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Beyond the Empire: College Football Independents Preview

TOO GOOD FOR A CONFERENCE, TOUGH GUY—oh no wait that’s really unfortunate we’re sorry we didn’t mean anything by it

BYU v Notre Dame

Welcome to the dying days of B1G 2018! As we count down to the start of Big Ten football, we’re previewing the Big Ten non-conference slate by conference affiliation. Stay tuned for all the G5 and P5 conference previews, along with our Closing Arguments prediction series for each Big Ten team.

As of yesterday...holy shit, it’s August. Big Ten football will be played this month, and that’s not even “Big Ten football” in the sense of “squint really hard at Illinois-Ball State and pretend it’s Illinois-Rutgers.”

We’re counting down a whole lot of stuff this month, but there’s nothing less important than knowing the conference landscape of each G5 (and FCS) conference the Big Ten will face!

Yet we do it anyways. Tradition or something.

What do you do, though, when some of the teams our Big Ten clubs face...don’t belong to a conference?

Independence in college football is the marker of either (1) a stubborn desire to cling to inflated values of self-worth and tradition, or (2) a move borne out of inability or incapacity to join even a G5 conference.

[Or being Army, but binaries are more fun.]

Bowl revenues/tie-ins, shots at the College Football Playoff, and the money from TV contracts have seen to it that all but the stodgiest, weakest, newest, or most isolated have resorted to independence.

I think that covers all the teams up for grabs in the Independents article. With Idaho—cut adrift from the Sun Belt Conference and unwilling, institutionally, to deal with the associated increased costs of FBS independence—returned to FCS football and the Liberty Flames joining the ranks of East Coast independents, the count is once again five, and the ranks of “independents you’d enjoy your team playing” is down to one, and even they’re not worth as much as they used to be.

The Games

New Mexico State Aggies (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt*) vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-7, 2-7 B1G)

August 30 | 6pm CT | BTN

2018 S&P+ rating: 100 (21st percentile)
2017 Sagarin rating: 137 (46th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 74% (+11.0 margin)


(Just make it through the first quarter and a half or so; Northwestern-Purdue kicks off at 7pm and it’ll all be OK. We promise. Unless you’re a Northwestern fan; that’ll suck.)

New Mexico State is coming off its best season in 15 years (a 7-5 Sun Belt campaign in 2002) and its first bowl win or appearance in 57 years. Seriously. Go watch the videos in Bill Connelly’s NMSU preview if you want to have your heartstrings tugged at. It was cool.

Now, though, the Aggies are coming off a winning season and a bowl victory—a campaign which began auspiciously, putting the scare in Arizona State in a 37-31 loss to open the year. It might be time, though, for the Aggies to announce themselves as a legitimate threat to compete year-in, year-out. Since 2012, New Mexico State has gone an unimpressive 0-12 against P5 competition, including a loss to Minnesota in Las Cruces.

Fortunately, the last time they won against a P5 opponent was [/checks notes]... Yes, it appears on the road, in Minneapolis, against a team with quarterback struggles and a coach resetting the program. Parallels.

In 2018, though, the Aggies’ chances—both against the Gophers and to make a bowl—depend in large part on whether their defense can pin their ears back and if they can find some consistency at quarterback.

On defense, New Mexico State loses their leading tackler, Dalton Herrington, but return almost 30 sacks of production [the phrasing sounded better in my head] of their second-best 43 in 2017. DC Frank Spaziani, mustachioed he of Boston College HC fame, will blitz the shit out of whichever Gopher quarterback—Tanner Morgan or Zacl Annexstad—starts. I’d take the under in this one unless you’re confident in the Gophers establishing the run on a suspect rush defense.

Offensively, though, the Aggies are almost completely retooling. RB Jason Huntley replaces Larry Rose III (5.0 ypc, 10 TD), and QB Nick Jeanty steered them from 4-6 (after losing Tyler Rogers) to a bowl win but is apparently being challenged by a JUCO transfer. Seriously. Take the under on score, and over 2.5 on number of QBs used in this game.

BYU Cougars (4-9) vs. wisconsin badgers (13-1, 9-0 B1G)

September 15 | 2:30pm | ABC/ESPN(2)

2018 S&P+ rating: 76 (21st percentile)
2017 Sagarin rating: 137 (46th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 89% (+21.4 margin)

This “independence” thing (since 2011) miiiiight have BYU reconsidering, looking at the 2018 schedule. Of those matchups, I’d put down losses at Arizona, at Washington, and at wisconsin for sure, with games at Utah and at Boise State just behind them, and matchups with Cal and Northern Illinois determining how far the Cougars survive into 2018. That, of course, gives no credit to Hawaii, New Mexico State, or Utah State, either. It’s another tough row to hoe for Kelani Sitake.

To rectify a bottom-20 offense, Sitake jettisoned Ty Detmer as OC. Whether the new guy can make something out of the supposed return of QB Tanner Mangum and 2017 bright spot and All-Namer Squally Canada...remains to be seen. Dylan Collie joins as a gifted WR transfer from Hawaii, and the Cougars return their top three receiving threats behind him. There’s offense there, if OC John Grimes—who lost his entire interior OL—can get a retooled front five to buy time against a hungry badger DL.

