Thursday, February 2, 2017

Farewell to 2016: Independents

When I was a younger man, being an independent meant freedom in college athletics. There were several independents playing major college football, which made for some interesting decisions come bowl time. Those days are gone, as is the golden age of college football that included the era from the 50's through the 90's, which ended with the beginning of the dark times, or what was otherwise known as the BCS era. Everyone started jumping for conference affiliations, in fear of being left out in the cold.
It is now a curse being an independent, unless your name is Notre Dame, and even that former great brand has diminished in nature the last couple of decades. As was to be expected, the ranks of  the independents, now just 4 in number, had a rough go of it in 2016. Only Army and BYU finished anywhere near .500 or above, with Notre Dame having their worst season in years. U Mass rejoined the independent ranks after getting kicked out of the MAC, and New Mexico State is joining for 2017 after their heave ho from the Sun Belt. The ranks of the independents now are a wasteland of the rejected, again, unless you are Notre Dame, and even they are closer than ever to trying to find a football home, even if they won't admit it publicly. Here is a final look at the 2016 seaosn that was for the independents.

Brigham Young Cougars

2016 Schedule
Beat Arizona 18-16
Lost to Utah 20-19
Lost to UCLA 17-14
Lost to West Virginia 35-32
Beat Toledo 55-53
Beat Michigan State 31-14
Beat Mississippi State 28-21
Lost to Boise State 28-27
Beat Cincinnati 20-3
Beat Southern Utah 37-7
Beat U Mass 51-9
Beat Utah State 28-10
Beat Wyoming 24-21 (Poinsettia Bowl)

2017 Schedule: 8/26 Portland State, 9/2 LSU @ Houston, 9/9 Utah, 9/16 Wisconsin, 9/29 at Utah State, 10/7 Boise State, 10/14 at Mississippi State, 10/21 at East Carolina, 10/28 San Jose State, 11/4 at Fresno State, 11/11 at UNLV, 11/18 U Mass, 11/25 at Hawaii

MVP Offense: Jamaal Williams, RB
MVP Defense: Fred Warner, LB
Best Win: Toledo 55-53
Worst Loss: UCLA 17-14

The Breakdown: For the Cougars to have won 9 games in the first season under Kilani Sitake was a huge stroke of success in 2016, especially after they lost 3 of 4 to start the season by a total of 7 points. Many teams would have easily folded at that point, but afte that 1-3 start, the Cougars had a very important game against Toledo that would dictate the rest of their season, and the Cougars found themselves up against the ropes late in that game. It was then that Jamaal Williams seemed to take this team over and drive the will of the Cougars forward. Williams rushed for 286 yards in that game, becoming unstoppable at points, in that late rally for the win. He rushed for 5 scores in that game alone, and finished the season with 1375 yards and 12 TDs, averaging 5.88 yards per carry to close out his BYU career that finished with a triumph after so many stops because of injury. He would go on to rush for 210 yards in the bowl win over Wyoming, and ran for 100 or more yards 6 times.
The work of Williams in the run game was important, as another injury casualty for the Cougars the last few seasons, Taysom Hill, never resembled much of his old self. His running ability was shot, and he was forced to be what he was never good at being, a simple pocket QB. Hill averaged just 193 yards passing per game, and tossed 11 INTs o just 12 TDs on the season, and was nowhere near the star we had sen him be for so long. Hill did manage 599 yards and 8 scores rushing, but that was a shell of his former self. There were times when it seemed to make no sense sticking with Hill, when last year's star QB Tanner Mangum was collecting dust on the sidelines, and it was in the bowl game that Mangum finally had to start as yet another injury too Hill out of that game.
Defensively, the Cougars were simply one of the most stubborn teams in the nation, allowing just 19.8 points per game. The LB corps was a key component in this performance, led by Fred Warner, who led the team with 86 tackles. The top 5 tacklers on this football team were all LBs. Warnr finished with 10.5 TFLs, and broke up 6 passes, while forcing 2 fumbles. BYU allowed just 244 1st downs, 3.4 yards per carry, 112 yards rushing per game, and 193 yards passing per game.
After the 1-3 start, the Cougars won 8 of their final 9 games, culminating with a win over Mountain West Conference runner up Wyoming what would be the final Poinsettia Bowl ever to be played.

