College football betting preview: Independents, Notre Dame

By Tim Murray and Dave Tuley  (VSiN.com) 

July 28, 2022 08:01 PM
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The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews for the independents:

NOTRE DAME

After 12 seasons, Brian Kelly departed for LSU in December and Notre Dame quickly hired defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman as his replacement. The players’ jubilant reaction to the Freeman hiring became a viral video. Freeman has hit the ground running on the recruiting trail but how will he be when the games start? In Freeman’s first act, Notre Dame squandered a 21-point lead to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. 

Offense

Tommy Rees stayed on staff as the offensive coordinator, which was a massive win for Freeman. The biggest question is the quarterback position. How good is Tyler Buchner? Buchner rushed for 336 yards and three touchdowns last season as a true freshman but only attempted 35 passes. At running back, Notre Dame lost Kyren Williams to the NFL. Williams rushed for over 1,000 yards in both 2020 and 2021. Chris Tyree has explosive speed but is not expected to take over all of the carries that Williams had. Logan Diggs, who rushed for 230 yards last year, is expected to return in October after a shoulder injury. TE Michael Mayer (71 catches, 840 yards, 7 TDs) is arguably the top tight end in the country, which is important with an inexperienced wide receiver group. Leading WR Kevin Austin left for the NFL and the Irish have recruited poorly at the position. Sophomore WR Lorenzo Styles should have a breakout season. Up front, the Irish are stacked on the offensive line. Veteran OL coach Harry Hiestand (2012-17) has returned for a second stint in South Bend. 

Defense

Former Temple and Miami head coach Al Golden replaced Freeman as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. Notre Dame will be quite strong on the defensive line and at linebacker. DE Isaiah Foskey (11 sacks) returns for his senior season and is likely going to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Most of Notre Dame’s linebackers return including Marist Liufau, who missed last season with a foot injury. In the secondary, the Irish must replace first-round pick Kyle Hamilton. Notre Dame grabbed All-American safety Brandon Joseph (Northwestern) from the transfer portal. 

Outlook

Notre Dame opens the season as a two-touchdown underdog at Ohio State, plays BYU in Las Vegas, hosts Clemson and wraps up the season at USC. If Buchner and Freeman are ready, the Irish should win at least nine regular-season games for a sixth straight season.

Pick: Over 8.5

BYU 

After losing QB Zach Wilson to the NFL last year, BYU hardly missed a beat as it won 10 games, including what could be called a mythical Pac-12 championship as the Cougars swept through Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Washington State and USC. Their only losses were to Boise State and Baylor. This is BYU’s last year as an Independent as it is slated to join the Big 12 in 2023.

Offense

Jalen Hall (2,583 passing yards, 307 rushing yards, 23 total TDs) was no Zach Wilson, but he did well enough to lead an offense that averaged 33.1 points (29th in the nation) and 452.2 yards (17th). He certainly has the right to improve and the main concern is keeping him healthy as he missed three games to injury last season, including the Independence Bowl loss to UAB. Hall should be well-protected by a strong offense line led by potential NFL first-round pick Blake Freeland at left tackle, plus a new addition in RT Kingsley Suamataia, a transfer from Oregon. The Cougars lost RB Tyler Allgeier (school-record 1,601 yards and 23 TDs), but senior Lopini Katoa is back along with Cal transfer Christopher Brooks. The receiving corps might not have any All-Americans, but Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua combined for close to 1,400 yards and nine TDs and should have bigger roles. There is more depth at WR, plus TEs Isaac Rex and Dallin Holker will give Hall more options in the passing game.

Defense

There are more question marks on the defense, which allowed 24.7 points (51st in nation) and 388.8 yards per game (74th). Injuries kept the group from reaching its potential last year, and the hope is they stay healthier in 2022. They only had 20 sacks last season, but Tyler Batty (team-leading 3.5 sacks) is back to lead the defensive line. The Cougars’ strength is the linebacking corps if Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili can stay healthier than last year, plus they’re joined by Ben Bywater, who led BYU with 102 tackles in their absence. The secondary played well last year, led by CBs Kaleb Hayes and D’Angelo Mandell, despite the lack of a pass rush, and should be better with another year of experience.

Outlook

After BYU reloaded last season after replacing Zach Wilson and winning 10 games, we’re a little surprised its season win total was set at 8.5 instead of 9.5. There are a few road bumps at Oregon, Notre Dame and Boise State and a tough home game versus Baylor, but we don’t see the Cougars losing all four of those games. In fact, they have the talent to at least split those and perhaps win three of four and, if Hall continues to progress and the defense bounces back, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for BYU to sweep those games and be in the College Football Playoff conversation as it was two years ago.  

