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Strange season looms for independents

By Wes Reynolds  () 

Air Force

On Aug. 10, the Mountain West Conference announced the cancellation of fall sports. Most FCS teams canceled their games as well, so that removed Duquesne as Air Force’s season-opening opponent. The Big Ten also postponed fall sports, so that took Purdue off the schedule. Currently, Air Force has only two games on the schedule — Oct. 3 vs. Navy and Nov. 7 at Army. This was only the beginning of the bad news for Air Force. In mid-July, the program announced that senior QB Donald Hammond had fallen out of good standing as a cadet and would be barred from outside activities. Hammond started 16 games, and the Falcons lack proven depth behind him. Only one of the four QBs on the roster has attempted a pass in college — junior Chance Stevenson, who is 2-for-2 for 63 yards. Like the other service academies, Air Force runs the triple option and keeps it on the ground most of the time, but this is a huge drop-off without Hammond. Defensively the Falcons will face the two academies, who run the same offense. The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is all Air Force can play for and will be seeking to win it for the first time since 2016.

Army 

Being an independent had its advantage for West Point with all the cancellations. Somehow Army was able to put together a full 12-game schedule despite losing nine of its 12 original opponents. Only Air Force, Navy and Tulane remain from the first schedule. The Black Knights essentially replace three MAC opponents with three from the Sun Belt. They do not get to host Oklahoma on campus, but they now have eight home games and only three true road games. Army slipped to 5-8 last season playing a tougher schedule and ended up going 1-4 in one-score games, including an OT loss at Michigan. The offense lost two-year starting QB Kelvin Hopkins but returned two QBs who started a combined six games last season: Jabari Laws (junior, five starts) and Christian Anderson (senior, one start). Defensively, Army brings back seven starters, but they’ll play under their third defensive coordinator in three seasons. John Loose was removed as DC and installed as assistant head coach, and Nate Woody stepped in as coordinator. Woody was a defensive analyst at Michigan last season and was DC at Georgia Tech in 2018 under Army coach Jeff Monken’s mentor, Paul Johnson. Woody has nearly 20 years of experience as a coordinator.

Brigham Young

BYU will play just an eight-game schedule and lost six Power 5 opponents — Michigan State, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona State, Stanford and intrastate rival Utah. The Cougars will open with trips to Navy and Army, so they should be getting plenty of practice reps to prepare for the triple-option offense. BYU played its normal difficult schedule early last season and started 2-4 before going on a five-game winning streak, including an upset over then-No. 14 Boise State, and got into a bowl game, losing to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. Last season the Cougars were ravaged by injuries, including a thumb injury that cost starting QB Zach Wilson four games. RB Ty’Son Williams, a South Carolina transfer, also missed the last nine games. Injuries affected the defense as well, and BYU had its worst numbers since 2014. The unit returns seven starters and should be at least slightly improved. The injury bug continued to bite BYU this summer. TE Matt Bushman (47 catches, 688 yards, 4 TDs), the Cougars’ leading returning receiver, is out for the season with a lower-leg injury. Even with BYU having lost its top four receivers to injury or graduation, the good news is that Wilson is back healthy and behind an offensive line that returns all five starters and eight players with starting experience. The Cougars also have depth at RB. Their three leading rushers return, and speedy Utah graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole joins the team. Kalani Sitake has been considered a disappointment by most BYU fans, failing to achieve a 10-win season in his four years in Provo. He will not achieve it this year with only eight games but likely will get a reprieve for another season. The 2021 season is make or break for Sitake.

Liberty 

Liberty comes off an 8-5 season and its first bowl victory, over Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl, in just its second season in FBS. The program’s independent status has helped it maintain a 10-game schedule amid tumult and chaos inside and outside the university. Hugh Freeze is now 50-30-1 ATS in his career and did a fabulous job with this young program last season. The Flames graduated their leading passer, rusher and receiver. But the cupboard is not necessarily bare for coordinator Kent Austin’s up-tempo offense. Liberty adds Chris Ferguson (6,091 yards, 46 TD passes), who started 28 games in three years at FCS Maine. Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer who entered training camp as the expected starter, provides a dual-threat QB if Liberty elects to go that route. Ferguson and Willis have been splitting the first-team reps in camp. Liberty returns senior RB Joshua Mack (792 yards, seven TDs). The Flames also return three of their top four receivers. Liberty has only nine returning starters, but Freeze has always been a top recruiter. And the roster, while younger and less experienced, is deeper and more talented. On defense, Liberty runs a 4-2-5 that attacks and likes to get pressure on the passer (35 sacks last year vs. 28 in 2018) but can gamble a bit, so the potential exists for high-scoring games. Going on the road to defeat any of its three ACC opponents — Syracuse, Virginia Tech and NC State — is a big ask, but all the home games are winnable.

 

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