Four Independent squads - Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and newcomer Western Kentucky - are among the ranks of Division I college football this fall. It appears the Midshipmen could be the best of the bunch in 2007, as they return most of their offensive firepower following yet another successful season under coach Paul Johnson last year. Notre Dame, meanwhile, could be in a rebuilding mode after losing much of their offensive production. Army is also in somewhat of a rebuilding phase after the departure of head coach Bobby Ross, and the same could be said for WKU as the Hilltoppers make their move into D-I.
1. How unstoppable will this Navy offense be? The Midshipmen have a great leader at quarterback and a two-headed monster behind him. If the defense can hold its own, double-digit victories could be in store for this team.
2. Can Notre Dame find someone to score the points? Nearly every offensive playmaker the Irish had a year ago is gone, so where will the scoring power come from? Head coach Charlie Weis' creativity may have to be at its best.
3. Can Western Kentucky double Army's win total in what is a gear-changing season for both? The 'Toppers have the easier schedule by far, but can the Black Knights convert the momentum of a coaching change into victories on the field?
OFFENSE: Senior QB Carson Williams hopes to give Army football fans a reason to smile this season. Though there isn't a lot of talent around him, he is capable of moving this unit in the right direction if he can get some help from his fellow skill position players, guys like RB Wesley McMahand and WR Jeremy Trimble who need to continue to improve upon their production from a season ago.
DEFENSE: There's nowhere for this unit to go but up, as they averaged just one sack per game a year ago and found themselves down early and often in 2006. In fact, they allowed more than twice as many points as the offense could muster in the first half of last year's twelve games. With the team's top three tacklers having to be replaced, don't look for things to improve dramatically.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Trimble is a threat to take a punt to the house at anytime, and he along with Anton McDuffie and Damion Hunter will handle kickoff returns this fall. Kicker Austin Miller was solid last year, but he'll have to be replaced by punter Owen Tolson, who will look to improve on his already-impressive 42 yard per punt average.
COACHING: Stan Brock takes over for Bobby Ross after the former NFL head man was unable to put together much in terms of wins during his three years on campus. Brock, who has been around the program as the offensive line coach, knows that he has a large chore in front of him but must feel he is capable of getting it done, or he wouldn't have taken the job.
SCHEDULE: The first two games (at Akron, vs Rhode Island) will be crucial, as the Knights look to build on the momentum from the hiring of a new head coach. One win is a must before two likely road losses against ACC competition. Then it's back home for two more chances at victory against Temple and Tulane. The rest of the slate, featuring four road trips among the last six games, looks a bit too tough for the team at this point.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The troops are pumped with the excitement of a new head coach and are able to win at least three games at home by the first weekend of October. That done, they've already matched the win total from a year ago, and everything else is gravy as Brock looks to build for the future.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The adjustment period following the coaching change doesn't allow for much in the way of wins, and the Knights aren't able to take advantage of the home field, winning just a game or two while hoping for better things come 2008.
MAKE OR BREAK: The home games against Rhode Island, Temple, and Tulane are all winnable. Whether or not the team takes advantage will give us a good insight into how long it might take Brock to turn things around.
OFFENSE: The option is a lovely thing to watch when it's successful, and head coach Paul Johnson has made sure that's the case. That attack will again by led by QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada this fall. He, along with leading rushers Adam Ballard and Reggie Campbell, combined for more than 2100 yards in 2006, and all will be back in 2007. On rare occassions, Kaheaku-Enhada will put it in the air, and this year it will be to new targets as Navy's top three receivers are gone.
DEFENSE: The defense lost a number of its top playmakers, but with an offense that likes to grind it out and run the clock, this problem won't be noticed as easily as it might be on other teams. If they can avoid giving up the big play and instead force the opposition into long, time-consuming drives, they'll be just fine.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Reggie Campbell will again handle the kickoff returns this year and will also take on punt return duties after the departure of Jason Tomlinson. Both areas could use improvement. Kicker Matt Harmon, solid a season ago, will return, as will punter Greg Veteto, who needs some improvement after averaging just 38 yards per punt last year and having two blocked.
COACHING: The job Paul Johnson has done with the Midshipmen is impressive, and other programs around the country with coaching holes to fill have noticed. While Navy doesn't have the best talent, they use what they do have to run their system to perfection, and that credit goes to Johnson.
SCHEDULE: Two road games open the slate, but the first at Temple should be a win before Navy ventures to suddenly-impressive Rutgers. Three home games follow, including what should be two easy wins before the rivalry matchup with Air Force. A road trip to Pitt won't be easy, nor will a home game with Wake Forest. Throw in another victory against Delaware before difficult trips to Notre Dame and North Texas before Northern Illinois comes to town two weeks prior to the annual showdown with Army.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Kaheaku-Enhada continues to run the option to perfection, and the two-headed monster out of the backfield is nearly impossible to contain. In addition to taking care of business at home, the Midshipmen are able to win all but a couple on the road and again make a run at a 10-win season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The inexperienced defense forces the offense to move at a faster pace than they would like, messing up the rhythm of the option attack. Road games at places like Rutgers, Pitt, and Notre Dame don't go well, and a couple teams even come into Annapolis and give Navy problems, still resulting in a winning record but a season that falls short of expectations.
