X-Notre Dame Fighting Irish 9-3
In 2016, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish endured one of the toughest seasons in the program’s history. However the Fighting Irish would rebound by going 10-3 as they were within an eyelash of securing a New Year’s Six bowl bid. In eight years as Notre Dame’s head football coach, Brian Kelly has proven to be one of the more successful head coaches in the history of the program. Already Kelly is fifth on the school’s all-time wins list, and he has a team here in 2018 which is more than capable of helping him add to that mark in a big way.
Kelly has had a history of not having patience with his quarterbacks, but he must stick with senior Brandon Wimbush this year. At times in 2017, Wimbush was more valuable to the Irish as a runner than he was as a passer due to his inability to consistently complete passes. Wimbush was only able to complete 49.5% of his passes last season which is something that must drastically change if Notre Dame is going to hang around in the discussion to make the College Football Playoff.
Last year the Irish were seventh in the nation in rushing as this facet has become a staple for them under Kelly. Last year running back Dexter Williams was sparingly used as he was the understudy to Josh Adams. However now as a senior, Williams will be the primary ball carrier for Notre Dame, and he’ll look to display the same explosiveness that led to him averaging 6.3 yards per carry last season.
The Fighting Irish must replace three of their top four tacklers from last season, but they still have their leader in senior middle linebacker Te’Von Coney who’ll be in the mix to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Junior cornerback Julian Love is a solid defender, while he also possesses good hands which led to 3 interceptions last year as this Irish defense will look to get stingier under first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea.
For the first time since 1996, Notre Dame won’t face the Michigan State Spartans, but they’ll renew their rivalry with the Michigan Wolverines when they host them on September 1. Home games versus the Stanford Cardinal and Florida State Seminoles will also be telling for the Irish, while their season finale in Los Angeles against the USC Trojans could determine whether or not that they’ll be able to make one of the coveted New Year’s Six bowl games.
X-Army Black Knights 9-3
It’s the dawn of a new day for Army Black Knights football. For years Army had been unable to contend on the gridiron as they were only able to post one winning season from 1997-2015. But now things have turned around at West Point as the Black Knights have posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1985. And the icing on the cake for Army is that they were able to end their 14-game losing streak to the Navy Midshipmen, while also defeating them in consecutive years for the first time since 1996.
Head football coach Jeff Monken is at the head of this turnaround as the triple-option rushing attack of Army has become one of the best in the nation. And after the Golden Knights led the nation in rushing last year, you can expect more of the same here in 2018.
The Black Knights lost their leading rusher from last season in Ahmad Bradshaw, but you can expect this offense to maintain speed with junior quarterback Luke Langdon and senior full back Darnell Woolfolk. Langdon didn’t play last season behind Bradshaw, but he’ll have his opportunity to run the option now, while Woolfolk was Army’s second leading rusher in 2017. At 5’9″, 235 lbs., Woolfolk is a bruising ball carrier who is built like a bowling ball, and thus he’ll be difficult to tackle.
Defensively for Army, they have a pair of studs at linebacker in senior middle linebacker James Nachtigal and junior outside linebacker Cole Christiansen who’ll lead a group that is undersized, but pesky.
With Monken leading the way, Army’s program is headed in the right direction as the losing which plagued them for years is now a thing of the past.
X-BYU Cougars 7-5
In 2016, the BYU Cougars were able to overcome a slow start to finish with a record of 9-4. However this would not be the case for the Cougars last year as it never came together which saw them post a 4-9 mark for their first losing season since 2004. Surprisingly at times in 2017, BYU failed to compete as they lost six games by 16 points or more. The Cougars have a long and storied tradition when it comes to winning which puts the onus on third-year head football coach Kalani Sitake to get things turned around.
Senior quarterback Tanner Mangum is looking to bounce back after an Achilles injury limited his availability in 2017. Mangum has had success in the past with BYU as he threw 23 touchdowns in 2015. And if Mangum is able to replicate that success, the Cougars should be able to bounce back this year.
Senior running back Squally Canada will be another impact player on offense for BYU. Canada averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season, and the Cougars were 3-0 in games where he got at least 16 carries. Canada and Mangum together will be vital as BYU looks to improve after they were 119th in the nation last year in total offense.
Over the years BYU has been known to have underrated players on defense and they have another in senior middle linebacker Butch Pau’u. Pau’u was fourth on the BYU’s team last season in tackles with 74, and he is ready to have an even bigger impact in 2018.
You can’t accuse BYU of playing a cupcake schedule as they have road games versus the Wisconsin Badgers, Utah Utes, Boise State Broncos, and Washington Huskies. But even with that I expect the Cougars to be a much improved team from last season.
Massachusetts Minutemen 3-9
Since becoming a Football Bowl Subdivision program in 2012, the Massachusetts Minutemen have struggled. UMass has never been able to record a winning record, while the four games that they won in 2017 marked their best outing for a season. But as the Minutemen were able to win four games last year, those victories came in their last six contests. And for Massachusetts head football coach Mark Whipple, he is hopeful to have that momentum carry over into the new season.
UMass is in position to have some success on offense this year as there is plenty of experience to go around between a trio of seniors in quarterback Andrew Ford, running back Marquis Young, and wide receiver Andy Isabella. All three players are coming off of solid junior campaigns for the Minutemen, and that cohesion should lead to them finishing up their collegiate careers on a positive note.
Defense could be a problem for UMass as they lost their top four tacklers from last year’s team which was 75th in the nation in total defense. But one player to keep an eye on will be senior cornerback Lee Moses. Moses led the Minutemen in interceptions last year with 4, and his knack for finding the football will once again be crucial for this team.
If things don’t get turned around soon for Massachusetts, then it could be time to start question why this program is still at the FBS level.
Liberty Flames 3-9
It’s the dawn of a new day for Liberty Flames football. 2018 will marks Liberty’s first year at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Liberty comes to the FBS after having success at the Football Championship Subdivision which included getting at least a share of the Big South Conference Title eight times since 2007.
Former Nebraska Cornuskers quarterback Turner Gill is in his seventh year as Liberty’s head football coach, and his past experience as a head coach at the FBS level with the Buffalo Bulls and the Kansas Jayhawks should come in handy for the Flames as they look to make the transition.
It will be interesting to see how things will work out for Liberty as they look to get their feet wet at the big level.
New Mexico State Aggies 3-9
The 2017 college football season saw the New Mexico State Aggies break through for their first winning season since 2002, while they won a bowl game for the first time since 1960. Last season also marked the Aggies last year as members of the Sun Belt Conference as they are now football independents. And as New Mexico State is set to begin life as a football independent, while also not having the backing of a conference television deal, how will things go in Las Cruces?
Senior quarterback Nick Jeanty has seen limited action over the last three years for New Mexico State, but now the spotlight will be on him. The same can be said for junior running back Jason Huntley who spent that last two years serving as the understudy to Larry Rose III.
One player to keep an eye on for on defense will be senior defensive back Shamad Lomax who after intercepting 4 passes last year will need to build off of that in order to give New Mexico State a shot at making it consecutive bowl appearances.
For New Mexico State head football coach Doug Martin, his team will have its hands full in regards to getting it together as a football independent here in 2018.
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com