Look out for the rise of the Independents! Sort of.
Thanks to the arrival of BYU from the Mountain West, the computer ranks this four-team group as the 4th-toughest "conference", even though Navy and Army will struggle to get back to bowl games.
BYU leaves the Mountain West to become an independent and recaptures the success it had from 2006-2009 when the Cougars turned in four consecutive 10-2 regular season campaigns and won 3 of 4 bowl games. The computer envisions Bronco Mendenhall's club going 11-1 to tie Notre Dame's expected mark.
BYU's schedule presents a mix of traditionally strong programs and several historically weak schools, and many of the strongest programs on its schedule are expected to turn in less than stellar performances. Nonetheless, an 11-1 result won't be a piece of cake as the Cougars open at Ole Miss and then travel to Texas before a home opener with rival Utah. BYU is favored by just 0.04 in Austin and by 3.99 at Utah. The Cougars' lone forecasted defeat at the hands of TCU in Arlington is by less than 2 points.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame kicks off at home against one of the top Big East teams in USF before running a gauntlet of difficult road games that send the Irish to Michigan, Pitt and Purdue. Aside from USF, the only home game among their first five contests is against Michigan in week 3. When Notre Dame finally gets its first homestand in midseason, it faces Air Force, USC and Navy. No wonder that half of its first eight games have margins of less than 5 points. Still, the computer doesn't see a Notre Dame setback until the final regular season game when Stanford grabs a 0.40-point edge.
The computer's modest forecasts for Navy and Army should be expected. Though the computer nailed last year's 9-3 record for the Middies and only missed Army's 6-6 regular season by 1 loss (it predicted 5-7), both schools exceeded the computer's forecast the previous three seasons.
The Naval Academy's 2010 season was schizophrenic as the squad struggled against the weaker teams and soundly defeated several of the better teams on its slate. For instance, the Middies barely survived FCS member Georgia Southern and lost at home to Duke. But they ran over Notre Dame by 18 at East Rutherford and outscored one of the nation's best offensives 76-35 at East Carolina.
This year's schedule presents a challenging run in games three through six when Navy faces South Carolina, Air Force, Southern Miss and Rutgers with projected losses in all four games. However, it only has a margin of 1.07 points in the Southern Miss setback at home and also picks a 0.07-point loss at Rutgers the following week. Obviously, if the Middies just win those two games, a 6-6 forecast quickly improves to Navy's recent norm of 8 wins or more. And though Navy is a 14-point underdog against Notre Dame on October 29, the Midshipmen have won three of the last four matches after dropping 43 in-a-row.
Navy only gets five home games and just four against FBS opponents.
Army has shown dramatic improvement in the first two seasons under Rich Ellerson, but doesn't appear to quite be ready for a run at the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy that has eluded the USMA for 14 straight seasons. And last year's bowl run - it's first since 1996 - isn't expected by the computer to be repeated this season. In fact, Army's resurgence has come at the expense of a lot of bad football programs.
Army's 5 wins in 2009 came against teams that were a combined 8-51 - Eastern Michigan (0-12), Ball State (2-10), Vanderbilt (2-10), VMI (2-9, FCS) and North Texas (2-10). Last year's 7-win campaign culminated with a 16-14 upset of SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl, but the other 6 wins came against teams that were a combined 20-51 - Eastern Michigan (2-10), North Texas (3-9), Duke (3-9), Tulane (4-8), FCS member VMI (3-8) and Kent State (5-7).
This year's computer forecast for Army calls for a step backward to a 4-8 season as the Cadets face a much tougher schedule that begins with Northern Illinois, San Diego State and Northwestern.
With games at Yankee Stadium (Rutgers) and FedEx Field (Navy), Army has just four home games, only three of which are against FBS schools. The Black Knights have no home games after October 29 (Fordham) and no home games against FBS opponents after October 1 (Tulane). Army could practically be an honorary member of the MAC this season as it faces 4 teams from that conference, all on the road - Northern Illinois, Ball State, Miami (O.) and Temple.
Air Force is predicted to retain the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy after ending Navy's 7-year grip on the prize last year. The Middies are a 7.43-point home underdog to the AFA and Army is a 17.86-point road dog.
Navy gets a slim 4.43-point edge over Army in the world's top college football rivalry game which this year will be staged in Baltimore on December 10.