MAKE OR BREAK: How well the defense is able to play will dictate how good this team is, assuming the offense is able to avoid injuries. A week two road test at Rutgers will tell us a lot about this team, as their next true test won't be until the final week of September when they begin a three-game stretch vs Air Force, at Pittsburgh, and vs Wake Forest that will likely determine the fate of their campaign.
OFFENSE: Gone are star QB Brady Quinn, touchdown-machine Jeff Samardzija, and hard-running Darius Walker, not to mention WR Rhema McKnight, so this unit has a lot to prove once the season arrives. While all are huge losses, the biggest question is who will take over under center? Evan Sharpley and Demetrius Jones have their eyes set on the job, but highly-acclaimed true freshman Jimmy Clausen will make a run at it himself. Tight end John Carlson will have to be a leader, as he is one of the few offensive players on the roster with any experience.
DEFENSE: Linebacker Maurice Crum and DB Tom Zbikowski, the team's first and third leading tacklers last year, respectively, are the go-to guys on this side of the ball. Crum is just one of the three LB's returning, so expect that unit to be strong from the opening kickoff. They'll have to be, though, because the defensive line will be made up in large part of unproven talents who need to make themselves known early.
SPECIAL TEAMS: David Grimes and George West are both back after handling the majority of the kick return duties last fall, while Zbikowski is always a huge threat on the punt returns. Kicking is still a question at this point, but punting is in good hands with Geoff Price returning after averaging more than 45 yards per attempt last season.
COACHING: Charlie Weiss had great success with the Irish in his second season in South Bend, but this year's squad will be a much bigger challenge after all of the star departures. If he can even approach the success of a year ago, it will be a remarkable coaching job.
SCHEDULE: Difficult as always, this year's slate opens up with a home game against Georgia Tech before consecutive road trips to Penn State and Michigan. A second home game against Michigan State precedes two more road tests at Purdue and UCLA. Then comes a much-needed five game homestand against the likes of Boston College, USC, Navy, Air Force, and Duke, before things wrap up with a road trip out west to Stanford.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Irish finds a quarterback to lead the offense and some skill players to help him out. They survive the brutal opening stretch and make it to October with a chance to win at least five of their last six games and again approach the 10-win plateau.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The offense is just too young and inexperienced, and Notre Dame struggles early in the season against a brutal September slate. Things come around a bit by October against the easier competition, but it's not enough to get this team much - if any - above the .500 mark.
MAKE OR BREAK: It all depends what your expectations are, but with four of the first six on the road, a 3-3 start would be huge. Win four or more, and this team is a BCS threat. Stumble to a sub-.500 start, though, and the Irish are headed to October simply trying to make a run at a winning season.
OFFENSE: WKU will move into D-I with a brand new QB at the helm, and at best he will have thrown five passes within the last year. Whoever steps into that role, though, will have the team's top three wideouts from a season ago to look towards. Curtis Hamilton hauled in more than 50 passes for over 800 yards and 10 scores a season ago, while Jake Gaebler and Jessie Quinn combined for nearly 850 yards themselves. Top back Lerron Moore will be hard to replace, but Andrew McCloud, who had 450 yards in 2006, will do his best to do just that.
DEFENSE: Linebackers Andre Lewis, a senior, and Blake Boyd, a sophomore, are back this fall. Lewis had 76 tackles last season, second-best on the team, while Boyd starred in his first year, racking up 70 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Those two will combine to lead a very strong linebacker unit that will have to be the leader on this side of the ball.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rashad Etheridge is back to handle kickoff return duties this fall, while Jake Gaebler looks to handle punt returns after doing so sparingly in 2006. While the punting spot is still somewhat of a question mark, Chris James returns as the team's kicker after a solid season a year ago that saw him hit a perfect nine of nine between 20 and 39 yards and connect on his only attempt from 50 and beyond.
COACHING: David Elson will guide the Hilltoppers to the next level of college football. Though he took over just four years ago, he has been with the WKU program since 1996 and has seen the team produce winning season after winning season along the way. Continuing that success will be a much bigger challenge as the team migrates to a schedule with a majority of D-I opponents in the years ahead.
SCHEDULE: A road trip to take on the defending national champs on opening day is a tough way to start the schedule, but a pair of winnable home games against West Virginia Tech and Eastern Kentucky follow. Four straight road jaunts to Middle Tennessee, Bowling Green, Ball State, and Indiana State won't have anyone counting WKU out, but they won't be easy by any means either. Just two games against D-I teams remain after that stretch.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The new guy under center steps in smoothly, and the 'Toppers are able to take care of business in their first season of D-I football, meaning they win at least four games at home and are also able to steal at least two on the road, paving the way for another season just above the .500 mark.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Things start rough in the Swamp, and WKU isn't able to take advantage of the easy opposition at home both in September and then again later in the season. The road games also prove to be too much of a challenge, and the 'Toppers finish below .500 for the first time in a while.
MAKE OR BREAK: After what we'll assume is a loss at Florida, WKU needs to come back home and take care of business the next two weekends before the long road trip. If they do that, even winning just one of the four road games gives them a shot at heading into late October with a real chance at getting to or above .500.
While Notre Dame appears to be in rebuilding mode following the departure of nearly every key offensive player on last year's roster, Navy looks to be in for yet another solid season under the leadership of head coach Paul Johnson. Army, like the Irish, is in rebuilding mode as they welcome in a new head man, while Western Kentucky will begin their ascent into the D-I ranks and look to continue a streak of winning seasons.