A final team-by-team look at the Independents.
After a star-crossed campaign in 2002, Notre Dame stumbled to a 2-6 start against some of the nation's top teams. The Irish were blanked by Michigan and Florida State, and couldn't keep pace with Purdue and Southern Cal. As rumors swirled about a potential move to the Big Ten or ACC, Ty Willingham tried to mend a battered offense by putting true freshman Brady Quinn at QB. Quinn made his share of mistakes, but RB Julius Jones quickly took over as the Irish's main offensive threat. Jones had 200-yard rushing performances in wins over Pitt, Navy and Stanford. Notre Dame saved its season with a dramatic win over Navy, and carried the momentum to wins over Brigham Young and Stanford. The Irish defense allowed just 116.3 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per play. Courtney Watson and Justin Tuck had impressive performances on defense, and Jones easily eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing despite entering the year as the No. 2 tailback.
MVP: RB Julius Jones. Jones' midseason surge saved an anemic offense that ranked near the bottom of Division I-A teams after the first three games. After sitting out Notre Dame's magical 2002 season because of academic reasons, Jones established himself as the Irish's top back with three 200-yard performances this year. With more than 1,200 rushing yards Jones ranked in the top five on Notre Dame's single-season rushing list. "The commitment that Julius made to himself, and the commitment of his family I think just speaks volumes for him," Willingham said. "I said sometime ago that it would have been very easy for Julius to be anywhere, but when he chose to come back, he wanted to complete a goal that he had set for himself and a commitment that he made to his family."
Biggest Disappointment: The West Coast offense needed five games to get off the beach in 2003. Senior QB Carlyle Holiday struggled early and was replaced by Quinn, who displayed signs of promise. Despite a stellar season from Jones the Irish produced only 21 points and 342 yards a game this year. Notre Dame averaged just 14.8 points in its first six games.
What's Next: Quinn is a good fit for Willingham's offense and has several strong receivers (Rhema McKnight, Maurice Stovall) returning next season. Notre Dame's schedule leaves hardly any room for error, however, and the Irish will not be able keep pace with top 5 teams every week. On defense Notre Dame loses nearly every starter (Watson, Derek Curry, Darrell Campbell, Glenn Earl, Vontez Duff) and will need increased production from Victor Abiamiri and the underclassmen.
In its final year as an independent Connecticut posted a 9-3 record after winning its last five games. Sophomore RB Terry Caulley led the nation in rushing at more than 200 yards a game before tearing his ACL against Virginia Tech. Following Caulley's injury the Huskies rallied around QB Dan Orlovsky, who threw for 3,485 yards and 33 touchdowns. Although Connecticut played a soft schedule, it nearly knocked off future league rival Boston College and lost in the final minute against NC State. The Huskies completed the season with a 51-17 win at Wake Forest. Seniors Uyi Osunde and Tyler King were a formidable DL tandem and redshirt freshman Cornell Brockington picked up the slack at RB.
MVP: QB Dan Orlovsky. Orlovsky united the offense after Caulley went down and led Connecticut to wins in six of its final seven games. The junior passed for 290 yards or more in eight games and finished eighth in Division I-A with 23.2 completions per game. Orlovsky set a school record with 33 touchdown passes and extended his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown to 24.
Biggest Disappointment: The NC State loss. Connecticut would have significantly improved its postseason prospects with a win over NC State on Oct. 11. RB Chris Bellamy rushed for 166 yards and the Huskies found themselves tied at 24-24 in the game's final minute. As Orlovsky drove the team for the game-winning score, his pass was intercepted by NC State LB Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay and returned 56 yards for a touchdown. The agonizing loss spurred the Huskies to wins in their final five games.
What's Next: The Huskies offense will largely hinge on whether Caulley can regain the form he showed in 2003. Orlovsky returns as one of the nation's top QBs but will face stronger competition in the Big East. Star WR Shaun Feldeisen is a major loss, but junior WRs Keron Henry and O'Neil Wilson are back. On defense the Huskies lose their top lineman in Osunde, but Maurice Lloyd (121 tackles, 14.5 for loss) and King return.
It's taken only two years for Paul Johnson to transform a depleted program at Navy. Behind the nation's top rushing offense the Mids secured their first winning record since 1997 and their first bowl bid since 1996. Johnson, who scoffs at the belief that all teams need a balanced offense, pounded the football 184 times in the first 11 games. QB Craig Candeto led the Mids in rushing touchdowns and SB Tony Lane averaged more than 12 yards a carry. Navy's turnaround would have been complete had it snapped a 39-year losing streak at Notre Dame on Nov. 8. Nonetheless, the Mids looked impressive in wins over Air Force and Tulane. Josh Smith led an agile defense that allowed just 21.7 points per game this year.
MVP: LB Eddie Carthan. The senior led Navy with 11 tackles for loss, five sacks and four interceptions this season. Carthan tied for fourth on the team with 64 tackles and recovered a fumble. A four-year letterwinner, Carthan had two sacks and four tackles for loss in Navy's blowout win over Central Michigan.
Biggest Disappointment: The Notre Dame loss. A silent Notre Dame Stadium crowd watched Navy's Josh Smith partially block D.J. Fitzpatrick's field goal attempt on the game's final play. Smith could not stop the ball from fluttering through the uprights, however, and Notre Dame escaped with a 27-24 win. A gutsy effort could not give Navy its first win over the Irish in four decades. "At some point, Navy will perform better and beat Notre Dame," Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said. "But you tell your team, 'It doesn't have to be this year.'"
What's Next: QB Craig Candeto graduates, but the nation's top running attack returns two of its top three rushers, FB Kyle Eckel and SB Eric Roberts. S Josh Smith, the Mids leading tackler in 2003, leads the defense next season. LB Lane Jackson also returns, along with DE Pierre Moss. Johnson has proven he can win in Annapolis.
The Trojans posted a 6-6 record in 2003 despite having only four home games. One of those games, a 33-24 victory over Marshall, capped a three game winning streak. Troy State's schedule featured Kansas State, Virginia and Nebraska, but aptly finished with four consecutive games against Sun Belt Conference opponents. The Trojans went 2-2 against their future league rivals, edging Louisiana-Monroe 28-24 in the season finale. FS Derrick Ansley (nine interceptions, tied for third nationally) led a stingy defense that allowed only 125.5 rushing yards a game. Troy State's offense struggled all season, finishing 112th out of 117 teams in scoring (15.4 ppg). RB DeWhitt Betterson hit his stride late and finished with 1,161 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
MVP: FS Derrick Ansley. Ansley had 19 more tackles than any of his teammates and ranked among the top five nationally in interceptions all season. He also forced and recovered a fumble. Ansley was tied for 14th nationally in passes defended with 1.58 per game. In three years he has 14 interceptions and 17 pass breakups.
Biggest Disappointment: Troy State never hit its stride on offense, eclipsing 25 points only three times this year. Betterson was a bright spot but the Trojans' passing attack produced just eight touchdowns and 139.3 yards per game. Troy State was shut out in three consecutive road games for the first time since 1941-42.
What's Next: Ansley and LBs Robby Farmer and Bernard Davis return to a defense that was tied for fifth nationally in turnovers gained with 35. Establishing an offensive rhythm will be key for Larry Blakeney's squad, which returns Betterson and starting QB Aaron Leak in 2004. Leading WR Jason Samples is also back, along with backup QB Hansell Bearden and No. 2 rusher Marrio Fraser.
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington (Ill.) Daily Herald.