Notre Dame expects to contend for a national title on the gridiron every year. The Fighting Irish may very well contend again in 2019 under the tutelage of Brian Kelly and behind the arm of Ian Book.
But through a quirk of scheduling and a lot of West Point elbow grease, an old blood rival of UND – a fellow FBS independent – could actually make some kind of splash in the national-title picture this season.
Sometimes the (very) old friends still play each other in football. That’s why it’s a shame that Notre Dame doesn’t meet up with Army in ’19…at least not in the 25 games already scheduled to feature the storied schools.
The Spoiler With a Buffet of a Schedule
Bettors who frequent preseason lines at CFB betting sites are used to seeing Notre Dame among the national contenders. This August is no different – UND is (+3300) on the national-title futures board at MyBookie, nipping at Florida’s heels and a shorter bet than either LSU or Penn State.
Army West Point is a lottery-ticket long shot in the to-win-CFP market at 500-to-1. That puts the Black Knights in company with Houston, Colorado, and Kansas State. Which may not sound too heady on its own, but Army has also been offered as “short” as 75-to-1 to-reach-playoff at exchanges. That’s nothing like the exponentially-long odds you typically find on a service academy in that proposition.
Jeff Monken’s team is also getting a (10) Over/Under win-total line at Bovada Sportsbook.
Now consider if a Colorado or Houston team that was way, way “up” could potentially go undefeated against this kind of a schedule:
Like any decent program with a QB like Kelvin Hopkins Jr., Army should be able to handle the 2019 Varsity Fridge Magnets on Week 14, but Free Shipping University obviously has a good OL and will be tough on Xmas.
No, really, if the Black Knights play the kind of football they did when taking Oklahoma to overtime in 2018, then the David vs Goliath contest at Michigan on September 7th starts to look very interesting.
Remember that there is really only room for 1 FBS independent in the national picture each season. If Army beats Michigan and goes 13-0, there would be tremendous pressure put on the committee to include the cadets in the College Football Playoff over an 11-1 Notre Dame team. If Army finishes 12-1 and thus has as many wins as anyone in the country, there might be pressure to give the Black Knights a New Year’s Six bid ahead of a 10-2 UND squad.
Not exactly fair, but a fact of life. And don’t blame Monken, who probably didn’t envision all but 1 team on Army’s slate looking so vulnerable when he scheduled them.
Monken also might not have anticipated his team reaching double-digit wins in 2018, nor could he have foreseen a runaway bowl win that had handicappers buzzing.
Army is likely to be a double-digit underdog to the Wolverines in the Big House on 9/7. It is likely that all of the CFP-party crashing speculation will end at that point.
But there’s no doubt – if the Black Knights step things up another notch from last season, there’s nobody past Michigan who can really challenge them unless Hawaii or Tulane take similar leaps and bounds forward over the next few months.
Michigan vs Army is only 1 of many Power-5 vs FBS Independent clashes that could keep fans in suspense for 4 quarters this year.
I’m mentally “time-traveling” through the upcoming schedule with all 6 indie programs in mind, trying to gauge how a top-heavy season in the “division” might just go.
Weeks 1 Through 3: Drama in the West and North
BYU helps kick-off the season with a rivalry battle against Utah of the Pac-12. ‘
As touched on in our preseason Pac-12 betting preview, a Pac-12 team vs G5 school is absolutely no guarantee of a win in 2019, and the flip side of that is that the Cougars can get a jump on the season with an emotional win.
Brigham Young will try Zach Wilson, a sophomore, at QB in 2019. My issue with the ironclad preseason choice is that if coach Kalani Sitake had recruited or developed anyone else by now he’d be going with them, as Wilson has been in injury rehab and was unable to play in the Spring Game and in other rehearsals. He’s going to be – at best – like a key NFL holdout who signs in late August and is running around on the field in Week 1.
The Cougars are a lowly 250-to-1 bet to win the national title at MyBookie and only a (6 ½) win total at Bovada. It seems that a lot of handicappers expect them to get knocked on the jaw right away against the powerful Utes. The Holy War is turning into an annual romp for Utah.
Of course, last season, the Utes decided to keep things suspenseful until it was do-or-die.
In Week 2, it’s all about Army at Michigan. The Flexbone offense secretly (or not-so-secretly) revolves around the QB, and West Point has another good’un in Kelvin Hopkins Jr. The Knights have just enough returning upperclassmen on defense to hold off Harbaugh’s hounds enough to win – but only if the offense plays an immaculate game and hogs the football, keeping 100K spectators in seats.
I’m liking Army’s win-total “Over” (10) for a few reasons – the schedule is embarrassingly weak, Michigan isn’t a total lock over the Black Knights, and there’s few reasons to think West Point will take a step backward this season. But the best reason is that 13th game – Navy in Philadelphia on 12/14.
We still won’t know much about Notre Dame in Week 3. Louisville, the Fighting Irish’s 1st opponent in 2019, is likely to be awful. UND will take on an old friend in Bob Davie, coach of the New Mexico Lobos, in a bit of an unorthodox home opener in South Bend. I’d imagine the hosts will be a double-digit favorite ATS.
