The pre-spring version of the CFN 2021 rankings with a first look at all the Independent teams.
2021 Independent Rankings: Pre-Spring
1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Why To Be Happy: The defense should be fine. There are just enough losses to matter, but if Kyle Hamilton isn’t the best safety in college football he’ll be up there, and the line gets back the interior with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish coming back. QB Ian Book might be gone, but Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan and newbie Tyler Buchner are interesting options to go with. However …
What To Work On: The Irish lose a ton. The offensive line has become a factory, but there’s a lot of work to be done up front, the linebacking corps has to replace key parts, and the receiving corps loses the top wideouts.
Bottom Line: The Irish will be fine. They’re still full of talented players working around a good group of talent waiting to step up, and the recruiting classes have stocked the shelves. The issue will be the expectations. Notre Dame has done the College Football Playoff thing – it wants to win it. It’s going to take a whole lot of reworking to get there.
– 2021 Notre Dame Schedule Analysis, Best & Worst Scenarios
2. Liberty Flames
Why To Be Happy: Almost everyone has decided to come back. Total yard star QB Malik Willis – back. RB Joshua Mack – back. All the 2020 seniors on the O line, almost all of the top receivers, and everyone on D? Back, back, and close to all back full. Throw in a few interesting transfers – like Utah RB TJ Green and defensive backs Skyler Thomas (Washington State) and Cedric Stone (UTEP) and the Flames should once again be outstanding.
What To Work On: Expectations? Liberty – think about that for a moment … Liberty – will be in a whole lot of preseason top 25 rankings and will be expected to repeat the huge 2020 and be a killer every time out. The turnovers have to slow, and the explosion has to be there against big boys, but now the spotlight is on.
Bottom Line: With all of the returning talent and with head coach Hugh Freeze still around – and not at Tennessee – anything less than another amazing year will be a massive disappointment.
3. BYU Cougars
Why To Be Happy: This might not be the high-flying fun show of last year, but it’ll still be a tough team with a great group of skill parts despite some huge losses. The running backs are good, the defense should be fine in the back seven, and the team will still be physical on the lines. However …
What To Work On: Last year’s powerhouse loses a ton. QB Zach Wilson, OT Brady Christensen, WR Dax Milne, OG Tristen Hoge, and on and on and on. The Cougars have enough good players to be more than just good and not drop off all that much, QB Baylor Romney isn’t going to be Wilson.
Bottom Line: It’ll be another strong season for the Cougars, but the high-end talent loss is too much to expect a special repeat season like 2020.
4. Army Black Knights
Why To Be Happy: The running backs return. The Black Knights are expected to get back their top five rushers, QB Tyhier Tyler, and for what it’s worth, almost everyone who caught a pass. Eight of the top ten tacklers should be back, but …
What To Work On: The offensive line needs a ton of reworking. It’s Army, so plenty of players have been trained over the years to be ready to fill in, but it’s still going to take a bit to mix in four new starters to get all the timing down.
Bottom Line: You know exactly what you’re getting. The Army D might not be quite as nasty as it was throughout 2020, but it won’t be all that far off. The offensive side will do what it does, but again, it needs the line to gel in a hurry.
5. New Mexico State Aggies
Why To Be Happy: It’ll be a very, very interesting season for the Aggies. They not only get a season again after missing 2020, but they’ll have a real spring football session with three games from late February to early March to tune things up for the real thing this this fall.
What To Work On: Since winning the New Mexico Bowl at the end of the 2017 season the program has won three games against FBS teams. The program has to find an offense that can keep things moving, and the nation’s second-worst run D in 2019 has to be a whole lot better.
Bottom Line: It’s one of the most interesting situations in a long, long time thanks to the three game spring session. There are a whole slew of new, young parts who weren’t around in 2020 ready to get a chance.
6. UConn Huskies
Why To Be Happy: There might not have been a 2020 season, but almost everyone is expected to be back. This was going to be a very young team last year, and now the program has had a year of upping the weightlifting and conditioning. But …
What To Work On: The program has just one win over an FBS program since 2017 and is 1-27 in its last 28 games against the big-league teams. That one win? UMass. It all starts with figuring out a defense that did nothing for a few years before the 2020 cancellation.
Bottom Line: It’s going to be a rough year, but it’s a young team in full reboot mode with no expectations and a whole lot of players ready to start playing again.
7. UMass Minutemen
Why To Be Happy: The coaching staff has been active in the transfer portal. It got its quarterback – maybe – in Tyler Lytle from Colorado, it’s running back in – maybe – Kay’Ron Adams from Rutgers, and with a whole lot of help for the defensive front and the secondary. However, on the other side …
What To Work On: Around 18-to-20 players are expected to be gone through the transfer portal. It’s not like the Minutemen were able to do much of anything with that group in place, but it’s going to take a full offseason to figure out any semblance of a proper depth chart.
Bottom Line: After scoring one touchdown and 12 points in four games, and after going 1-17 in the last 18 games, the program still has a whole lot of work to do under head man Walt Bell. He’s fighting the good fight, but this is going to be a grind.