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August 15, 2011

BYU addition alters independent status

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings

Only time will tell if this is a one-shot deal or the start of a trend. But after decades of seeing their ranks shrink to near-extinction, the fraternity of college football independents finally added a member this season.

Once in-state rival Utah announced it was leaving the Mountain West Conference for the Pac-12, BYU also decided to exit the MWC - but it decided to leave conference play altogether. While the Cougars will compete in the West Coast Conference in other sports, they will join Notre Dame, Navy and Army in going it alone for football.

BYU officials believe their name and a school-owned network will allow them to put together a competitive schedule. They also don't think it will be any tougher to earn a BCS bid as an independent than it was as an MWC member.

"The intrigue is more awe, as in, 'How are you going to do it?' " BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said in regard to other schools' reactions to the switch. "What they don't understand is that we have our own TV network. That alone boggles their mind. And what they don't really understand is the BYU brand.

"It's gone much smoother than anticipated, but many still can't believe we are doing it. Awestruck and anxious is where other colleges are in terms of how they think of our independence move."

The bold move makes it an interesting year for BYU. Frankly, it's an exciting time for all the independents.

Army went 7-6 last season to post its first winning season since 1996. The Black Knights also edged SMU 16-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl for their first bowl victory since 1985. Navy has gone a combined 19-8 over the past two years and has won at least eight games for eight consecutive seasons. Notre Dame also has reason to feel good about itself after going 8-5 last year and ending the season on a four-game winning streak.

BYU and Notre Dame probably have the most reason for optimism this season.

Army returns only one starter on the offensive line and must replace seven starters on defense. Navy must replace three-year starting quarterback Ricky Dobbs and returns only two players on defense -- end Jabaree Tuani and cornerback Kwesi Mitchell -- who made at least seven starts last season.

BYU returns nine players on offense and six more on defense who made at least seven starts last season. Although the Cougars went just 7-6 a year ago, they won five of their last six games and dismantled UTEP 52-24 in the New Mexico Bowl. The only loss during that stretch was 17-16 to Utah in a game decided by a blocked field goal as time expired.

Notre Dame returns virtually its nucleus on offense and defense as well as its main kicker and punter. After enduring some growing pains in Brian Kelly's first season as coach, the Irish have the look of a BCS contender.

Of course, the Irish had similar optimism at this point in the tenures of former coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, who both eventually were fired. But the Irish didn't have much offense during the Willingham years and didn't play enough defense under Weis. This Notre Dame team seems much more balanced.

"I want them to have good feelings about who they are and where they've come," Kelly said. "But I think I've said this pretty clearly, and our players are in it for the same reason. I want to be in [Oklahoma coach] Bob Stoops' position today, where he's talking about being No. 1. That's why we're here. We want to get to the point where we're part of the conversation as a championship-caliber football team. We're not there yet."

