By Marc Lawrence
Once again, like last year, just three teams make up the INDEPENDENTS yet all three have a say on the participants in the 2010 National Championship BCS game when theses Indy's take on no less than 16 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.
All eyes will be Notre Dame and their new head coach, Brian Kelly. The pressure to succeed will certainly be enormous. He can find solace in the fact the previous five first-year head coaches that succeeded him in South Bend since 1980 combined to go 36-24 SU and 30-28-2 ATS in their debut season with the Irish. Incidentally, those same coaches were 2-8-1 ATS collectively as favorites from Game Nine out. Caveat emptor.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 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 - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: ABOUT FACE
The Rich Ellerson era began with a bang in West Point last year when the Cadets won the most games in a season since 1996. The next step for the new regime will be to lead the Black Knights to their 1st winning season since that 1996 campaign. It shouldn't be an uphill fight as QB Trent Steelman, who started all 12 games last year as a freshman and led the team in rushing and passing yards, returns for his sophomore season. It also doesn't hurt with only four bowlers - and no pre-season Top 25 squads - dotting the 2010 schedule. It's easy to like a coach like Ellerson with his military background and a team whose motto is ‘Duty, Honor, Country' and we look for this military historian to make some history of his own this season. These new-look Cadets have plenty of options - but it's the triple-option that has fans at Michie Stadium buzzing these days.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. North Texas (9/18)
NAVY - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: COMMANDING PERFORMANCE
After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, Ken Niumatalolo's third year in Annapolis was a charm as the Middies capped off a record-tying 10-win season with a convincing bowl win over Missouri. All hands are on deck for another double-digit win campaign as QB Ricky Dobbs returns for his senior season. Despite playing with a broken kneecap over the final six games and missing the majority of two games, Dobbs scored a school-record 27 TD's.
After leading the nation in rushing four straight seasons, Navy finished fourth last year. But the disciplined Middies led the nation in fewest penalties and won their 7th straight Commander-in-Chief trophy. Their four losses in 2009, including those at Ohio State and Pitt, were versus foes that were a combined 36-16. No such battles this season as only four winning teams grace the schedule and none likely to crack the Top 25. Clear sailing ahead!
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Notre Dame (10/23)
NOTRE DAME - 6 / 8
TEAM THEME: BEND IT LIKE BRIAN
When he hit the South Bend campus, Brian Kelly was reminded of a shining moment in Notre Dame football: since the advent of the AP Poll, only one team - the Fighting Irish - has finished No. 1 three out of four seasons (1946, '47 and '48). He was also quickly reminded that his predecessor was 1-8 vs. Top 10 opponents - worst in school history. In fact, the Irish will take an 11-game losing skein against ranked opponents into the 2010 season. To which our database replies: Kelly's teams step up in big games as evidenced by his amazing 13-1 SU and 12-1-1 ATS mark as a favorite or a dog against .750 or greater foes. Even the loss of QB Jimmy Claussen won't have us looking in another direction as Kelly's ‘next man up' system has seen six QB's make their starting debut the last three years. Only three true road games should have this team hell-bent on winning in 2010.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Boston College (10/2)