback who could compete with Palmer to be that best draft prospects -- although both of these players are likely looking at the undrafted route -- but outside of him, this is a mess. Even playing a mediocre schedule that sees the Minutemen play six games against teams with S&P ranks below 100, it won't matter. Unless Bell is a miracle worker, this is going to be one of the worst teams in college football in 2019. 

Vegas over/under win total: 3.5

Prediction: UNDER

Christopher Crawford
Christopher Crawford is a baseball and college football writer for Rotoworld. Follow him on Twitter @Crawford_MILB.