Stories to Watch Among the Independents
Will Brian Kelly's magic work in South Bend? Kelly has done great things at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati. Now, he gets his "dream job" with the Fighting Irish, and we'll see if he can bring this program back to the level it used to be at. He brings his spread offense in, and returning quarterback Dayne Crist -- Jimmy Clausen's backup last year -- is the new starter. Crist has star receiver Michael Floyd to throw to. Floyd was injured and missed five starts last year, but he's a definite game-breaker. Senior Armando Allen will key the run game, one that underachieved a bit last year. Kelly has work to do on the offensive line, where there is turnover from a unit that was only okay for most of last year. The defense -- which also had issues in 2009 -- returns plenty of starting experience, but we don't know what they will look like. Kelly's teams at CMU and Cincy weren't exactly known for strong defensive play, and he brought coordinator Bob Diaco with him from Cincinnati. The Bearcats had an up-and-down group, one that made some huge plays but also gave up a lot of points and big plays. Home games with Purdue and Michigan might look easy, but they won't be. That said, if Notre Dame can start well, they have a stretch of five games that should be largely easy for them before a season-ending game at USC.
Navy keeps on truckin'. An impressive win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl last year served notice. Navy is a strong program in college football. The Midshipmen will try to back up that message with another ten-win season this year. Senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs makes their triple-option offense go. He ran for over 1,200 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, and also chipped in 1,000 yards passing and five scoring tosses. With leading receiver Marcus Curry back, the Midshipmen might be able to throw the ball more this year ... if necessary. Curry and Vince Murray will key the ground game, with Murray getting a lot of looks as the fullback. There is the usual turnover on the offensive line, but tackles Matt Molloy and Jeff Battipaglia both return. On defense, the undersized line is led by nose tackle Chase Burge and safety Emmett Merchant. The Middies play three games at neutral sites, with Maryland in Baltimore, Notre Dame at Meadowlands Stadium, and Army in Philly. They only play four true road games, but Louisiana Tech, Air Force, Wake Forest, and East Carolina are all tough opponents. If Ken Niumatalolo can get ten wins out of this team, he'll earn the respect of virtually everyone who hasn't noticed Navy yet.
Army tries to get there. Last year, the Cadets missed a bowl by one win, losing their contracted spot in the EagleBank Bowl to UCLA because of their 5-7 season. Since they had two more wins than the previous year, and they have 16 starters back, it makes sense that Army would have a real chance at their first bowl since 1996 this year. Coach Rich Ellerson has the option installed, and sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman is back to run it. He has to improve his passing, but that will come with experience and improved receiver play. Slotbacks Patrick Mealy and Jameson Carter return, and so does fullback Jared Hassin. Four starters return on the offensive line. Career sack leader Josh McNary anchors the defensive line after a 12.5-sack season. Also back are linebackers Andrew Rodriguez and Stephen Anderson, both of whom could become stars on that side of the ball. Safeties Donnie Dixon and Donovan Travis both return, too. Ellerson's schedule is manageable, as the Cadets also play three neutral-site games (Rutgers at Meadowlands Stadium, Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, and Navy in Philly) and five home games. If they take care of business, Army wins at least seven games and goes bowling at the Armed Forces Bowl.