These four schools may not have a conference title to play for at the end of the season, but that does not mean there is no purpose in playing the game for the University of Massachusetts, Brigham Young University, the University of Notre Dame and the US Military Academy. Of the four teams, only Notre Dame is considered to be at a level comparable to the big boys of college football. That’s not to say that BYU, UMass, and Army have no place within the confines of Division 1 football; they just fit in more with the non-power conference teams. All three teams were even in non-power conferences at one point. UMass only recently left the MAC, BYU is formerly of the Mountain West, and Army was a member of Conference USA. Notre Dame is the only team that has never joined a conference for football.
Notre Dame is coming off a disappointing 2016 season, whereas BYU will look to repeat a nine-win campaign. Army is going to attempt to follow their most successful season in this century with another quality performance in 2017. UMass, having won only two games in 2016, has nowhere to go but up.
Since there is no conference championship to predict, there is no point in going through favorites and sleepers. That does not mean we cannot look at each of these four schools and see just what might be in store.
University of Massachusetts Minutemen (UMass): The Minutemen are admittedly not a football school. A two win 2016 season does nothing to argue against that claim. However, UMass does have a bit of promise for 2017. Running Back Marquis Young averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2016, which, while an impressive number, is actually down from his 6.3 yards per carry in 2015. If he can return to his 2015 production numbers, then we may see a marked improvement in the success of UMass. Considering the Minutemen failed to win on the road last year, an improvement in the quality of their play still means there is a good chance that UMass will not go to a bowl game. Look for UMass to no longer be the doormat we’ve seen in recent years, but for their improvements to still not be enough to get the Minutemen above .500.
Brigham Young University Cougars (BYU): The Cougars have benefitted from their recent departure from the Mountain West Conference. BYU is coming off a nine-win season in spite of not having their talented Quarterback Tanner Magnum for the first nine games. If Magnum can be the leader he has shown he is capable of being, then watch out for the Cougars this fall. Aided by a schedule that sees the University of Utah and Boise State University making the trip to BYU, I don’t see why 9 wins should not be expected again for BYU this season.
US Military Academy Black Knights (Army): For 14 years, the Naval Academy wiped the floor with Army on the football field. That all changed in 2016, as the Black Knights took down the Navy Midshipmen for the first time since 2001. It may be the start of something new and exciting at West Point for Army, just as long as they do not throw the ball. The 7 to 11 touchdown-to-interception ratio would never have led to victories if offensive stars Andy Davidson, Ahmad Bradshaw and company did not run for 4410 yards as a team in 2016. The schedule is feasible for seeing an increase in wins in 2017, though I think a safe bet is a repeat of 2016 with eight victories for Army, capped off by another victory over their Navy rivals.
University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (ND): This is a difficult time if you are a fan of the Fighting Irish. Coach Brian Kelly had this team in prime position to win national championships for years to come up until a few years ago. Today, Notre Dame is just trying to get back on track. Notre Dame fell to 4-8 in 2016 after starting the season ranked in the Top 10. Quarterbacks DeShone Kizer left for the NFL and Malik Zaire transferred to Florida, leaving the Irish with a turbulent situation at Quarterback. For Notre Dame to win this season, they will have to rely on their experienced defense. Linebacker Nyles Morgan is on the Bednarik Award watch list, which is an award given to the best defensive player in the country. If the defense can hold the fort, which is more than likely, then Notre Dame may find success. However, without a viable offense, it will not be enough for the Fighting Irish to find their way back to the Top 10 in 2017. Most schools would be satisfied with an eight-win season, as I see Notre Dame doing in 2017; however, Notre Dame expects much more than eight victories, which could lead to some questions in coaching leadership when the season ends.
It is highly unlikely that we will see an undefeated run by any independent team this season. That being said, I do not think it is out of the realm of possibility to see an Army or BYU run towards double digit wins, although I see eight to nine wins each being a more likely scenario. UMass just needs to get to a 6-6 record to exceed expectations for 2017, which is not saying much. As for Notre Dame, if 2017 is not a big season, then Brian Kelly might be looking for a new job come January.
Make sure you return at Midnight on Sunday for the unveiling of all of my conference championship predictions, as well as later in the day on Sunday for my College Football Playoff official predictions, only on tedtalksports.com!