The number of independents has been reduced to three as Western Kentucky is now a provisional member of the Sun Belt conference, leaving only Notre Dame, Navy, and Army without conference affiliations. The best of the three last season was the Naval Academy, who recorded their first win over Notre Dame in 44 seasons, a 46-44 three overtime triumph. The Midshipmen were the only team to compete in the post-season as they came up a field goal short in their loss to Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl. Navy also extended their unbeaten streak to six over their arch-rival Army, the longest winning streak in this historic rivalry.
Heading into 2008, Notre Dame looks poised to make a huge turnaround and return to the post-season after a 3-9 campaign. Navy may slide after their eight-win season as they welcome a new coaching regime to Annapolis, but this team is still talented and capable of retaining their Commander-In-Chief trophy. Army remains in a building mode as the team returns to its wishbone roots in the hopes of turning around a program that has not been to a bowl since 1996 and has only twice won four games since their last post-season appearance.
1. How quickly can Notre Dame turn around the nations worst yardage offense from last season? The Irish offense is loaded with top quality recruits who are now a year older and more experienced and should be poised for substantial improvement.
2. Does Navy still have enough firepower to reach eight wins for the six consecutive season? The Midshipmen return only five starters from the nationís best rushing attack so the defense must take on a larger role if the Middies are to match their recent success again this season.
3. Does a return to the old days of the Army wishbone offense result in more wins for the downtrodden Cadets? The experiment with the pro-style offense can be termed a disaster so the Cadets return to the offense the school knows best and has had the most success with in the past.
OFFENSE: Army will return to its roots this season, as the wishbone or a close variation of the offense will be back along the Hudson River. The Black Knights tried to employ a pro-style attack over the past couple of seasons, but the unit ranked 116th in the nation in total offense and 115th in the nation in scoring offense. Expect to see a true freshman directing the new offense sooner rather than later as Indianaís Mr. Football Paul McIntosh arrives in the fall and he is perfectly suited to direct the new offense. The good news for McIntosh is that the offensive line returns five players who have started in the past and should be a solid group. The bad news is that there are no receivers returning with significant experience, so either the ground game develops or it will be another long season for this unit.
DEFENSE: The Black Knight defense has not fared much better than the offense, giving up at least 30 points in the last six games of 2007 and ranking 89th in the nation in total defense. The strength of this unit is the defensive line, especially the tackle combination of Mike Gann and Ted Bentler, who will be relied on to slow down the oppositions rushing attack. Highlighting the second line of defense is middle linebacker Frank Scappaticci, the teams leading returning tackler, who will now move inside to fully utilize his strength. The biggest issue heading into the season is replacing the two starting safeties, especially NFL draft pick, Caleb Campbell.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Army basically starts over with this entire unit and there are major concerns. The kicking duties belong to Adam DeMarco, who connected on one of his two field goal attempts before his season came to an end due to injury. Andrew Rinehart will handle punting responsibilities but he has yet to kick in a game during his Army career. Assuming both return duties is expected to be Carlo Sandiego, but he is also inexperienced after handling only one kick last season. The coverage units were a disaster last season, as the Black Knights yielded 26.4 yards per kickoff return, so improvement is a must.
COACHING: Head coach Stan Brock enters his second season after the Knights finished at 3-9 in his debut season. Brockís biggest decision heading into this year was to reinstall the wishbone offense and he will rely on second year offensive coordinator Tim Walsh to direct the new attack. John Mumford enters his fifth season as defensive coordinator and he was the interim coach during the 2003 season after Todd Berry was dismissed.
SCHEDULE: Army has reduced the strength of its schedule significantly this season, playing only four teams that appeared in bowls in 2007, Texas A&M, Rutgers, Navy, and Air Force. The Black Knights play four MAC schools, hosting Temple, Akron, Eastern Michigan, and traveling to Buffalo.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The new quarterback Paul McIntosh will need to make a name for himself as Army looks to re-establish a powerful rushing offense. McIntosh was a dynamic playmaker in high school, as he threw for almost 2,300 yards while rushing for 1,600 yards and accounting for 56 touchdowns in his senior season. Paul is the perfect fit for the new Black Knight offense and he is the future of this team at the quarterback position.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Paul McIntosh starts right out of the gate and directs a return to the days of the powerful Army rushing game. With the decline in the strength of its schedule this team has a chance to produce the best record for the program in years. A .500 record is a legitimate goal, especially with the Knights hosting seven home games.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The transition to the new offense takes more time than anticipated as the unit continues the same struggles of the past season. The lack of offensive firepower leads Army to another losing season, the schools twelfth consecutive since their 1996 campaign.
