2021 Group of Five Independents Preview

The 2020 COVID season was especially tricky for independents. With many conferences restricting or eliminating conference games, finding teams to flesh out a season was difficult. Liberty, BYU, and Army were all able to complete nearly full schedules. UMass only competed in four games, while UConn and New Mexico State sat out the fall season.

Liberty completed an amazing year at 10-1, the lone loss on a blocked last second field goal. BYU was also sterling at 11-1, the lone loss coming in a thriller to Coastal Carolina when their final play was stopped just short of the goal line. Army was solid, winning the Commanders-in-chief trophy and reaching 9 wins.

Liberty returns a loaded roster and is looking to make even more noise in 2021 after finishing 2020 ranked at number 17 in the final AP Poll (we at G5 Gurus would argue this ranking was way too low). BYU will have to reload after losing some key talent across the offensive side of the ball. Army will do what Army does, reload and move forward. With UConn, UMass, and New Mexico State returning to full schedules, the Independents will be a fun group to watch in 2021.

G5 Gurus predictions for the 2021 G5 Independents is provided below.

Liberty (1)

What to know:

The Flames were a thrill in 2020.  A last second blocked field goal resulting in a one-point loss was the only blemish on the Flames’ record.  A record that included wins over ACC foes Syracuse and Virginia Tech and a bowl win over previously undefeated Coastal Carolina. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Malik Willis encore.  Malik Willis is one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the country.   225 yards passing per game and 94 yards rushing per game.  And yes, it could have probably been even more.  A performance close to this in 2021 and the Flames will be a thorn in everyone’s side.  The only thing to watch is the picks.  Willis only threw six on the year, but three were in the NC State loss when he was under duress most of the day.   
  2. November 6.  Mark your calendars.  Hugh Freeze returns to Ole Miss.  There is a very good chance the Flames will be undefeated coming into the game which would raise the stakes even more.   Undefeated or not, it will have the attention of a lot of college football fans.     
  3. Watch the traps.  Liberty scrambled to fill their schedule in 2020 and ended up with 3 games against ACC teams.  This year it is Syracuse (ACC) and Ole Miss (SEC).   However, there are other games to watch.   Troy and UAB will not be cakewalks and the final two games against Army and Louisiana could have LOTS on the line.  Liberty needs to stay focused and they could be in the discussion for a NY6 bid. 

Army (2)

What to know:

A Commanders-in-Chief’s trophy winners in 2020 were close to an even bigger season.  In the 120 years of Army football, there have only been three 10-win (or more) seasons.  The Black Knights lost an 11-point third quarter lead and fell to West Virgina in the Liberty Bowl to finish at 9-3.  Even though Super Seniors don’t apply to the military schools, Army boasts a strong returning cast and will again make a run at the 10 win mark in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Turnovers.  In the past twenty years the Black Knights have had 14 or fewer turnovers in a season including last season.  Not surprising, the Black Knights enjoyed three of their finest seasons when managing turnovers.  This needs to continue in 2021.     
  2. New QB.  Christian Anderson graduated but Tyhier Tyler was waiting in the wings.  Tyler was the team’s leading rusher in 2020 and should get even more attempts as the starting QB.  However, don’t look for many passing highlights.  The Black Knights attempted 10 or more passes only three times in 2020.  Don’t expect this to change.       
  3. Schedule demons.  The schedule makers have presented the Black Knights with a sneaky challenging schedule for 2021.  The road game to Wisconsin being the toughest game, there are other challenges as well.  Georgia State, WKU, Ball State, Wake Forest, Air Force, Liberty, and Navy all have the potential to be tight games. 