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd. This senior gives Notre Dame an excellent shot at its second Biletnikoff Award winner in the past three seasons, following Golden Tate in 2009. By the time he leaves Notre Dame, Floyd should have all the school's major receiving records. He is tied for second among all active FBS receivers in career touchdowns (28), ranks third in receiving yards per game (84.6) and is fourth in total receiving yards (2,539) and receptions per game (5.7). He has done all that despite battling injury problems for much of his career. The Irish's BCS hopes depend heavily on whether Floyd can stay healthy and have a huge season.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o. This former five-star prospect is the biggest reason for the dramatic improvement of Notre Dame's defense. Te'o made 133 tackles -- 42 more than any of his teammates -- last season to lead a defense that allowed just one touchdown in the last 15 quarters of the regular season. His 133 tackles were the most by any Notre Dame player since Tony Furjanic produced 147 in 1983. Te'o tied for 18th place nationally in tackles per game (10.23) and ranked 12th in total tackles. He heads into his junior season as an All-America candidate and a legitimate contender for the Butkus Award.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Notre Dame RB Cierre Wood. Notre Dame has a serious lack of depth at running back. The only experienced backup to Wood is Jonas Gray, a senior who hasn't lived up to expectations. Wood finished last season with 603 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and he came on strong after replacing an injured Armando Allen late in the year. Over his last three games, Wood ran for 258 yards on just 41 carries. The Irish need Wood to build on that momentum because they don't have many other options.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: BYU cornerbacks. We're not naming them because the starting jobs remain up for grabs. Candidates include senior Corby Eason, juniors Robbie Buckner and Preston Hadley and redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson. The winners will have their hands full early in the season for a BYU secondary that has only one returning starter (FS Travis Uale). BYU's demanding early-season schedule includes trips to Ole Miss and Texas plus home games with Utah and UCF in the first four weeks.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Navy QB Kriss Proctor. After backing up Ricky Dobbs the past few seasons, Proctor finally takes over as Navy's starting quarterback as a senior. Although he lacks Dobbs' passing skills, Proctor has shown in spot duty that he's an outstanding runner. He rushed for 89 yards in a 13-10 victory over Wake Forest two years ago. In his lone start last season, Proctor rushed for 201 yards while leading Navy to a 38-37 triumph over Central Michigan. Proctor isn't as complete a player as Dobbs, but his running ability should assure that Navy once again has one of the nation's top rushing attacks.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Notre Dame OLB Darius Fleming. Although it might seem strange to label a third-year starter as a breakout player, Fleming has been overshadowed by Te'o for much of his career. This could be the season Fleming garners some national attention. Fleming's position as the "cat" linebacker in Notre Dame's 3-4 scheme gives him the freedom to make plenty of big plays, as he can utilize his pass-rushing ability while alternating between end and linebacker. Fleming led the Irish in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (10.5) a year ago. He recorded five tackles for loss in his last four five games. Fleming has looked impressive in preseason practices, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he increases his sack total and perhaps even ranks among the NCAA leaders in tackles for loss.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: BYU WR Ross Apo. Rated as the No. 108 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, Apo performed well in preseason camp last summer before a dislocated index finger in the season opener knocked him out for the rest of the year and led to a redshirt. Now that he's healthy again, he once again is turning heads in preseason camp with his sure hands and big-play ability. BYU QB Jake Heaps found him for a 70-yard completion at a recent practice. That duo should connect plenty more times during the regular season.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: BYU LB Uona Kaveinga. This former USC player will make his BYU debut this fall after sitting out the 2010 season because of NCAA transfer rules. Although he didn't play much for USC, Kaveinga is a former Rivals100 prospect -- and Eagle Scout -- who should step right into the starting lineup for BYU. Another newcomer to watch is Notre Dame true freshman DE Aaron Lynch, a pure pass rusher rated as the No. 28 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. Lynch won't crack the starting lineup -- the Irish return starters Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore -- but he will play in obvious passing situations and should make an immediate impact.

THE COACHES

BYU at Texas, Sept. 10

Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 10

Utah at BYU, Sept. 17

Navy at South Carolina, Sept. 17

Air Force at Navy, Oct. 1

USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 22

BYU vs. TCU in Arlington, Texas, Oct. 28

Navy at Notre Dame, Oct. 29

Notre Dame at Stanford, Nov. 26

Army vs. Navy in Wash., D.C., Dec. 10

BEST STAFF: Navy. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly earned a couple of BCS appearances with Cincinnati, which would make his staff seem like the obvious choice. But there's no way we could rate Notre Dame ahead of Navy in this category after the way Ken Niumatalolo's staff thoroughly outcoached Kelly and Co. in the Middies' 35-17 victory over the Irish last season. Navy rushed for 367 yards against a Notre Dame defense that never adjusted to what the Middies were doing. But we're not giving this honor to Navy based solely on one game. Niumatalolo's staff has done a great job maintaining the level of success that began under former coach Paul Johnson. Niumatalolo owns a 27-14 record and has gone 5-1 against Navy's two chief rivals -- Army and Notre Dame.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Navy's Ivin Jasper. Jasper is entering his 10th season as Navy's quarterback coach and his fourth season as the Middies' coordinator. He has done an outstanding job mentoring the likes of Dobbs and Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. He helped Navy lead the nation in rushing from 2005-08. His background with the option attack goes back to his years working on Johnson's Georgia Southern staffs before following him to Navy.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Notre Dame's Bob Diaco. Diaco received plenty of criticism last season for the Irish's inability to slow Navy's running game, but he sure has redeemed himself since. Notre Dame responded from that Navy fiasco by allowing just one offensive touchdown over its last 15 quarters of the regular season. The remarkable improvement on defense helped spark Notre Dame to a four-game winning streak that ended the 2010 season. Diaco also has done fine work on the recruiting trail. His 4:30 a.m. visit to the Brooklyn home of outside linebacker Ishaq Williams helped the Irish lure that five-star prospect away from Penn State.