Weeks 4 Through 6: Avoiding Ruin in Athens
The Irish will head to Athens to play the Georgia Bulldogs on September 21st, a contest in which it’s safe to say that Notre Dame will not be a substantial point-spread favorite.
But I’m thinking that the Irish have a chance to surprise against the SEC this season. We know that the offense took a flying leap forward with the change to Book behind center. The still-developing gunslinger is excellent at throwing the kind of short, crisp passes that Kelly’s attack relies on, and can also stretch a defense downfield.
Notre Dame was only held back in the 2018-19 College Football Playoff due to its offensive line facing an all-time great “Power Rangers” unit from Clemson.
The question is whether the running game can be as dominant without a swift, bullish runner like Brandon Wimbush at the helm. UGA has a tradition of surprising opponents with blitzes or zone coverages when blessed with the epic noise of Sanford Stadium. Suppose the ‘Dawgs drop back, leaving Book to scramble bravely for yards or throw unwisely on the run?
Kelly will find ways to trick the Bulldogs if the Irish defense can hold up. Asmar Bilal and other up-and-coming South Bend linebackers should study the film from the 2019 Sugar Bowl in which Texas fought and frustrated a Georgia offense that couldn’t run the ball well.
Liberty plays New Mexico in Week 5, and once again the joke is probably going to be on Bob Davie. None of the Power-5 and Mountain West also-rans who scheduled Liberty when it first appeared on the FBS horizon could have imagined the Flames winning 6 games last season.
Las Vegas didn’t even put a win-total line on Liberty. That’s too bad, the Over would have cleaned up on any kind of reasonable prognostication. If Hugh Freeze’s team continues to outplay expectations, the Flames could be a worthy (+200) moneyline pick against an assortment of foes…including UNM.
Let’s not forget about UMass. The Minutemen were 4-8 last season and play a schedule even easier than Army’s in some respects…until the 9th game. You wanna take Massachusetts over Louisiana Tech in October, fine – you might even get a solid (+200) or (+250) price on that prediction. But I’d definitely get kicks in while I could, because of what’s coming down the pike on the team’s schedule.
Weeks 7 Through 9: Totally Predicting Likely Ws and Ls
Now it’s time to play that old parlor game, “That’sAWin!”
In Week 7, the New Mexico State Aggies visit the Central Michigan Chippewas, and “that’sawin” for Aggie fans who could be sick to death of losing to excellent teams by mid-October.
NMSU opens against (gulp) Washington State in Pullman and (gag) Alabama in Tuscaloosa, before facing San Diego State. Then it’s a rivalry scrum with New Mexico and then Fresno flippin’ State.
Not sure I’d want to touch the Over (3 ½) on New Mexico State’s win-total line. They could be a morally-defeated team (and a very injured team) by the mid-way point.
By Week 8 Notre Dame will be going through its own Power-5 gauntlet, having faced Michigan and preparing to face VT, Duke, Boston College and Stanford in a 5-week span. It could cast UND’s win-total line (9) as overly generous, except BC and Stanford could each take steps backward this season.
Thankfully, Fighting Irish fans can point at the Navy game on the calendar and say, “Thatsawin!” since the Malcolm Perry experiment is only leading to ruin on offense for the Midshipmen.
Finally, the BYU Cougars will play Liberty of all teams to kick-off November. If the Cougars can get past that contest without a scratch they’ll be big moneyline favorites over meek Idaho State in the game-to-follow. Idaho State followed by UMass – that-sa couple o’ wins for BYU.
How the 2019 Season Winds Up for UND, Army and 4 Others
By Week 10 I’ll have gone so insane making predictions and picks that I’ll be off in a corner bar somewhere, missing pool shots until the cue ball flies right at “Leroy” from The Last Picture Show.
But wait – what if it’s not a cue ball at all, but a crystal ball?
(This is how you’ll find me in Week 11, speaking to a wall.)
Notre Dame will have a natural scheduling advantage if in position to bid for the CFP or a New Year’s Six bowl game during the final 2 weeks of the season. Regardless of any softness to the pair of opponents this season, Boston College and Stanford are marquee programs who will draw TV ratings and widespread media attention. You still get credit for knocking off “big names” even when the school’s linemen aren’t as big as usual.
Liberty can hopefully reach a bowl game in its 2nd season. Not sure what the exact prop betting odds on that outcome are, but New Mexico State is a beatable Week 12 foe if that’s what it takes.
If the UMass Minutemen can make it through Army, Northwestern, and BYU to finish the year, they’ll deserve any bowl bid they can get.
BYU is unlikely to eke-out a bowl appearance and may bring a demoralized squad to San Diego for the season closer.
New Mexico State needs a better schedule. As in, a reasonable schedule. The Aggies will have realized that by late November if not much, much sooner.
Army will probably stand at 10-2 headed into the annual showdown with Navy at Lincoln Financial Field. Chances are the Army-Navy moneyline will read (-225) or (-275) in the Black Knights’ advantage, and West Point’s underrated charges will score for the Over against a double-digit preseason win-total as of the 13th and final contest.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.