MAKE OR BREAK: Army needs to get out of the gate quickly as the Cadets host Temple and then New Hampshire to start the season. The key for this team is quarterback play and how quickly McIntosh will be able to make the transition from high school to college. The current crop of quarterbacks on the Army roster are not suited to the new offense, so getting McIntosh ready early is critical to this teams success.
OFFENSE: Although under new coaching leadership, the Midshipmen will continue to run the triple-option offense, a scheme that has helped Navy lead the nation in rushing for three consecutive seasons. Directing the attack is third year starting quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, a solid passer and an excellent outside runner, a perfect fit for this offense. The lead back in the option attack will be Eric Kettani, a solid back who led the team with a 5.8 per carry average last season. The offensive line is an area of concern as the Middies lose three starters and have one of the least experienced units in the nation.
DEFENSE: The defense welcomes back eight starters from a unit that struggled all of last season, ranking 108th in the nation in scoring defense and yielding 36 points per game. The key for improvement will be finding players that can penetrate and get into the backfield as the Middies ranked 117th in the nation in sacks, allowing teams with solid passing attacks to pick apart the secondary. The Midshipmen do welcome back Clint Sovie at linebacker after he missed the majority of last season due to injury. Sovie is a key element in the Navy rush defense as he regularly finds his way to the football. The secondary returns a great deal of experience and should be much improved if the front seven can generate a better pass rush.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The biggest loss of this unit is Reggie Campbell who was the teamís star kickoff and punt returner. The kick returning responsibility could be turned over to back-up quarterback Jarod Bryant while punt returning duties belong to sophomore running back Emmet Merchant. Matt Harmon struggled in the field goal game, connecting on six out of ten attempts, while the punting will now be handled by sophomore Kyle Delanhooke, who did not have an attempt last season. This group is full of inexperience and expect struggles this season, especially in the early going.
COACHING: Ken Niumatalolo assumes command of the Navy ship after Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech. Niumatalolo was the assistant head coach last year in addition to handling the offensive line in his second tour of duty at the Naval Academy. He will keep the same offense intact and will rely on his coordinator Irvin Jasper, the quarterback coach for the past seven years, to lead the unit. The defense still belongs to Buddy Green, who enters his seventh season on the Navy staff.
SCHEDULE: The schedule sets up nicely for Navy to make a run at a sixth straight trip to the post-season. The biggest challenges look to be a trip to Wake Forest, home visits from Rutgers and Pittsburgh and a neutral site game in Baltimore versus Notre Dame. The Midshipmen must visit the Air Force Academy this year and as usual the finale is the annual battle with Army at Philadelphia on the first Saturday in December.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Fullback Eric Kettani led the Middies in rushing last season, so he is a known quantity, but expect his workload to be increased this season as the depth at running back has thinned significantly. Kettani is fast and powerful and he will need to ready to carry the workload and if his performance in the bowl game is an indication, he looks to be ready for a big season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The experienced defense improves enough to slow opposing offenses and the Middies offense stays on track as Navy is able to outscore their opponents again this season. With the schedule lined for another bowl run, this team wins seven games and takes a trip to the inaugural Congressional Bowl in Washington DC.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The defense is a sieve yet again and the leaky pass defense is exploited consistently. The offense is unable to keep up as the Middies fall short in the majority of their high scoring affairs. The lack of improvement on defense results in a four or five win season and an end to the schools five year bowl appearance streak.
MAKE OR BREAK: The October 4th battle at Air Force will likely decide the Commander in Chief trophy, a title that Navy has held for five consecutive seasons. Navy has also won five straight in this series, the longest winning streak against the Air Force in their history. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is the clear leader of this team and although the coaches like back-up Jarod Bryantís talent, the loss of Kaheaku-Enada during the season would devastate this teamís offensive firepower.
