Aug. 10, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

The Independent ranks shrink by one this year after Western Kentucky became an official member of the Sun Belt Conference this fall.

The three remaining teams all find themselves in different predicaments.

Army continues to rebuild as it brings in a new head coach.

Navy looks to continue its winning ways and run all over opponents in their usual, triple-option fashion, albeit with the potential for a little more passing this year.

And Notre Dame, in year five of the Charlie Weis era, is expected to rise to the ranks of the top 25 and beyond as pressure starts to build around South Bend to produce another BCS-caliber team.

2008 Record: 3-9
Returning Starters: 3 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: After trying its hand at something else for a few seasons, Army reverted back to the triple option last season, but it wasn't enough to prevent yet another coaching change at West Point. In comes Rich Ellerson who had a great track record running the option at Cal Poly. Ellerson will likely start the season with Chip Bowden under center. He led Army to its three victories last season and returns as the teams top rusher. Finding out who will be Bowden's sidekick is the challenge this summer because single-season Army rushing record holder Collin Mooney is no longer around.
Defensive Keys: The Black Knights were a pretty stingy team last season, but change has come with Ellerson. Gone will be the 4-3 Army previously utilized and in comes a version of the "Desert Swarm" defense Ellerson ran while working at Arizona almost two decades ago. The gist of the "Desert Swarm" is confusing offenses based on constant movements. Some NFL teams employ a similar philosophy from time to time. Army won't have an NFL caliber defense, but they will have a good group that should cause some headaches for opposing coordinators if it grasps the new scheme.
Keep An Eye On: WR Ali Villanueva, DT Victor Ugenyi, FS Donovan Travis
All In The Numbers: 12, straight losing seasons for Army.
Deciding Game: Dec. 12 vs. Navy (Philadelphia)
Outlook: Ellerson still can't believe that he's found his way to West Point. He admits he has to pinch himself in the office sometimes. But he also knows the reality of the situation he's faced with. Army is building toward the future, not this season, with the intent of restoring the Black Knights into bowl caliber team every fall. Ellerson and the administration also want to raise the program's profile and the July announcements that Army will play Notre Dame, Rutgers and other teams over the next several years at the new Yankee Stadium will certainly help achieve that goal.

2008 Record: 8-5, EagleBank Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The hardest name to spell and pronounce in college football is no longer running the show for Navy. QB Kaipo Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is gone and in steps Ricky Dobbs to run Navy's triple option offense that finished last year as the nation's No. 1 rushing team yet again. Dobbs is a talented runner, but he can also throw the ball better than many have been accustomed to seeing from Navy QBs the last few years. Dobbs may need to air it out more this year with the Midshipmen losing some of their best rushers and pass catchers from last year. But regardless, Navy will be a run first, second and probably third kind of team. Nothing new in head coach Ken Niumatalolo's second season.
Defensive Keys: The defense is very experienced with upperclassmen projected to start in all but one position. On top of that, Navy has some depth to rely on after allowing 22 points per game last season. Nate Frazier is the force in the middle for the Midshipmen at nose guard. The linebacking corps should be very strong with seniors galore.
Keep An Eye On: FB Alex Teich, LB Ross Pospisil, FS Wyatt Middleton
All In The Numbers: 4, straight seasons Navy has finished the year as the nation's top rushing team.
Deciding Game: Dec. 12 vs. Army (Philadelphia)
Outlook: Navy has gone to six straight bowl games and there's no reason to think the Midshipmen can't make it seven. Even though the offense will feature plenty of new faces, the triple-option offense didn't disappoint last season, the first without Paul Johnson running the show. The Midshipmen will be gunning for their seventh straight Commander-in-Chief's Trophy with archrival Army standing in its way of some more hardware on the regular season's final Saturday. But the schedule leading up to the big rivalry game won't be easy considering it features road games against Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

Notre Dame
2008 Record: 7-6, Hawaii Bowl
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: With a junior quarterback and a senior-laden offensive line, many believe this will be the year the Notre Dame reverts back to what we saw when Brady Quinn was calling the plays. Jimmy Clausen is the man Charlie Weis trusts to lead the Irish to a big-time bowl game. Clausen will have some talented wide outs to work with. The big question is whether Notre Dame finds a go-to running back, one who can elevate the Irish rushing attack past the 109.7 yards per game it averaged last season.
Defensive Keys: There was an off-season switching of duties on defense and now that Jon Tenuta takes over the Irish D for Corwin Brown expect plenty of blitzing. That's always been Tenuta's M.O. at his previous stops, most recently Georgia Tech. The front four will be without arguably their two top linemen from last season, but everyone is raving about the potential of Ian Williams. The secondary will be a decided strength of this unit, even without Terrail Lambert. 
Keep An Eye On: RB Armando Allen, WR Golden Tate, LB Manti Te'o
All In The Numbers: 22, years since a Notre Dame player won the Heisman Trophy.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. USC
Outlook: Weis has been dealing with a lot of criticism this off-season as he continues to try and turn the corner with his team. Weis is 29-21 in four seasons at South Bend and many have speculated that another sub-par season could doom him at his alma mater. But with the talent back on offense and the growing pains the team has gone through the past several seasons, Weis believes this group is ready to blossom behind Clausen. The schedule - which has been criticized as being too easy - will be a constant point of contention for Weis this fall, but with seven home dates and a more experienced team, expect the Irish to breeze by last year's seven win mark and potentially contend for a BCS berth, especially if they can knock off archrival USC.