I realize the wisconsin offense torched BYU last year: Alex Hornibrook was one pass off perfect on the game (18/19 for 4 TDs) and Jonathan Taylor did Jonathan Taylor things. But the BYU trans-Pacific recruiting pipeline always amuses me, stacking the DL with large Samoan dudes. Unfortunately, that defense totalled 17 sacks in 2017. I don’t anticipate much more pressure on Hornibrook, with BYU losing leading tacklers at each level of the defense. But look for Dayan Ghanwoloku to nab a pick, at least.

The Conference

The Standings

Imaginary, unless you count ESPN making a table of all the Independent teams just so you have somewhere to find it.

If I were betting, I’d have Army sitting atop that pile, with New Mexico State sneaking back into bowl relevance and BYU just shy at something like 5-7 (they have a brutal schedule, going to Arizona, wisconsin, Washington, and Boise, to say nothing of their annual rivalry game with Utah...which is on the road this year).

You can pencil Liberty—which, a reminder, should be burned to the ground and also plays a home-and-home with New Mexico State—and UMass in at 4 and 5 in those rankings, though we so badly want to believe that Mark Whipple’s goofy-ass experiment in Amherst can work, if just for one fleeting trip to the Armed Forces Bowl or something.

The Culture

Really non-existent, since this is not a conference or anything.

To this point, I’ve been pretty negative-ass about college football independence. And, long term, I’m dubious of NMSU’s chances of staying in FBS, let alone surviving the eventual D-1 blow-up when the best 64 teams or whatever take their ball and form super-conferences.

Long term what could keep them afloat and bowl eligibility-adjacent, though, is their excellent pair of local rivalries and Sun Belt teams’ desire for local, winnable games [hi, Texas State and UTSA]. Why should you care about these, you ask? Let’s look at ‘em:

  • The Rio Grande Rivalry, played annually with in-state big-brother New Mexico since WWII and inaugurated in 1894. While the Lobos have ripped off multiple double-digit win streaks [hey! Minnesota and NMSU can commiserate about something!], this rivalry has been competitive, with NMSU actually leading 5-4 over the last 9 (cherry-picked) meetings. [OK, so they can’t commiserate about everything.] It’s excellent, high-stakes (according to the one drum captain in NUMB who was a Lobo growing up), bad football. Tune in.
  • Look, anything with BATTLE in the name rocks, and the Battle of I-10 with the UTEP Miners...has “Battle” in the name. That’s enough for us. Also, they’re like a 40-minute drive, which in the Southwest is like living right on top of one another. PROXIMITY BREEDS HATE. Oh, and while they play for the Silver Spade [mining schools—get it?], they allow play for a shitty “Mayor’s Cup” but don’t call it that! They call it the Brass Spittoon instead.
    All the Indiana-Michigan State nonsense, but without any of the insufferability!

I guess, in the interest of fairness, we should talk about BYU’s rivalries, as well, which are also fun and occasionally wacky, with actual, legitimate hate baked right in, too!

  • Let’s get the Holy War with the Utah Utes out of the way. Religious hatred, private-public rivalries, George still running, blocked GW FGs, Fandemonium, and generally wacky, weird football. There’s a lot here, and the rivalry lasts through 2022 as of right now. I hope it sticks around—these two programs haaaaaate each other. I wanted to make a joke about the last time Mormons and Utes worked together being the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but that was the Paiute, so I’m sorry, Ned Blackhawk, I admit that I just skimmed your book and didn’t read the whole thing.
  • Utah State is here, too! They play BYU for the Old Wagon Wheel, which is fun and possibly getting competitive and is slated through 2021. All three of those aforementioned schools compete for the Beehive Boot [best record among the three], and with Weber State, do the same in basketball for the Old Oquirrh Bucket. Utah’s weird, y’all.
  • Were that all not enough, they’re also playing Boise State every year through 2023. So that’s got some potential.

Coaching Connections

I honestly don’t care enough to look these up. Doug Martin was at Kent State for a while; Kelani Sitake is almost all Utah-related stuff. Good talk.

How They’ll Fare

Who knows, the Aggies could be frisky, especially at a Gophers team that has more excuses than it does offensive linemen. Doug Martin’s team playing the “no respect” card could make some hay for a quarter or two in Minneapolis—and NMSU doesn’t yet have those real institutional problems outside being down a coach—but the Gophers should have the athletes.

BYU has a good front seven, and who knows, maybe they’ve grown after the beatings of 2017...but wisconsin has a machine that does not, frankly, care whether your line is Top 10 or Top 100, and the badgers will flatten the Cougars in a city that is the inverse of Provo.

I’ll take a 1.000 win percentage in the only two games against CFB Independents.


How will the B1G fare against Independents?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    2-0: Blowouts all around.
    (37 votes)
  • 46%
    2-0: wisconsin romps, Minnesota struggles
    (64 votes)
  • 3%
    2-0: Minnesota romps, wisconsin struggles
    (5 votes)
  • 14%
    1-1: Minnesota loses
    (20 votes)
  • 2%
    1-1: wisconsin loses
    (4 votes)
  • 5%
    0-2: Burn it all down
    (7 votes)
137 votes total Vote Now