With 18 wins in the past two seasons, Jeff Monken has had some unprecedented success for a head coach at Army. Ahmad Bradshaw, Monken’s quarterback for those two seasons, has graduated, and his likely replacement, Kevin Hopkins, is a relatively unknown quantity. From reports, it seems that Hopkins is a better passer than Bradshaw, but not on his level when it comes to running an option style offense. The Black Knights also lose four of five starters from the offensive line including NFL Draft selection Brett Toth. While Army always has excellent offensive line play, they probably won’t match the levels of last year’s group. However, seven of the top eight rushers return, although they do lose their #1 (Bradshaw). That group includes FB Darnell Woolfolk (812 yards, 14 touchdowns), SB Kell Walker (629 yards, six touchdowns), and FB Andy Davidson (627 yards, five touchdowns). Army rarely throws, but they return both receivers that brought in more than 50 yards last year. With the top QB, who also happens to be the top rusher, leaving, this offense may take a step back, but I don’t expect anything too drastic.
The defense returns most of their starters but loses their best guy on both the defensive line and the linebacking core. Army will almost never start underclassmen, so this is one of the more experienced defenses in the country, and with six of their top seven tacklers back, I expect the defense to improve. With two FCS opponents, and two of the worst teams in the FBS on their schedule (Liberty, San Jose State) the Black Knights have four near guaranteed wins and will have to go just 2-6 in their other eight games in order to make a bowl, although I expect them to shoot right past that goal.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4
After a 9-4 mark in year one, BYU near fell off a cliff in year two under Kalani Sitake, flipping that script and finishing 4-9 thanks to an offense that scored 20 points or fewer nine times, including five games where they were held to ten or fewer. Sitake brought on a new offensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes, the offensive line coach for LSU from 2014-17. After the running game ranked in the 100’s last year, Grimes, who was also the running game coordinator at LSU, has decided to revamp the entire thing, and with every single player with positive rushing yardage last season returning, and the addition of former Oregon State commit Zachary Katoa, he will have a lot of pieces. A (hopefully) healthy QB should also help and I expect some big improvement on this side of the ball.
After a top 50 ranking last year, this defense should be stout again as they return most of their starters from a team that gave up just over 24 points per game in 2017. The Cougars get back the fantastic DE combo of Corbin Kaufusi (67 tackles, six sacks) and Sione Takitaki (79 tackles, five sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss), the latter of which may move to a weakside linebacker role for the departing Fred Warner (who, fun fact, was my pick for the most underrated prospect of the 2018 NFL Draft Class). Warner will be a huge loss, but MLB Butch Pau’u (74 tackles) should hold down the fort, and Zayne Anderson shifts down from safety. This team should be improved, but with a tough schedule that features five power-five opponents and Boise State, the Cougars will either have to pull some upsets or run the table in their other six, including games against Northern Illinois, Utah State, and New Mexico State, to make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8
Liberty replaces Idaho at the FBS level to keep us at an even 130 teams, fresh off of a win @ Baylor in week one last season that put the Flames on the map. Liberty hasn’t had a losing season on the FCS level since way back in 2005, and have won eight of the last ten Big South championships, although now they will have to play with the big boys after having one of their most disappointing seasons in a while in 2017 (6-5). The passing game should at least be solid after putting up over 300 ypg last year. Starting QB Buckshot Calvert returns after 3,363 yards and 29 touchdowns last year (just six picks!) and also returning is Antonio Gandy-Golden, who put up 1,066 yards and brought in ten touchdowns at the top receiver. It should be mentioned that was at the FCS level, but it was also in just 11 games.