OFFENSE: The key for the Irish to improve upon last seasons disastrous offensive results is an upgrade to a porous offensive line. The unit yielded 58 sacks and had freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen on the run all year. The line returns largely intact, with the only key loss being John Sullivan, and the reports out of string practice are positive on how this unit is developing. With time to throw, Clausen should lead one of the nationís most improved passing games, especially with emerging star Duval Kamara leading a receiving corps that is loaded with young talent, including top-notch recruits Michael Floyd and John Goodman. James Aldridge is the starting running back, but expect to see Robert Hughes and Armando Allen earn significant carries.
DEFENSE: In order to further develop a defensive unit that struggled last season, former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was added to the staff. Tenutaís main concern will be a defensive line that must replace its top player in Trevor Laws and was unable to generate much of a pass rush outside of Laws. Expect to see a more active and aggressive line backing corps to assist the front three, with Maurice Crum leading the way from his inside spot. The strength of this unit is a veteran secondary, which includes six players with starting experience, led by star safety David Bruton. If Notre Dame can find a way to increase the pressure on the quarterbacks, this unit has the potential to be vastly improved.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Brandon Walker is back after struggling during his freshman season, hitting on only six of his twelve attempts. The punting looks to be in solid hands with Eric Maust taking over the number one slot after making 21 punts last season and averaging 42.1 yards per kick. Improvement is needed in the kick return game after the Irish finished 93rd in the nation last season and Armando Allen and Golden Tate will be looked upon for better results. Punt returning is still a question mark, and one of the incoming stellar freshman recruits may get the call, if not, pencil in David Grimes as a solid but not spectacular option.
COACHING: Year three of the Charlie Weis could be considered a disaster in all aspects of the program as the Irish stumbled to a 3-9 record. The good news is that Notre Dame enters this season on a two game winning streak and with plenty of young talent looking to emerge. The addition of assistant head coach and defensive guru Jon Tenuta to assist coordinator Corwin Brown should help the defense make a big improvement this season. Tenuta has directed excellent defensive units at Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Ohio State in the past eight seasons. Charlie Weis has yielded play calling duties to his offensive coordinator Mike Haywood after Weis had been in charge of the offense in his initial three seasons.
SCHEDULE: This yearís slate of games offers the Irish a substantial opportunity to drastically improve the won/loss record from last season. The key home games are the annual battles with Michigan and Purdue in September, while Pittsburgh and Navy visit in November. The toughest road contest is the season finale with USC, but the Irish will have to be ready for trips to improved Michigan State, North Carolina, and Washington programs.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The incoming freshman class brings plenty of help to the Irish offense, led by wide receiver prospect Michael Floyd. Floyd is projected to be the much needed deep-threat that was lacking last season from the Irish offensive game plan. He can stretch the field and open the middle, providing Coach Weis with many more options to attack opposing defenses.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The offense bounces back in a big way with a young talent infusion and the development of a more experienced offensive line. The schedule is much less demanding than last season and the Irish put together one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the nation, winning eight or nine games and making a statement for the 2009 season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Yes, the offensive line is more experienced, but it was an absolute disaster last season, unable to pass protect or run block. If there is not significant improvement here, expect much more of the same in the way of offensive struggles. With the overall increase in experience and depth across the program, a five-win season should be the worst-case scenario and would be a major disappointment for the Irish program.
MAKE OR BREAK: Circle September 13th on your calendar when the Irish welcome Michigan in their second game of the season. Notre Dame was completely embarrassed last season, getting shutout 38-0 and compiling a season low 79 yards of total offense in the loss. Michigan will still be in the early stages of establishing their new offense and could be ripe for the Irish to earn a big win. A victory of their Wolverine rivals should provide this team with a big shot of confidence as they head to Michigan State, a series in which the road team has won seven straight times. Jimmy Clausen looks ready to break-out, after a good off-season where he bulked up and now welcomes in new playmakers to help the offense take flight.
Notre Dame appears ready to return to their winning ways after struggling in all aspects last season and finishing with their lowest win total since 1963. The combination of a more favorable schedule and a much-improved offense should have the Irish returning to the bowl scene after a one-year absence. Navy looks capable of continuing their bowl streak as they still look to be a slight favorite to keep the Commander-In-Chief trophy in Annapolis. Army is still in the process of rebuilding and this looks to be a season to develop the new offense and to fit the best players into the system. The Cadets are capable of improving upon last yearís record but this team does not look ready yet to return to the positive side of the ledger.