SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Conference Previews

  Independents


Projected Records
1
  Notre Dame
   9-3  

2
  Connecticut
   6-6  

3
  Navy
   4-8  

4
  Troy State
   3-9  

Photo: Courtney Watson, Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 

SI.com's Stewart Mandel breaks down the 2003 conference race and predicts the final standings.

The Tyrone Willingham era at Notre Dame couldn't have started better, with the Irish winning their first eight games in 2002, and season-ending blowout losses to USC and N.C. State in the Gator Bowl did little to dampen spirits in South Bend headed into 2003.

Several key figures from ND's opportunistic defense return, led by Butkus candidate Courtney Watson, cornerback Vontez Duff and safety Glenn Earl. The Irish should once again be tough on that side of the ball.

But duplicating last year's 10-win performance will require a more explosive offense than the one that ranked 108th out of 117 teams last season. Quarterback Carlyle Holiday returns, but he loses top playmaker Arnaz Battle. Look for sophomore Maurice Stovall to step up in his place. And the return of 2000 and '01 leading rusher Julius Jones from last year's ineligibility gives Notre Dame a potent 1-2 backfield with Jones alongside 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Grant.

Connecticut's fourth I-A season proved to be somewhat of a breakthrough, winning six games and knocking off the Big 12's Iowa State. The Huskies, who enter the Big East next season, should produce more of the same this fall behind last year's freshman sensation, running back Terry Caulley.

Navy looks to build on last year's season-ending 58-12 blowout of Army in coach Paul Johnson's second year. Experienced quarterback Craig Candeto returns to lead the Midshipmen's triple-option offense.

And Troy State, which struggled mightily on offense last season, must rebuild its offensive and defensive lines if it hopes to become more competitive.

 
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