Moving Forward: The job of playing quarterback falls squarely back to Mangum now after Hill departs, finally exhausting his eligibility in Provo. Jamaal Williams is gone as well, with what may be a brighter future than Hill's on the next level. Finding a back to replace the explosiveness of Williams will be a huge task moving forward, with Squally Canada getting an early crack in camp, but also keep an eye on KJ Hill. The top 3 receivers depart as well, leaving the Cougars with what could be mostly a new look offense in 2017.
Defensively, the LB corps should be great again, with Warner, Butch Pau'u, and Francis Bernard all scheduled to return. That said, 4 of the top 8 tacklers are departing, so there will be holes on that side of the football as well.
The Cougars also must find a replacement at Punter, as Jonny Linehan departs after averaging over 42 yards per punt. Rhett Almond is back at PK, and that area should be a strength.
In all, the early schedule is a meat grinder once again, with games against LSU, Houston, Wisconsin, Boise State, and Mississippi State. The back end of the schedule is loaded with all winnable games, so even if the Cougars go 3-2 to start the season, which is possible, they could still potentially win 10 games next fall.

Army Cadets

2016 Schedule
Beat Temple 28-13
Beat Rice 31-14
Beat UTEP 66-14
Lost to Buffalo 23-20
Lost to Duke 13-6
Beat Lafayette 62-7
Lost to North Texas 35-18
Beat Wake Forest 21-13
Lost to Air Force 31-12
Lost to Notre Dame 44-6
Beat Morgan State 60-3
Beat Navy 21-17
Beat North Texas 38-31 (Heart of Dallas Bowl)

2017 Schedule: 9/1 Fordham, 9/9 Buffalo, 9/16 at Ohio State, 9/23 at Tulane, 9/30 UTEP, 10/7 at Rice, 10/14 Eastern Michigan. 10/21 Temple, 11/4 at Air Force, 11/11 Duke, 11/18 at North Texas, 12/9 Navy @ Philadelphia 

MVP Offense: Andy Davidson, RB
MVP Defense: Jeremy Timpf, LB; Alex Auckerman, LB; Andrew King, LB
Best Win: Temple 28-13, Navy 21-17
Worst Loss: Buffalo 23-20

The Breakdown: Not many people saw the surge that came from Army in 2016, but a win over Temple in the season opener was certainly enough to jolt many people awake early on, as Army cruised to a 3-0 record before 2 head scratching losses to very weak teams in Buffalo and Duke knocked them back to Earth. Army actually struggled to a 2-5 record during the middle part of their schedule before finishing strong on a win over FCS cupcake Morgan Sate, their first win over Navy in 14 years, and a bowl win over North Texas that made up for a loss to UNT earlier in the season.
While the offense really was more of a team effort, the best standout for me was RB Andy Davidson, who managed to rush for 961 yards and 12 scores on the season as a sophomore, including 87 yards and 2 TDs in the win over Navy. Davidson scored 5 times in the final 3 games of the season, leading Army to their best overall season since the mid 1980s.
The defense for the Cadets was massively improved year to year, allowing just 19.8 points per game in 2016. That was an 8 point per game improvement over 2015, and an over 13 point per game improvement over 2014. Like BYU, that charge was led from a solid LB group, including Jeremy Timpf, Andrew King, and Alex Auckerman. Timpf finished with 112 tackles, 13 TFLs, and 2 QB hurries. Auckerman finished with 59 tackles, but was a force with 15 TFLs and 7.5 sacks to go along with 2 QB hurries. King finished with 97 tackles, 11 TFLs, 5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Army allowed just 121 yards rushing per game, good for 18th nationally, and just 170 yards passing per game, good for 6th, or one spot better than Ohio State.

