By Marc Lawrence

The world of college INDEPENDENTS expanded a whopping 25% when BYU declared its independence and joined Army, Navy and Notre Dame to form the FBS fighting four in 2011.

Once again, like last year, expect the fearsome foursome to have a say on the participants involved in the 2011 National Championship BCS game when these Indy’s take on no less than 27 combined opponents that landed bowl bids last season.

Rest assured, without a conference affiliation, this self-governing group holds plenty of veto power when it comes to dashing the dreams of many BCS Championship Game aspirants.

And keep this thought in mind when handicapping the chances of these four INDEPENDENTS this season: Collectively, under their current head coaches, this contingent shines in game against opponents that are off a SU and ATS loss, going 36-7 SU and 31-12 ATS overall.

Under the direction of their current mentors, as a pick or dog of less than 10 points in this role they are 11-1 SU and ATS; versus a foe off a SU favorite loss they check in at 9-2 SU and 10-1 ATS; and when facing a greater than .333 opponent off a SU and ATS loss they a mind-boggling 19-5 SU and 20-4 ATS combined.

Sort of puts a new spin on INDEPENDENT thinking, if you know what I mean…

Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.

ARMY
TEAM THEME: BABY CADETS

It wouldn’t surprise us to hear more lullabies than reveilles at West Point this season. The Cadets graduated 13 senior starters, including both safeties and a defensive end that each started 36 games over the past three years. Also gone is the team’s leading tackler and all-time leader in sacks for a loss, along with a three-year starter at nose tackle. An offensive line, which allowed the third fewest sacks per game in the nation last season has also been ravaged, losing four starters. To further complicate matters, the young Knights tackle three bowlers to open the season while only four home games dot the 2011 schedule. Ellerson will need to sound the bugle early. Stat You Will Like: The Cadets are 1-15 straight up versus service academies since 2003. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Tulane (10/1)

BYU - *10 / 9
TEAM THEME: INDEPENDENT THINKERS

Did the Cougars make the right move leaving the MWC for Independent status? Only time will tell but we do know that BYU is guaranteed to end its first season of football independence in the Armed Forces Bowl should they finish bowl eligible. That shouldn’t be a problem as 19 starters are back from a team that finished last season in a flurry, averaging 42.4 PPG and 469 YPG over its final five contests. Amongst the returnees are QB Jake Heaps, the top three RB’s from a backfield that produced BYU’s best ground game in 10 years and a mammoth offensive line that averages 6’5”, 320 pounds. Make no mistake about it – these Cats are coming ‘round the mountain. Stat You Will Like: Heaps had 1 TD and 6 INT’s in his first five starts last year; 13 TD’s and 2 INT’s in his last five starts. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. TCU (10/28)

NAVY – 8 / 3
TEAM THEME: DEPTH CHARGE

In military slang, it’s called a push or an assault. In college football, it’s what the Naval Academy has done on the playing field over the past eight seasons, with the prospects for another attack gearing up in 2011. The return of 53 of 67 players listed on the final 2010 depth charts, along with 11 of 13 specialists, figures to put Navy in prime position to win back the Commander-in-Chief trophy that it gave up for the first time in eight seasons. Additional ammo finds the senior class needing 10 wins to break the school record set in 1909 (36). If nothing else, we know Ken Niumatalolo’s team will be disciplined as they led the nation in fewest penalty yards (27.6 YPG) in 2010. Stat You Will Like: Navy is 15-1 vs. fellow service academies since 2003. PLAY ON: vs. Air Force (10/1)

NOTRE DAME - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: CHRIST CROSS

When Brian Kelly decided to team up with Touchdown Jesus, he knew the challenge would be stern. Little did he realize he’d start out facing the toughest schedule in the nation last year, only to follow it up against 10 opponents with winning records this year. To which Kelly calmly responded, “We built a strong foundation last year and now it’s time to grow.” An interesting battle takes place under center between a pair of QB’s who both saw significant playing time last season, JR Dayne Crist and SO Tommy Rees. After Crist injured his knee, Rees led the Irish to a season-ending four-game winning streak. With a completely different energy level from the Irish defense this spring, look for huge strides from that unit this fall. Stat You Will Like: Kelly is the 3rd active winningest coach the last 10 years (102-29), trailing only Bob Stoops and Mack Brown. PLAY ON: as dog at Michigan (9/10)