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State of the conference: Independents

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

There are many terms to describe Notre Dame's last season, but the most accurate, and probably least crude, would be "rebuilding year." The Irish returned just nine starters last season and were breaking in many skill position players, including true freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

The rebuilding is over.

The Irish return 16 starters from last year's 3-9 team, including almost the entire offense. The depth was the positive that came out of last season because coach Charlie Weis threw a lot of guys into the fire who will be critical this season. That includes Clausen, who took a beating because of his inexperienced offensive line that gave up an NCAA-leading 58 sacks.

And Notre Dame's schedule is a little easier than it has been in past seasons. The ranked foes that usually littered the schedule have been replaced with the likes of Washington, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Irish's biggest tests will come against an unknown Michigan team that opens the season ranked No. 24 in the coaches poll and USC, No. 2, at the end of the season.

It is conceivable that Notre Dame wins at least nine games and puts itself back into a bowl, but whether it's good enough to regain its BCS status is yet to be determined. If the Irish can't bounce back from one of the worst seasons in school history, Weis could be on the hot seat.

If Notre Dame is going to make any waves this year it will have to get past Navy, which beat the Irish in South Bend last season for the first time in 44 years. A fluke? No. Navy was a legitimately better team than Notre Dame last season, but the Midshipmen will have a tough time repeating that feat this year.

First-year coach Ken Niumatalolo intends to run the same triple option offense that his predecessor Paul Johnson ran, but with just five returning offensive starters, notching another eight-win season might be asking a lot. The Midshipmen's strength is defense where they return eight starters. Navy does appear poised to take it's sixth consecutive Commander-in-Chief Trophy as Army looks to rebound from its 3-9 season.

It's hard to believe that Army used to be one of the NCAA's powerhouse teams when its best season in the last six was a 4-7 campaign in 2005. Army supporters can rejoice in the fact that it tied Notre Dame for the second-best record among Independents, which might bring up some early 1900s nostalgia. But the fact of the matter is that Army does not look like it is going to be any better this season with just eight returning starters.