Moving Forward: Ahmad Bradshaw returns for his senior season, but may be working on his passing skills a bit in camp, as he was absolutely awful throwing the football. He did manage to rush for 8 scores, but he needs some work if he is to hold off sophomore to be Malik McGue or Chris Carter, but McGue is the more promising of the two off the bench.
The top 9 rushers return for Army in 2017 from a unit that averaged 339.54 yards per game last fall, which was good for second overall nationally.
Defensively, Timpf and King move on, but Auckerman returns. As good as the overall defensive unit was, there was not much going on in the depth department, so Army needs to find some in camp. The secondary loses their best player in Xavier Moss as well. I would expect the Cadets to step back some on this side of the ball until answers are found.
Special teams were not great in 2016, but all major pieces return, so some development may show some improvements.
The good news is that if answers are found where needed, the schedule sets up nicely for Army to win as many as 9 games in 2017. Even better is that there will only be one FCS opponent on the schedule rather than the 2 that Army faced in 2016 in Lafayette and Morgan State, and that could get us a better look at how good this team really can be.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

2016 Schedule
Lost to Texas 50-47
Beat Nevada 39-10
Lost to Michigan State 36-28
Lost to Duke 38-35
Beat Syracuse 50-33
Lost to NC State 10-3
Lost to Stanford 17-10
Beat Miami 30-27
Lost to Navy 28-27
Beat Army 44-6
Lost to Virginia Tech 34-31
Lost to USC 45-27

2017 Schedule: 9/2 Temple, 9/9 Georgia, 9/16 at Boston College, 9/23 at Michigan State, 9/30 Miami (Ohio), 10/7 at North Carolina, 10/21 USC, 10/28 NC State, 11/4 Wake Forest, 11/1 at Miami, 11/18 Navy, 11/25 at Stanford

MVP Offense: DeShone Kizer, QB
MVP Defense: James Onwualu, LB 
Best Win: Army 44-6
Worst Loss: Michigan State 36-28, Duke 38-35

The Breakdown: Nobody can talk about the 2016 season in South Bend with a positive tilt. There was none. Notre Dame had a schedule that should have had them in the running for a national title run, and had enough talent, on paper, to make that happen despite the preseason arrests of 5 defensive players. That should never have altered the landscape for the Irish, but it was apparent in week one, when Notre Dame gave up 50 points after scoring 47, that there were real and apparent problems with this football team. After beating a rather hapless Nevada team the following week came to more low ball losses to Michigan state, who won all of 3 games in 2016, and Duke, who was not only terrible in 2016, but was also starting a freshman at QB who was never expected to see the field much. The losses continued to mount, and at one point, it was loudly rumored that Brian Kelly would just quit (didn't happen).
I have seen some not so great Notre Dame chapters in their long history that fell flat, but this was one of the worst seasons I have ever seen from this program, and there was no real reason, except for horrible coaching and terrible execution, that any of this really happened.
The only bright spot on offense for me was the play of DeShone Kizer, who continued to play on another level. Kizer passed for 2925 yards on the season with 26 TDs against just 9 picks, and added another 472 yards rushing with 8 more TDs rushing. He had to carry the offense on his back for most of the season, and averaged 30.1 passing attempts per game, and his accuracy suffered for it, as he completed just 58% of those attempts.
The real problem for the Irish was on defense, where Notre Dame allowed 27.8 points per game. Nobody is going to win a lot of games with that mark. The Irish were especially bad against the run, allowing 182.42 yards rushing per game (72nd nationally). Making matters worse, the Irish just seemed to find ways to lose football games, as they lost 7 games by 8 points or less.
While looking for an MVP for Defense, LB James Onwualu stuck out to me as that player. He finished with 77 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, 5 PBUs, and 3 forced fumbles.
Moving Forward: It may not get a lot better in 2017. Notre Dame loses both Kizer and backup Malik Zaire, and will be hitting the reboot on the QB position. Kizer could have used another season of college football, but left early for the draft, while Zaire is a transfer. Josh Adams will need to find a way to be more effective in the run game, as that area may have more significance in 2017 as the passing game learns to gel. Notre Dame has always been most effective on offense when they can effectively run the football, and they have been getting away from that in recent years. 4 of the top 5 receivers do return.
Defensively, this is a mess that needs fixing. Notre Dame has been all over the place on defense the last 4 years, as they go up and down like a yo yo. Notre Dame needs consistency on that side of the football. 7 of the top 11 tacklers are back on defense in 2017, but Onwualu is not one of those, nor is Isaac Rochell, their best defensive lineman. There should be plenty of talent in the secondary, but that group must be more refined in 2017, and the Irish have to find a way to stop the run, and must also figure out how to stop hemorrhaging points.

