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August 18, 2010

Independents have reason for optimism

For the first time in quite a while, each of the nation's three independents heads into a season with legitimate reason for optimism.

The return of star quarterback Ricky Dobbs has Navy believing it can win at least eight games for an eighth consecutive season. The Midshipmen went 10-4 last season to tie a school record for wins.

Notre Dame is confident the hiring of new coach Brian Kelly will help reverse the fortunes of a program that has gone a combined 16-21 over the past three seasons. Kelly led Cincinnati to Big East titles in each of the past two seasons, including a 12-0 regular-season record last season.

Army also has cause for hope after going 5-7 in '09, the first season of Rich Ellerson's tenure. The Black Knights are aiming for their first bowl bid since 1996, when they went 10-2 and reached the Independence Bowl.

Here's a closer look at the independents.

Navy-Maryland (at Baltimore), Sept. 6

Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 11

Stanford at Notre Dame, Sept. 25

Navy at Air Force, Oct. 2

Notre Dame at Boston College, Oct. 2

Pittsburgh at Notre Dame, Oct. 9

Navy-ND (at E. Rutherford, N.J.), Oct. 23

Army-ND (at Bronx, N.Y.), Nov. 20

Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 27

Army-Navy (at Philadelphia), Dec. 11

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd. Dobbs undoubtedly is the most valuable offensive player from an independent, but Floyd is a better player. When he's healthy, Floyd is as good as any receiver in the nation. He leads all active FBS players who have played at least 15 games with his career average of 84.1 receiving yards per contest. He has caught 16 touchdown passes in 18 career games. The only knock on Floyd is his health, as he missed two games in 2008 with a knee injury and five games last year with a broken collarbone. He's a matchup nightmare for virtually every defensive back in the nation.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Army E Josh McNary. This former walk-on set school records last season for sacks in a game (four), in a season (12.5) and in a career (18). McNary ranked fourth in the nation last season with 1.04 sacks per game. He also delivered 22.5 tackles for loss and finished in a tie for second place nationally with 1.88 tackles for loss per game. No active FBS player averaged more tackles for loss per game last season.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist. You could argue that no player in the nation is faces more scrutiny each season than Notre Dame's quarterback, but Crist's situation makes the pressure particularly acute. First, he's adjusting to a new coach (Kelly) who has implemented a new system (the spread). He also is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And he's the only scholarship quarterback on the roster with any college experience.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Navy LB Tyler Simmons. The graduations of Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer and Ram Vela leave Simmons as Navy's most experienced linebacker. Simmons ranked third on the team with 68 tackles last season, but he missed all of spring practice after injuring his spleen in a February skiing accident. The Middies need Simmons to make a complete recovery and lead an inexperienced linebacker corps.

BREAKOUT STAR: Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o. This former five-star prospect gives Notre Dame's defense an essential dose of star power and athleticism. Although he barely played in the Irish's first four games last season, he still ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles as a true freshman. He recorded 57 of those tackles in the last eight games. Now that he will open a season as a starter, Te'o should assert himself as Notre Dame's best defensive player.

BEST NEWCOMER: Notre Dame WR TJ Jones. This true freshman -- known as Tai-ler Jones in high school in Georgia -- arrived on campus in time for spring practice and made such an impact that he received plenty of opportunities to work with the first-team offense. Notre Dame often runs four- and five-receiver sets in Kelly's scheme, so Jones will be on the field quite often, even if he doesn't open the season as a starter. Jones is well aware of Notre Dame's football tradition: He's the son of Andre Jones, a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team. His godfather is legendary former Notre Dame receiver/kick returner Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.

BEST GAME: Notre Dame vs. Navy at East Rutherford, N.J., Oct. 23. What once was the nation's most one-sided series has developed into quite a rivalry the past few seasons. Navy won a triple-overtime thriller 46-44 at Notre Dame in 2007 for its first victory over the Irish since 1963. After the Irish nearly squandered a 20-point lead in the final minutes of a 27-21 victory over Navy two years ago, the Middies won at Notre Dame again 23-21 last season. This year's meeting features even more intrigue because both teams have legitimate hopes of finishing the season in the national rankings.

QBRicky Dobbs, Navy (6-1/203, Sr.)
RBArmando Allen, Notre Dame (5-10/205, Sr.)
RBPatrick Mealy, Army (5-8/203, Sr.)
RBVince Murray, Navy (6-1/217, Sr.)
WRMichael Floyd, Notre Dame (6-3/227, Jr.)
TEKyle Rudolph, Notre Dame (6-6/265, Jr.)
TJeff Battipaglia, Navy (6-4/256, Sr.)
TMatt Molloy, Navy (6-3/260, Sr.)
GTrevor Robinson, Notre Dame (6-5/295, Jr.)
GChris Stewart, Notre Dame (6-5/351, Sr.)
CZach Peterson, Army (6-1/270, Sr.)
KJoe Buckley, Navy (5-9/176, Sr.)
PRArmando Allen, Notre Dame (5-10/205, Sr.)

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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