Independents are that random relic of a bygone period of college football history that continues to linger on. Three decades ago independents dominated the college football world, with teams like Miami and Penn State and Notre Dame all putting together championship seasons in the 1980s without affiliating with a conference. Then conferences became the primary negotiating entity for television contracts, and the era of the independent became an anachronism. Only those teams on the margins — either with the exclusive ability to negotiate their own lucrative TV contracts or those too unappealing to any league — would cling to independence as college football moved into the 21st century.
And yet, in recent years several teams have made the concerted effort to become independent. BYU made the move a few years ago, leaving the security of the Mountain West for the promise of its own TV network and a chance to schedule tougher competition. This year we actually have another member joining the independent group, with Massachusetts coming to a mutual agreement to leave the MAC and look for a new home. More common is the move that Navy recently made, eschewing a history of independence to join the AAC.
While only a handful of teams plod on in the 2000s on their own, the phenomenon remains an indelible part of the college football landscape. From the bluebloods in South Bend to the fallen contenders at West Point, public and parochial schools alike remain for their own individual reasons outside the purview of any league entity. With all but Notre Dame languishing outside of both the Power Five and the Group of Five, independence has evolved from a springboard to championships to a purgatory of sorts.
So let’s dive in and assess the independent pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
4. Army — The Cadets of West Point have reached one bowl game since the turn of the 21st century, and this year looks like more futility lies on the horizon. Once a college football powerhouse, the men of the U.S. Military Academy now languish as an afterthought in the sport. But Jeff Monken has a veteran crew returning for his third season in charge, and a team that went 1-7 in 2015 in one-score games was not as far off from postseason contention as a 2-10 finish might lead one to assume. Monken and offensive coordinator Brent Davis will have to decide on either Ahmad Bradshaw or Chris Carter at quarterback and work on reconfiguring the offensive line, an issue that does not plague a deep and experienced defense. The Black Knights have three Power Five opponents (including Notre Dame) on their schedule, with the rest rounded out by their fellow service academies, a smattering of Group of Five opponents, and a pair of FCS schools. Only one win against an FCS opponent can count toward bowl eligibility, making it unlikely Army can reach bowl eligibility this season.
3. Massachusetts — Mark Whipple has been around for some interesting times with the UMass football team. His first stint with the program, from 1998 to 2003, resulted in a I-AA national title and two Atlantic-10 championships. His second stint, which began two years ago as the Minutemen began to transition out of the MAC, has been far less successful. After a pair of 3-9 seasons Massachusetts was unwilling to commit to becoming a full member of the MAC, and the league was unwilling to continue the football-only agreement. So UMass heads off into independence without any certainty of its future, sporting one of the greenest rosters in FBS and a schedule that skews much tougher than Army’s. Three SEC games (at Florida, home versus Mississippi State, at South Carolina) dot their schedule, and the Minutemen also play Boston College in Gillette Stadium. While asking for more than one upset would be foolhardy, the rest of the schedule provides at least a somewhat-navigable path toward the postseason if the team stays healthy and gets a few lucky breaks.
2. BYU — The Cougars find themselves at a crossroads, with longtime head coach Bronco Mendenhall departed to Virginia and former BYU fullback Kalani Sitake taking over at his alma mater. Mendenhall had led BYU to five 10+ win seasons during his time in Provo and won two Mountain West titles, but there was steady regression after the school decided to go independent in 2011. After another 10-win season in that first year on its own, BYU never did manage to reach that level again as injuries and tougher schedules depleted the team’s depth year after year. This year they have a wealth of experience, including both sixth-year senior Taysom Hill and sophomore Tanner Mangum at quarterback and over 100 combined starts along the offensive line. The schedule only gets harder this year, though, with Power Five contests and high-level mid-majors throughout the year providing plenty of high-profile opportunities — Arizona, Utah, UCLA, and West Virginia in September; Toledo, Michigan State, Mississippi State, and Boise State in October; Cincinnati and Utah State in November. If an experienced crew can somehow find a way to finish undefeated or even 11-1, they’d have a case for CFP consideration. Eight or nine wins is a more likely ceiling for this squad.
1. Notre Dame — The Golden Domers are the gold standard for independent programs, though their partnership with the ACC has taken away some of the autonomy in scheduling that used to be at the heart of Notre Dame’s independence. Brian Kelly has just two double-digit winning seasons in South Bend since coming over from Cincinnati, and the longtime head coach heads into his seventh year looking for the spot in the final four that Irish fans expect on an annual basis. The team lacks experience, but year after year it recruits talent on the strength of its brand as much as on recent results. Either Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer will lead a loaded offense with a shaky line, and the defense will hope that an infusion of new defensive talent improves on the unit’s pedestrian 2015 numbers. Notre Dame actually plays an easier schedule than BYU, with three non-Power Five opponents on the schedule. If Kelly’s crew runs its schedule, though, it is the team that would surely get the benefit of the doubt.