Liberty’s defense is quite strange, as they were one of those rare teams that actually let up more rushing yards than passing yards. The secondary should be stacked again as they bring back five of eight from the two-deep including CB Jeremy Peters (three interceptions). The front seven might be a different story as they were already quite weak last year (225 rushing ypg!) and those numbers are unlikely to improve with tougher competition in 2018. Liberty has just two power fives on the schedule and does get two FCS opponents, but I’d be shocked if this team kept their winning season streak alive.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-9
New Mexico State
New Mexico State has made a bowl game four times in their history: 1935, 1959, 1960… and 2017. That 57-year drought ending was one of my favorite stories in college football for the 2017 season. Now, the high has come to an end as the Aggies are kicked out of the Sun Belt and are scraping together funds to stitch together an FBS program, but there are enough pieces back from last year to make another run at bowl glory. QB Tyler Rogers, the #2 all-time passer in New Mexico State history, is gone, but the Aggies bring in an interesting replacement in JUCO transfer Matthew Romero (5,489 yards, 49 touchdowns in two years), although last year’s backup, Nick Jeanty is also back and will compete for the starting job (5 career starts, 1,028 career yards, six career touchdowns, six career interceptions).
The defense is one to keep an eye on as the Aggies return practically everyone from a group that let up less than 30 points per game last season, a feat that New Mexico State hasn’t pulled off since 2003. Ten of the top eleven tacklers will return, and this group may beat that 2003 team’s number (28.4). Overall, the schedule looks to be one of the easiest in the country, with Liberty twice, UTEP, and an FCS making four wins the bare minimum. This team will only face three top-95 teams all year, in what happen to be the first three weeks (#76 Wyoming, #69 Minnesota, #84 Utah State). Going 2-3 in their remaining games (Louisiana, Texas State, New Mexico, BYU, and Georgia Southern) will get them a second straight bowl bid.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6
Notre Dame (Ranked #9 Nationally)
The second team to be revealed in my preseason top 25, and the first top ten team. Notre Dame was one of the most improved teams of 2017, going from four wins to ten and getting head coach Brian Kelly removed from the various hot seat watch lists. QB Brandon Wimbush is back after 1,870 yards passing, 803 yards rushing, and 30 combined touchdowns. Ian Book will challenge for the starting job after 456 yards in one start and a handful of other appearances (Wimbush started the other 12), but Wimbush is expected to keep his job. The top two running backs are gone as well as three of the top five pass catchers from last season, although Notre Dame always has the talent to replace. Dexter Williams had 360 yards as a backup last year and averaged 9.2 (!!!) yards per carry. The top returning pass catcher is junior Chase Claypool (402 yards), but improved quarterback play may lead to better numbers for this unit as a whole after ranking 103rd in the country last year.
Pretty much everybody is back on defense, and the unit to watch on this side of the ball is the secondary. With every starter returning from a group that was already borderline top 50, this should be a massively improved back four and could help make this the Irish’s best pass defense in over a decade. The schedule looks rather difficult, with ten power five games and five top 25 teams, but Michigan, Stanford, and Florida State are at home, although they will have to travel for USC and Virginia Tech. Because of the sticky situation at quarterback, this team hasn’t been getting a lot of title buzz, but with an easier schedule this would definitely be a playoff contender, and might still be.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2
This is Mark Whipple’s fifth year in this stint with the Minutemen. Last year (4-8) was technically his best yet but still not much to celebrate as UMass has gone just 12-36 in these past four seasons, averaging a 3-9 record. The stars have aligned for Whipple to save his job though, as the offense returns almost the entire two-deep from what was a very good year by UMass standards (#47 ppg, #35 ypg). QB Andrew Ford is back after maybe being the best passer on any independent team last year (2,924 yards, 22 touchdowns, just four interceptions). Every single rusher with positive yards returns as well as seven of the top eight receivers and four out of five starters from the offensive line. This will be the best offense a UMass team has seem in decades.
The secondary was really good last year (#42 in the country in opponent passing ypg) and three of four starters return from the group, including CB Isaiah Rodgers (50 tackles, 14 PBUs, three interceptions) and UConn transfer Brice McAllister will slip right in the strong safety role to replace the one departing starter. UMass has made just two bowls ever (1964, 1972) and with the best offense in a while, just two power-five opponents on the schedule, and winnable games against Liberty, Coastal Carolina, Duquesne, and Charlotte, this may be the team to finally break that drought, and with my computer calling for an average of 5.7 wins per simulation, it seems like almost a literal toss-up, but I believe that with a desperate fanbase and a coach fighting for his job, we can round that 5.7 up to 6.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6