Notre Dame got by BYU in a battle of independent programs in 2012 on their way to a BCS title shot. Photo: USA Today Sports
Crystal Ball Run will be previewing each conference for the 2013 season with week-by-week coverage. Today we continue our 2013 conference previews with a look at the independent programs.
We have been spending time over the past weeks detailing each conference heading in to the 2013 season. Don't worry, we certainly have not forgotten about those with no conference to call home. And what better week to celebrate the independents in college football than the week we celebrate our nation's independence?
2012 In Review
It was a magical season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who rode the strength of their defense anchored by Heisman Trophy finalist linebacker Manti Te'o and his inspirational story through some tough times to gut out some hard fought victories. But much like the image of Te'o once the season concluded, Notre Dame's national championship chances were as fictional as any once they went up against SEC champion and defending BCS champion Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. National title game and fake girlfriends aside, Notre Dame's 2012 regular season was quite the ride.
Notre Dame opened the 2012 season across the Atlantic Ocean, taking on Navy in the Emerald Isle Classic in Ireland and coming home with an easy 50-10 victory over the Midshipmen. The blowout victory moved Notre Dame in to the AP top 25, with the Irish debuting at 22nd overall and moving up to 20th a week later with a 20-17 win over Purdue.
The Irish really grabbed everyone's attention when they traveled to East Lansing, Michigan for their rivalry game with Michigan State. The defense was in firm control from start to finish against a Michigan State team that would prove to be less of an offensive threat as initially expected, and a 20-3 victory over the No. 10 Spartans helped move Notre Dame up to 11th in the rankings as they prepared for a match-up with the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines in South Bend. A win over Michigan moved Notre Dame in to the top ten and the talk of a potential BCS Championship run was officially on. A runaway victory over Miami in Chicago (41-3) and a controversial win over eventual Pac 12 champion Stanford continued to turn eyes and a valiant victory at Oklahoma thrust Notre Dame in to the top four behind Oregon, Kansas State and Alabama. After a 12-0 run in the regular season, Notre Dame captured the top spot in the BCS ranking and clinched a long-awaited spot in the BCS Championship Game.
BYU also thrived on the strength of their defense, which allowed just 14 points per game in the 2012 season. The Cougars opened their season with a rude welcome back to the sidelines for Washington State's Mike Leach, handing the pirate a 30-6 setback in week one. After a 2-0 start though BYU would suffer back-to-back heart-breakers on the road. BYU had two opportunities to tie rival Utah in the closing moments, thanks to an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Utes, but two field goal attempts would end in futile fashion. The following week at Boise State, BYU's defense was dominant but the offense was brutal in a 7-6 loss. BYU's defense had shut out the Broncos offense, but a 36-yard interception return by Boise State early in the second quarter would prove to be the difference. A late BYU touchdown run by quarterback Taysom Hill was followed by a failed two-point conversion and BYU dropped to 2-2.
BYU would go on to pick up eight wins on the year but the Cougars had a knack for coming up short in their biggest games. In addition to losses against Utah and Boise State, the Cougars also came up on the wrong end of the scoreboard against Oregon State, Notre Dame and surprising San Jose State.
As for the service academies, it was another year for Navy to celebrate with a victory in the annual Army-Navy Game. This year's game was decided in thrilling fashion, with a last minute comeback attempt by Army ultimately coming up short as Navy extended their streak of dominance over their rivals by one more year. Navy actually got off to a slow 1-3 start with losses to Notre Dame and Penn State proving Navy had a long way to go to compete on a larger scale, but the Mids later went on a five-game winning streak to turn the season around and put themselves in to the bowl picture.
Things did not go as well for Army, who fielded a pretty young roster in 2012. Army once against struggled on offense and defense from start to finish and the season ended with a disappointing 2-10 record. One of those wins did come against Air Force though, so there was a sense of pride that could be taken from part of the season, and they had Navy on the ropes in Philadelphia. Perhaps an end to the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy could be coming for Army. Army has not won the three-way trophy between Army, Navy and Air Force since 1996.
Independents in Bowl Games
Notre Dame turned out to be over-matched in the BCS Championship Game against Alabama. As solid as Notre Dame's defense had been all season long, they were just no match for an overpowering Crimson Tide, with Alabama's offensive line proving to be too big and strong for Notre Dame to bring much pressure and Alabama's defense having no problem in shutting down what had been an average offense all year long. Notre Dame was flattened by the Tide 42-14 as Alabama won their second straight BCS championship.
BYU played San Diego State in San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl, but there would be no home-field advantage for the Aztecs in this match-up against a former Mountain West Conference rival. BYU's defense once again took control of this game and linebacker Kyle Van Noy practically did it all. In the fourth quarter, Van Noy recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and later returned an interception 17 yards for another. BYU trailed San Diego State 6-3 entering the fourth quarter before Van Noy turned things around in dazzling fashion.
Navy reached a postseason game for the ninth time in the past ten years but Arizona State was quick to rough up the Mids in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Arizona State took a commanding 21-0 lead in the first quarter and led Navy 34-7 at halftime. The third quarter continued to see Todd Graham's Sun Devils take it to Navy and Navy trailed 62-14 entering the fourth quarter. Navy went on to score a couple of touchdowns before the final score of 62-28 became official. Navy gave up 648 yards of offense in the losing effort.
Biggest Win in 2012?
No. 5 Notre Dame 30, No. 8 Oklahoma 13 (October 27, 2012) - The Irish were already in the hunt for the BCS Championship but still needed one more key victory to convince a few more naysayers and a little help from around the country. Oklahoma was likely the last major road block between South Bend and a trip to Miami for the BCS title. Playing on the road, Notre Dame's defense came up with the big plays they needed and the offense took advantage when possible to keep Notre Dame in the BCS title picture.
Biggest Loss in 2012?
No. 1 Notre Dame 14, No. 2 Alabama 42 (BCS Championship Game) - Nothing went right in the championship game for Notre Dame. The Irish were over-matched, out muscled, and Nick Saban got the clear upper hand in preparation for the game against Brian Kelly. The loss set off a bad string of events for the off-season in South Bend, from Te'o drama fallout to some players and recruits leaving the program. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.
This season will see a few more independent programs join the group for 2013. Ongoing conference realignment has left Idaho and New Mexico State without a conference home for 2013. The collapse of WAC football left both programs in search of a conference home but none could be found in time for the 2013 season. Idaho and New Mexico State will both join the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.
We also will include a program in transition from FCS to FBS this season, with Old Dominion making the move and joining Conference USA in 2014. This season the Monarchs, with quarterback Taylor Heinicke (pictured above) looking to once again put up huge passing numbers, will play a schedule consisting of games against FCS and FBS opponents.
Head Coaching Changes
We will see just one coaching change among the college football independents.
Idaho - Robb Akey was fired after going 20-50 over six seasons. Idaho went 1-7 in 2012 before a change was made in mid-October. Idaho would later hire Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, brother of Bobby Petrino.