Who needs a conference affiliation? College football will again field four Independent programs - Army, BYU, Navy and Notre Dame. Some thought with the Big East in shambles and the new college football playoff coming in 2014 this might mark the end of Notre Dame's reign as an Independent, but instead it is Navy who will join the Big East in 2015. For this season, though, the Independents still have a few fantasy diamonds to mine.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
1. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame - Eifert is the nation's top tight end and finds himself in a fruitful situation for fantasy production this year. Michael Floyd's departure means Eifert, who caught 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns last year, could see even more targets as uncertainty plagues the receiving corps. And questions at quarterback could make Eifert Mr. Reliable for whoever is under center.
2. Cody Hoffman, WR, BYU - Hoffman is on an absolute roll. He's scored 16 touchdowns in his last 18 games and had nearly one a game (10 in 13) last season. Riley Nelson proved a reliable quarterback after taking over the job last season, giving Hoffman a chance to surpass 1,000 yards receiving after coming close last season. And at 6-foot-4, 215, Hoffman should again be used in the red zone and at the goal line, ensuring his touchdown production continues.
3. Riley Nelson, QB, BYU - Nelson is a duel-threat quarterback who replaced Jake Heaps last season and never looked back. He threw for 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns last year while rushing for nearly 400 yards and a score. It won't take much for both his passing and running totals to increase significantly this season. He has two standout receivers in Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo, and Michael Alisa will keep defenses honest in the running game.
4. Cierre Wood, RB, Notre Dame - Wood rushed for more than 1,100 yards and scored nine touchdowns last season and could be relied upon even more this season. Notre Dame's quarterback situation is not the picture of stability entering the season with Tommy Rees suspended for the opener, which could mean the Irish lean heavily on Wood, at least at the outset. Even if Rees regains the job, the passing game might take some time to find its footing as, outside of tight end Tyler Eifert, the receiving crew is not impressive.
5. Raymond Maples, RB, Army - Army led the nation in rushing last season, and Maples will lead the charge again this year. Maples, on the preseason watchlist for the Doak Walker award, rushed for 1,066 yards last year on just 146 carries (a Army record 7.3 yards per carry). Quarterback Trent Steelman steals the goal-line carries, and thus the touchdowns, but Maples likely will improve on the four scores he had last season. Steelman's also an injury risk because of his rushing workload. If he goes down, the goal-line work likely falls to Maples.
Michael Alisa, RB, BYU - He might not be a name everyone recognizes now, but most soon will. Alisa's would-be backfield partner, Josh Quezada, transferred, so the load is now all Alisa's. He ran for only three touchdowns and 455 yards last year but should get a lot more touches this year, considering the team's 2011 leading rusher, the departed J.J. Di Luigi, carried it 116 times. Moreover, defense likely will gameplan to stop BYU's solid passing game, leaving Alisa room to run.
Ross Apo, WR, BYU - Apo had only 34 receptions last season, but nine went for touchdowns. BYU likes to throw, and fellow receiver Cody Hoffman will garner the defensive attention. That could open things downfield for Apo, who averaged 13.3 yards per catch last season. More stability at quarterback this season with Riley Nelson will also help. Apo is in a good spot for weekly fantasy production.
John Goodman, WR, Notre Dame - Goodman is the veteran of an unproven receiving corps that needs someone to step up following the departure of Michael Floyd. The fifth-year senior will get the chance to be that man. Notre Dame has a number of middling receivers who could emerge at some point this season, but Goodman looks like the surest thing entering the season. Someone has to catch passes in coach Brian Kelly's spread offense and it can't always be tight end Tyler Eifert. Goodman is definitely a fantasy risk, but his situation (spread offense, little competition, not Floyd) gives him upside.
Marcus Mathews, TE, BYU - Mathews only caught 27 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown last season, but he's the top tight end in a stellar BYU passing game. He could be the third option for quarterback Riley Nelson after Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo. And at 6-4, 234, he could make his presence felt in the red zone and at the goal line. He's a deep sleeper, but tight end is a wasteland in the college fantasy world, and Mathews could emerge with consistent targets.
Tommy Rees, QB, Notre Dame - Missing games is never a good thing for your fantasy numbers, and Rees isn't helping his cause by being suspended for the first game. Rees isn't exactly a proven force in the first place, which makes his hold on the starting job tenuous at best. If Week 1 starter Everett Golson impresses in the opener, Rees could be left sitting longer than originally thought.
Trent Steelman, QB, Army - Steelman is one of the nation's best rushing quarterbacks, but he does so little as a passer that he's not worth your time in the fantasy realm. Yes, he rushed for 12 touchdowns in nine games last season, but he passed for only three. Even if he continues to hog the goal-line carries - no sure thing - it's unlikely he'll hit even 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. What's more, all that running leaves him vulnerable to injury. He missed three games last season, parts of three others and spring practice to injury.
Malcolm Brown, WR, Army - Brown was a big-play running back (7.1 YPC) in a crowded Army backfield last year who had difficulty getting his number called. So, the Black Knights converted him to wide receiver where they hope his explosiveness is better served. He had 12 receptions for 255 yards and four touchdowns last season, showing his potential. The problem, of course, is Army's option offense rarely throws - just 97 attempts last season. Even if the Black Knights take to the air more, and even if Brown is the No. 1 target, and even he makes big plays with his athleticism, it likely won't be enough to make a fantasy impact.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
Army Black Knights
RB Raymond Maples (72)
QB Riley Nelson (19), RB Michael Alisa (42), WR Cody Hoffman (16), WR Ross Apo (36), TE Marcus Mathews (39)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
RB Cierre Wood (24), TE Tyler Eifert (1)