Brigham Young (3)

What to know:

2020 may go down as one of the craziest years in BYU football.   A cobbled together schedule including G5 teams, and one FCS matchup resulted in nine consecutive wins, with only one remotely close.  A made for TV matchup with undefeated Coastal Carolina was thrown together after Coastal’s scheduled game was cancelled and was the game of the year.  BYU fell but closed out the season with two more wins to finish 11-1.   A lot of firepower left and the Cougars look to retool for another run in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Replacing Zach Wilson.  Replacing Wilson is next to impossible.  Wilson finished 2020 with an unbelievable 196.4 QBR, 33 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions.  Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall will battle it out for the starting job.   
  2. Offensive line retooling.  Only two starters return from a sterling group in 2020.  It will be tough to replace the chemistry this group enjoyed, especially with a tough opening slate of games.  There is talent, but don’t be surprised if it takes a few games to get the offense really going.    
  3. Ratchetting up the schedule.  After no Power 5 matchups in the COVID plagued 2020 season, the Cougars open with 3 straight in 2021.  Four more are sprinkled throughout the schedule, so there should be no rumbling about BYU’s “lack of competition”. 

Connecticut (4)

What to know:

The Huskies did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19.  This will be their first season as an independent after spending many years in the tough AAC.  However, this is a team is search of an identity.  The Huskies were 6-30 2017-2019 with four of those six wins coming against FCS foes and UMass.  Randy Edsall remains at the helm and hopes to bring back some of the competitiveness from his previous run as Huskies’ coach. 

3 things to watch:

  1. QB battle.  Incumbent Jack Zergiotis will battle Steven Krajewski and NC State transfer Micah Leon for the starting job.  Whoever is the QB will need to mobile and have the ability to make quick decisions as the offensive line was porous in 2019. 
  2. Defensive productivity.   In 2019 the Huskies allowed over 41 points and 467 yards a game, primarily against AAC foes.  Aside from the opener against Wagner, the Huskies only held one other team under 31 points the remainder of the year. 
  3. Finding some wins.  Holy Cross at home and UMass on the road.  Aside from those games it is hard to see any game the Huskies will be favored to win.  Maybe the year off helped and this team will surprise? 

New Mexico State (5)

What to know:

New Mexico played two games against FCS foes in the spring of 2021 after sitting out the 2020 fall campaign, finishing 1-1.  Since leaving the Sunbelt, the Aggies have gone 6-20 with three of those wins against FCS opponents.  Doug Martin is back for his eighth season at the helm of the Aggies and there is hope he can find a way to get start the rebuilding process for an Aggie program that has had only 4 winning seasons in the past 30 years. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Complete rebuild.  New Mexico State returns only a single starter from their 2019 team.  There wasn’t much help in the transfer portal, so the Aggies have relied on incoming freshmen and JUCO transfers.   It will be an odd mix of talent that takes the field in the season opener. 
  2. Where are the wins?  Dixie State (the Aggies beat them by 7 in the spring) and perhaps UMass to close the season?  Trips to Alabama and Kentucky will be deflating, at best.  With seven other games against Mountain West foes, this shapes up to be a long season.    
  3. Run defense.  The Aggies must find a way to stop the run.  After giving up 6 yards a carry in 2019, the Aggies surrendered 5.1 yards a carry to the two FCS teams they played in the Spring.  If they can’t stop the run, it will be a long, long year. 

Massachusetts (5)

What to know:

Massachusetts played four games in 2020.  Their fans probably wish they hadn’t.   The Minutemen were outscored by a whopping 148 points in their four games.   They never led in a game and were tied (after the kickoff) only once.   

3 things to watch:

  1. Offense production.  Passing?  122 yards a game.  Rushing?  67 yards per game.  That type of production won’t win games.  It begins with the offensive line getting a push to help the running game and providing whoever plays QB time to complete some throws.
  2. Run defense.  The Minutemen surrenders over 370 yards per game in 2020.   Only offensively challenge Florida Atlantic failed to break 250 yards rushing against the UMass defense.   Getting some stops and giving the offense a chance to do something will be a priority for 2021. 
  3. Get your wins when you can.  UMass will likely not be favored in any of their first 8 games.  There is a winnable game against UConn, but little else.  FCS Rhode Island and Maine fill slots 9 and 10 in the schedule and represent the best chance for wins.  UMass has to capitalize when it has the chance to begin turning the program back in the right direction. 

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