2. Notre Dame
4. Western Kentucky
-->TOP FOUR STORYLINES AMONG THE INDEPENDENTS
4. Could Western Kentucky have timed their I-A move any worse? WKU has been pretty strong in Division I-AA, so it makes a degree of sense that they would want to move up. However, the Hilltoppers lose longtime head coach Jack Harbaugh, and they lost some great offensive talent, too. Their top all-time leading rusher, Lerron Moore, departed, as did #2 all-time passer Justin Haddix. The I-A teams on the schedule are all road trips, with the exception of a likely loss to defending Sun Belt champ Troy. WKU might be able to pull an upset against the likes of Middle Tennessee, Bowling Green, Ball State, or North Texas, but will be lucky to win a game against a I-A team. Overall, WKU is looking at a 3-9/4-8 season.
3. Can Army take advantage of a quickly softening schedule? Luckily, there shouldn't be a long transition period for the players as they adjust to new head coach Stan Brock. The issue will be the level of talent. Army struggled to move the ball with any consistency, and they had a devil of a time holding on to it (-18 turnover ratio, and they only had one game where they had a plus in that department). Brock enters with a schedule that gradually becomes a bit more favorable after a stretch of three of the first four on the road, but it's still hard to imagine Army being able to coax enough wins out of the season to be bowl-eligible. A 4-8 or 5-7 finish appears more likely.
2. How big is the rebuilding job at Notre Dame? I think the Irish were lucky to be left out of the preseason polls. Notre Dame is traditionally overrated by the college football media, and it was refreshing to see them all do some research into this team. The Irish not only have to replace guys like Quinn, Walker, Samardzija, McKnight, Ndukwe, and Landri. It doesn't even matter that we don't know who the QB is yet. This schedule is nearly impossible, especially for a team on the mend. The Irish have home games with Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Boston College, and USC, along with road games against Penn State, Michigan, Purdue, and UCLA, all in the first eight weeks. That's seven bowl teams in the first eight games, with no week off. The last four games appear to be a bit of a breeze, but it won't matter much if Notre Dame is already 3-5.
1. Is Navy going to do it again? By "it", I mean "win eight or nine games and get to a decent bowl game". It looks good again this year. The Middies have a rarity this year: a junior starting quarterback who has game experience. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada got six starts last year after Brian Hampton was injured, and he led the option attack efficiently. With all his top backs returning, including bullish fullback Adam Ballard, the Navy ground game will click to the tune of another 300-yard average. Coach Paul Johnson has to rebuild the defense, but it's been done before at Navy. They have improved size and athleticism on defense. They'll probably lose to Notre Dame again, but the Midshipmen appear ready to set sail on another successful season.
CISKIE BLOG PRESEASON INDEPENDENT AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Adam Ballard, RB, Navy
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Trevor Laws, DT, Notre Dame
Preseason Coach of the Year: Paul Johnson, Navy
Bowl Bound: Notre Dame, Navy
Bowl Bubble: Army
Best Game: USC at Notre Dame, October 20
Worst Game: Delaware at Navy, October 27