Pick: Over 8.5

ARMY  

Jeff Monken is entering his ninth season as coach at West Point and the Black Knights have enjoyed consistent success, winning eight or more games in four of the last five seasons. The Black Knights bounced back after losing to Navy with a 24-22 win over Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl. 

Offense

Leading rusher and quarterback Christian Anderson is gone, but QB Tyhier Tyler has experience under center. Tyler started four games over the last two seasons and rushed for 486 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Army finished second nationally in rushing with 280.6 yards per game in 2021. FB Jakobi Buchanan and slotback Tyrell Robinson return. Buchanan rushed for 504 yards and led Army with 12 TDs. Robinson, Army’s most dynamic offensive player, averaged 8.5 yards per carry and led the Black Knights with 949 total yards (609 rushing, 340 receiving). The offensive line returns three starters. 

Defense

It is not often that Army has NFL talent on the roster, but Andre Carter II will likely hear his name called in the 2023 NFL draft. The 6-7 linebacker was second in the country with 15.5 sacks last season. The Black Knights ranked 15th in total defense in 2021. Army does need to replace Arik Smith, who had 10.5 tackles for a loss last season and led the team in tackles. The secondary is led by safety Marquel Broughton. Broughton had a pair of interceptions last season and is the leading returning tackler. 

Outlook

Army opens on the road as a slight underdog to Coastal Carolina. The Black Knights host UTSA in Week 2 and visit Wake Forest in October. The schedule is quite manageable. They play Air Force in Texas as well as Navy in Philadelphia to wrap up the season. If Army can win one or two of its toss-up games, they will exceed their win total.

Pick: Over 8

LIBERTY

After a 10-1 record in 2020, there were high hopes with QB Malik Willis, but the Flames went just 7-5, dropping the last three games of the regular season before routing Eastern Michigan 56-20 in the Lending Tree Bowl. Still, it’s going to be hard to replace Willis as well as several other starters.

Offense

Coach Hugh Freeze hasn’t officially named a successor to Willis, but it’s expected to be Charlie Brewer. If that name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s the same Charlie Brewer who started 39 games between 2017 and 2020 at Baylor and the first three games at Utah last season. He somehow has some eligibility left and will probably get the nod over the other three QBs on the roster (Freeze says he likes all four). Willis was also the Flames’ leading rusher, so they have to fill that void as well, but Hawaii transfer Dae Dae Hunter (651 yards, 3 TDs last year) comes in. T.J. Green, last year’s top running back (477 yards, 4 TDs) also returns, so the cupboard isn’t completely bare and the Flames might rely more on the running game with an offense line that has been bolstered by the transfer portal. Liberty’s biggest weapon might be slot receiver Demario Douglas (team-high 52 catches. 701 yards, 6 TDs), who is also a dangerous punt returner.

Defense

No disrespect to Willis, but Liberty’s strength last year was actually the defense as it allowed just 21.5 points (24th in the nation) and 320.2 yards per game (11th). The interior defensive line was already deep after adding Auburn transfer Jay Hardy last year and now has another Auburn transfer in Dre Butler. TreShaun Clark and Durrell Johnson man the ends. In fact, there’s so much depth on the line that Aakil Washington is moving to linebacker, where he’s expected to be joined by JUCO transfer Mike Smith. The secondary is a concern with only seven INTs last year and loses most of those, but Freeze and his coordinators had the passing defense ranked No. 6 with just 180.3 yards allowed per game, so we trust they’ll figure it out.

Outlook

Freeze has put Liberty on the map with at least eight wins each season since joining FBS three years ago, with three bowl wins. Willis and the other losses (no fewer than nine Liberty players are expected in NFL camps) will be tough to replace, but it appears Freeze has the program at the point where they don’t have to go into full rebuild mode. Besides, there are some cupcakes on the schedule (Akron, UMass, Gardner-Webb, UConn, New Mexico State), so they don’t have to pull too many upsets to get Over the total. Liberty opens as a 3-point favorite against Southern Mississippi, so that’s pretty much a coin-flip. Tougher tests await versus Wake Forest, BYU, Arkansas and Virginia Tech, but even if the Flames lose all of those and are only at six wins after facing Virginia Tech, they close the season against New Mexico State.

Pick: Over 6.5

NEW MEXICO STATE

Doug Martin had only one winning season (2017) in 16 years, but there’s actually hope in Las Cruces with new coach Jerry Kill, who has a reputation as a rebuilder of programs at lower levels and then at Northern Illinois and Minnesota in FBS. This is the Aggies’ last season as an Independent before joining Conference USA in 2023.