BEST POSITION COACH: BYU TE coach Lance Reynolds. This BYU legend enters his 28th year on the Cougars' staff having worked on just about every facet of the Cougars' offense. He was offensive line coach from 2001-03, then served as running backs coach the past seven years. Reynolds takes over a new role this season as the tight ends coach. He also has owned the title of assistant head coach since 2000. Reynolds was the running backs coach for five of the top six rushers in school history. He also apparently does some great coaching in his own household: Reynolds is the father of two former (Lance Reynolds and Dallas Reynolds) and two current (Houston Reynolds and Matt Reynolds) BYU offensive linemen.

THE OTHER STUFF

GAME OF THE YEAR: Navy at Notre Dame, Oct. 29. Notre Dame has plenty of other games this season -- the prime-time games Sept. 10 at Michigan and Oct. 22 versus USC immediately spring to mind -- that will garner more attention. But if the Irish want to prove once and for all that they've reasserted their status as national powers, they must beat the team they once dominated. Notre Dame beat Navy 43 consecutive times from 1963-2006, but the Middies have won three of the past four and controlled last season's game from start to finish. Notre Dame expects to compete for a BCS bid this season. It's hard to imagine the Irish earning a BCS invitation if they lose to Navy again.

ALL-INDEPENDENT TEAM (OFFENSE)
QBJake Heaps, BYU (6-1/200, Soph.)
RBJared Hassin, Army (6-3/235, Jr.)
RBJJ Di Luigi, BYU (5-9/185, Sr.)
RBAlexander Teich, Navy (6-0/217, Sr.)
WRMichael Floyd, Notre Dame (6-3/224, Sr.)
TETyler Eifert, Notre Dame (6-6/249, Jr.)
TZack Martin, Notre Dame (6-4/303, Jr.)
TMatt Reynolds, BYU (6-6/305, Sr.)
GBraden Hansen, BYU (6-6/313, Jr.)
GTrevor Robinson, Notre Dame (6-5/311, Sr.)
CBrady DeMell, Navy (6-3/310, Sr.)
KDavid Ruffer, Notre Dame (6-1/193, Sr.)
PRJD Falslev, BYU (5-8/184, Soph.)

Offensive backfield

1. BYU: Jake Heaps had a so-so freshman season, but he threw 11 touchdown passes and only two interceptions over his last four games. JJ Di Luigi is back after compiling 917 rushing yards and 443 receiving yards. The Cougars also return RB Bryan Kariya (550 yards last season).

2. Notre Dame

3. Army

4. Navy

Receivers

1. Notre Dame: The Irish may lack depth at this spot, but they sure have plenty of star power with Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick. Floyd will end his career as the most prolific receiver in school history, while Riddick caught at least seven passes in four consecutive games before getting hurt last season. Tyler Eifert continues Notre Dame's long tradition of quality pass-catching tight ends.

2. BYU

3. Army

4. Navy

Offensive line

1. BYU: All-America T Matt Reynolds leads a group that returns four starters. Braden Hansen and Terence Brown were All-MWC honorable mention picks last season. The only new starter is at right guard.

2. Notre Dame

3. Navy

4. Army

Defensive line

1. Notre Dame: Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore bring experience and steadiness at end. Although he lacks experience at nose tackle, Louis Nix has shown plenty of promise. True freshman Aaron Lynch could make an immediate impact as a pass rusher.

2. BYU

3. Navy

4. Army

Linebackers

1. Notre Dame: All-America candidate Manti Te'o leads a group that also features Darius Fleming on the outside and Carlo Calabrese on the inside. They have a combined 54 starts. Prince Shembo, the likely starter at the other outside linebacker spot, has plenty of upside.

2. BYU

3. Navy

4. Army

Secondary

1. Notre Dame: Notre Dame returns plenty of key performers from a secondary that helped the Irish rank 25th in pass efficiency defense last season. Senior S Harrison Smith picked off seven passes last year, including five in his final four games. CBs Gary Gray and Robert Blanton and Ss Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter also have plenty of starting experience. The one concern is a lack of depth.

2. BYU

3. Navy

4. Army

Special teams

1. Notre Dame: Lou Groza Award finalist David Ruffer returns after missing just one field-goal attempt last season. The backup kicker -- Nick Tausch -- had a solid freshman season in 2009 before losing his job to Ruffer. Ben Turk is back as the punter, though Notre Dame ranked just 64th in net punting last season. The Irish lack a quality kick returner.

2. Army

3. BYU

4. Navy

Coaching staff

1. Navy: All four independents have quality coaching staffs, but Navy gets the edge for delivering consistent year-to-year results. And we can't overlook the Middies' recent domination of Notre Dame and Army.

2. Notre Dame

3. BYU

4. Army

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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