U Mass Minutemen

2016 Schedule
Lost to Florida 24-7
Lost to Boston College 26-7
Beat FIU 21-13
Lost to Mississippi State 47-35
Lost to Tulane 31-24
Lost to Old Dominion 36-16
Lost to Louisiana Tech 56-28
Lost to South Carolina 34-28
Beat Wagner 34-10
Lost to Troy 52-31
Lost to BYU 51-9
Lost to Hawaii 46-40

2017 Schedule: 8/26 Hawaii, 9/2 at Coastal Carolina, 9/9 Old Dominion, 9/16 at Temple, 9/23 at Tennessee, 9/30 Ohio, 10/14 at USF. 10/21 Georgia Southern, 10/28 Appalachian State, 11/4 at Mississippi State, 11/11 Maine, 11/18 at BYU

MVP Offense: Andrew Ford, QB; Adam Breneman, TE
MVP Defense: Steve Casali, LB
Best Win: None
Worst Loss: Tulane 31-24

The Breakdown: The Minutemen were a mess once again in 2016, and have not been an effective program since joining FBS football. It continues to befuddle me, being a former resident of New England, as to why this program ever elevated in the first place. It was a solid FCS program with some serious upside. As an FBS member, this program was suck in a wasteland that cares little for major college football, and is next to impossible to recruit.
This marked year one that the Minutemen were back playing as an independent after getting the boot from the MAC, and it did not go well on any level. The only wins that the program picked up in 2016 were against a reeling FIU team, and an FCS nobody in Wagner. Neither of those could be considered building blocks for the U Mass program.
The good news is that All-Bilo TE of the Year for FBS football Adam Breneman was a consistent rock on offense, and that QB Andrew Ford really showed signs of life. Ford passed for 2665 yards and 26 TDs as a sophomore, but still managed to toss 14 picks, a high number for any QB. He managed to complete 60.8% of his passes on 33.2 attempts per game, and averaged 242.3 yards per game. Breneman caught 70 passes for 808 yards on the year, and caught 8 TD passes. He averaged 11.54 yards every time he touched the football.
The huge gap on offense was in the run game, where the Minutemen averaged just over 99 yards rushing per game, which ranked 124th out of 128 schools.
Defensively, the season was a solid disaster. U Mass allowed over 35 points per game, allowing 30 or more points 8 times on the year. They allowed 259.6 yards passing per game, and picked off just 4 passes. They allowed 193 yards rushing per game. None of this works on any level.
Despite the failures on defense, there was a bright spot in LB Steve Casali, my team MVP for Defense. Casali recorded 105 tackles, 8 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and 6 PBUs on the season.
Moving Forward: It is becoming increasingly difficult to see a path forward for the U Mass football program, and there have been some calls to disband the program. I don't see that happening, but if Idaho is successful in their drop down to FCS, U Mass may be compelled to follow suit and rejoin either their old home in the Colonial Athletic Association, or join the lower profile and less demanding Northeast Conference. In my opinion, staying on the current path leads them nowhere.
On the field, Ford and Breneman are both returning, but U Mass will lose 3 of their top 5 receivers, and the running game is a dumpster fire that needs a complete reboot.
Defensively, plenty of production returns, including Casali, but how much better can this unit actually become after showing nothing in 2016?
In short, Mark Whipple may regret that he took another swing at this job.

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