1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
There is no pretending that any other independent school rates higher than the Catholic institution in South Bend, Indiana. They parlayed an independent regular season into a BCS championship game appearance in 2012, where they were promptly eviscerated by the Crimson Tide. Otherwise, the Irish have largely become an afterthought in the college football world, a quirky relic of yesteryear high on legends and Lucky Charms and Lou Holtz’s soliloquies.
Their recent partnership with the ACC means that a third of their schedule is occupied exclusively by games with that conference. The halfway-membership affords Notre Dame a wider variety of bowl opportunities and gives ACC schools a name-brand program to bolster the strength of schedule for CFP selectors. It probably wouldn’t matter anyway, given that a highly-ranked Notre Dame team is going to get the benefit of the doubt that no other independent will ever again enjoy, but the ACC affiliation will only make it easier to construct a case for the Irish in those seasons where they succeed in navigating what is always a tough schedule.
2. BYU Cougars
Three years ago, the Mormon university in Provo turned its back on a group of fellow universities with which it had been affiliated for nearly five decades (and in some cases earlier than that). A charter member first of the WAC and then later the Mountain West when it split away in 1999, the Cougars watched as fellow MWC powerhouses Utah and TCU were snatched up by the Pac-12 and Big 12 respectively. They watched as Boise State bolted ship from the sinking WAC to the other western mid-major league. And BYU thought they had made a shrewd move as they swam against the current that prized conference affiliation above all else.
Has the gambit paid off? Bronco Mendenhall’s teams have won 10, eight, and eight games in the three seasons since making the bold move to sever league ties. They have pulled off upsets of teams like Texas, Ole Miss, and Oregon State during that period. They have also suffered inexplicable losses to also-rans like Virginia. Working against BYU is the fact that so few power-conference schools are willing to schedule them in the same fashion as they would Notre Dame. The Cougars are still mainly playing mid-major schedules while groping in vain for national appeal, with only three power-league schools on this year’s schedule. What that means is that, though the 30th anniversary of BYU’s national title might afford the best chance for a while for this team to go undefeated once again, a 12-0 record still might not be enough to get included when strength of schedule is taken into account.
3. Navy Midshipmen
By this time next year, the Naval Academy in Annapolis will no longer factor in the ranks of the independents. Along with Notre Dame, the Midshipmen were one of just two schools to have never been affiliated with a conference. Now, while the Irish are flirting even more seriously with the ACC, Navy will join forces with the similarly-monikered AAC for the 2015 season. This will consolidate the schedule without unduly sacrificing much if anything in the way of schedule strength.
With one year left as a lame-duck independent, how might the Midshipmen fare as they try to enter their new conference with momentum? The season opener against Ohio State in Baltimore became a lot more intriguing for Navy’s chances now that Braxton Miller is unfortunately out for the season for the Buckeyes. Unless you count Rutgers just because they’re affiliated with the Big Ten now (and I don’t), the next serious test for the Middies doesn’t come until they host Notre Dame on the first of November. Those two games are the critical flashpoints where Navy must win if it wants to fulfill dreams of reaching the elite field.
4. Army Black Knights
Rounding out a small field of independent schools is the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Black Knights, like their service counterparts in Maryland, are dependent on an option-based run game that most effectively utilizes players that must be recruited not just to fit a football player’s mold but also conform to soldier-approved body times as well. At one time this school was a national power, with mythic championships and several Heisman winners to boot.
Now the Knights are just treading water at the I-A level, hoping for one properly-portioned individual to turn his back on the more glamorous power schools to undertake not just college but a military commitment as well. With their other military counterparts soon to both be affiliated with leagues, there is little tying Army back to independence. Though its time in Conference USA might not have ended as favorably as desired, the fact remains that Army is at risk of fading further into obsolescence in the CFP era and would probably be the one school among this quartet to benefit most from affiliation. An undefeated record deep into the season would still raise plenty of eyebrows, but in a way that denotes shock about being so high in the rankings rather than indignation about being rated too low.