FBS Independents preview: Notre Dame, BYU lead way again

BYU's Kyle Van Noy is back after recording 22 tackles for loss last season.
BYU's Kyle Van Noy is back after recording 22 tackles for loss last season. (USATSI)

Six teams are listed as independents this year as WAC castoffs Idaho and New Mexico State will join Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Army and Navy.

Three teams will likely land in bowl games and it could be four if Army can somehow muster six wins. Idaho and New Mexico State, which combined for only two wins last season, will be headed for some of the toughest seasons in school history playing as independents.

Offensive player of the Year: Cody Hoffman, WR, BYU. Most people don't know who Hoffman is, but all he did last season was catch 100 passes for 1,247 yards with 11 touchdowns. Expect more of the season this year as Hoffman will be QB Taysom Hill's favorite target.

Pos Player Yr School
QB Tommy Rees Sr. Notre Dame
RB George Atkinson Jr. Notre Dame
RB Raymond Maples Sr. Army
WR Cody Hoffman Sr. BYU
WR Austin Franklin Sr. New Mexico State
TE Troy Niklas Jr. Notre Dame
OT Zack Martin Sr. Notre Dame
OT Ryker Mathews Soph. BYU
OG Chris Watt Sr. Notre Dame
OG Jake Zuzek Jr. Navy
C Tanner Fleming Jr. Navy
DE Stephon Tuitt Jr. Notre Dame
DE Evan Palelei Sr. Navy
DT Louis Nix Sr. Notre Dame
DT Bobby Kough Jr. Army
LB Prince Shembo Sr. Notre Dame
LB Kyle Van Noy Sr. BYU
LB Cody Peterson Jr. Navy
CB Solomon Dixon Soph. Idaho
CB Bennett Jackson Sr. Notre Dame
S Geoff Bacon Jr. Army
S Dave Cazares Sr. New Mexico State
K Kyle Brindza Jr. Notre Dame
P Pablo Beltran Jr. Navy
KR JD Falslev Sr. BYU
PR JD Falslev Sr. BYU

Defensive player of the year: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame and Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU. With two of the best defenses in the nation, it's only fitting to declare co-defensive player of the year. Tuitt is one of the best defensive ends in the nation after recording 12 sacks. Van Noy had a tremendous season (13 sacks, nine tackles for loss) and passed on the NFL Draft to return for his senior season at BYU.

Top Newcomer: Greg Bryant, RB, Notre Dame. The freshman will be behind George Atkinson on the depth chart, but will plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent on the field. Expect Bryant to be the next star at Notre Dame.

Coach of the Year: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. Kelly has had to deal with the Everett Golson nonsense during the offseason, but when it's all said and done, Kelly will guide this team to at least 10 wins.

Next coordinator to become a head coach: Bob Diaco, Notre Dame. The defensive coordinator won the 2012 Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach, so it's only a matter of time before he lands a head coaching job.

Next head coach to become a coordinator: Rich Ellerson, Army. With a 17-32 record at Army, Ellerson could be let go if the Black Knights don't land a bowl bid this season.

Most intriguing game: BYU at Notre Dame on Nov. 23. Notre Dame rallied to win last year's game 17-14, so BYU had a revenge on its mind. This game should once again be low scoring with two of the best defenses in the nation on display.

Bold prediction: Notre Dame's defense will be one of the best in the nation and lead the Irish to a BCS bowl. BYU is primed for a strong season and will be ranked in the Top 25 most of the season.

Predicted order of finish

1. Notre Dame: It all begins with the defense at Notre Dame, even with the loss of Manti Te'o. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (47 tackles, 12 sacks) and NG Louis Nix (50 tackles, 7.5 for loss) are two of the best in the nation and are joined by six other starters, including linebacker Prince Shembo (7.5 sacks) and cornerback Bennett Jackson (65 tackles, 4 INTs). Tommy Rees returns as the starter after serving mostly as a backup last season. In 2011 as a starter, he threw for 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns, but also had 14 INTs. If he can cut down on the interceptions, the offense will be fine. George Atkinson takes over as the starting running back and TJ Jones (50 catches, 649 yards) is back as the top receiver.

2. BYU: The Cougars had a top-10 defense last year and with six starters back it should be one of the best in nation again. Kyle Van Noy passed up a chance to enter the NFL Draft, returning for his senior year. Van Noy was a beast last season, recording 22 tackles for a loss, including 13 sacks. Spencer Hadley is also back at linebacker (55 tackles, 9 for loss) and safety Daniel Sorensen (68 tackles, 3 INTs). Offensively, wide receiver Cody Hoffman (100 catches, 11 TDs) and running back Jamaal Williams (775 yards, 12 TDs) are both back. Taysom Hill is back at quarterback after injuring his knee last season during the sixth game of the year. If he can stay healthy, BYU could be in for a magical season.

3. Navy: Quarterback Keenan Reynolds had a pretty good freshman year, throwing nine touchdowns with only two interceptions, while also rushing for 649 yards and 10 TDs. Two backups expected to take over in starting roles will be Geoffrey Whiteside (111 yards, 6.9 avg) and Darius Staten (184 yards, 8.8 avg). All three, along with three starters back on the offensive line, should give Navy one of the top rushing attacks in the nation. Six starters are back on defense, including cornerback Parrish Gaines (69 tackles, 2 INTs).

4. Army: The offense begins with running back Raymond Maples, who is coming off his second consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing (1,215 yards, 5.4 avg). The challenge for the Black Knights will be replacing QB Trent Steelman. Sophomore A.J. Schurr, who played in limited action last season, is expected to be the starter. On defense, the Black Knights were one of the worst teams in the nation, but do have some bright spots with DT Bobby Kough (42 tackles, 9.5 for loss) and safety Geoff Bacon (136 tackles)

5. New Mexico State: The Aggies not only one won game last season, but it was against FCS team Sacramento State in the first game of the year. Former Kent State head coach Doug Martin takes over to try to improve a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2002. Wide receiver Austin Franklin (74 catches, 1,245 yards) is back with quarterback Andrew Manley (2,764 yards, 18 TDs), which should give the Aggies a decent offense. Four starters are also back on the offensive line, including OT Davonte Wallace. The defense is in rough shape with five starters back on a team that was ranked 117th in the nation. Safety Davis Cazares led the team with 116 tackles last season.

6. Idaho: Paul Petrino takes over for a team that's only win last year was beating New Mexico State. Petrino has tons of work to do as the Vandals will likely be starting freshman quarterback Chad Chalich. The 6-foot redshirt freshman was Idaho's high school player of the year so hopes are high. He does have two receivers returning in Najee Lovett (50 catches, 543 yards) and Jahrie Level (46 catches, 538 yards). The defense was awful last season, giving up 63 points to LSU, 66 to North Carolina and 70 to Louisiana Tech. Can it get any worse? Only two starters are back, so Idaho will be in for another long season.

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