Offense

Kill will be without last year’s starting QB Jonah Johnson. After the spring game, Kill said freshman Diego Pavia would be the starter “if the season began tomorrow,” but another freshman, Gavin Frakes, plus holdovers Weston Eget and Dino Maldonado, could challenge for playing time. Regardless, Kill is known for relying on the run, so the main focus will probably be to improve on last season’s 99.8 rushing yards per game (123rd in the nation), especially as NMSU also lost leading rusher Juwaun Price (693 yards, 10 TDs) in the transfer portal to Syracuse. But Kill can choose from several interesting prospects in transfers Ahmonte Watkins (who followed Kill from TCU), JUCO transfer Jamoni Jones and returnee O’Maury Samuels (formerly of Michigan). Whoever gets the carries will be running behind a line that Kill has also been building through the transfer portal. WR Terrell Warner (38 catches, 334 yards) is the leading receiver   

Defense

Sometimes it’s not a good thing to be returning a lot of starters — New Mexico State allowed a whopping 40.4 points (128th in the nation) and 488.5 yards per game (127th) — but the Aggies have some talent back to give the defense some hope to improve. Chris Ojoh (team-high 6 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles) entered the transfer portal but decided to stay. Middle linebacker Trevor Brohard is also back. The secondary was a weakness last year but could get help from Michigan transfer Andre Seldon and Miami (Ohio) transfer Mehki Miller. Improvement could also come if linemen Lama Lavea and Lazarus Williams move into starting roles.

Outlook

This is probably Kill’s most challenging rebuilding job, but he seems to think there’s enough talent to work with. At his opening news conference, he said, “Around the country, they call me a fix-it guy. Well, I don’t feel like we have to fix it — we’ve just got to tweak it a little bit.” Regardless, while there might be enough winnable games on the schedule to do better than the 2-10 record last season, it’s hard to see this team winning four games, which is what it would take to go Over. Basically, it looks more likely that the Aggies go 2-10 than 4-8, though they could very well push at 3-9, so we’re not sure it’s worth a wager in any case.

Pick: Under 3   

CONNECTICUT

Randy Edsall’s second stint with UConn came to an end last season and the Huskies hired former UCLA head coach Jim Mora, who has quite the rebuilding process in front of him. UConn has not won a game against aN FBS opponent since 2019. The Huskies’ lone win last year was a 21-15 triumph over Yale. 

Offense

The offense should be led by former Penn State QB Ta’Quan Roberson. Leading rusher Nate Carter is back and the Huskies return the majority of their wide receivers. 

Defense

The defense brings back six starters, including leading tackler Jackson Mitchell. Depth on the defensive line is a concern. 

Outlook

Last year, UConn lost to UMass 27-13, but the Huskies are 6.5-point favorites in the rematch on the lookahead line. UConn has some challenging early-season games against reigning Mountain West champ Utah State, Syracuse, Michigan, NC State and Fresno State. If UConn can beat Central Connecticut State and UMass, can the Huskies find another win on the schedule to surpass their win total? Road games against Florida International and Ball State would seem to be their best chance.

Pick: Under 2.5

MASSACHUSETTS

The Minutemen have not exceeded four wins since transitioning to the FBS in 2012. After firing Walt Bell, UMass turns to Don Brown for his second tenure. Brown led the Minutemen to five winning seasons in five years (2004-08), including a 13-2 campaign that ended with a loss in the FCS national championship game. It will be quite the rebuild for Brown. UMass went 1-11 last year and lost to a pair of FCS teams (Rhode Island and Maine).

Offense

RB Ellis Merriweather will be a vital piece to the offense. Merriweather rushed for 1,138 yards and five touchdowns last season. The quarterback position is up in the air. Brady Olson was the starter last season, but Zamar Wise is more of a dual-threat option. 

Defense

Brown is known as a defensive wizard as he has made stops at Maryland, Boston College, Michigan and Arizona as defensive coordinator. He’ll have his hands full with a defense that allowed 43.1 points per game last season. DE Marcus Bradley was a massive addition this offseason from Vanderbilt. Bradley was a top-200 recruit in 2021 but only played two games last season for Vanderbilt. UMass will have another Power 5 transfer on the defensive line in Marcus Cushnie, who had 1.5 sacks for Florida State last season. 

Outlook

The Minutemen open the season at Tulane and are more than a four-touchdown underdog. They host FCS Stony Brook and New Mexico State season and visit UConn in November. All three of those games could be considered toss-ups. With Brown leading the defense, the Minutemen should be more competitive. However, it’s hard to envision UMass finding three wins on their schedule.

Pick: Under 2.5

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