Thursday, June 8, 2017

Army Football Preview: The 2017 Season (Part 3)

Welcome to Part 3 of our preview of the 2017 Army football season, in which we break down the last part of the season and talk just a bit about 2016’s special teams play.

In case you missed it, part one of this series is here.  Part two is here.

Special Teams
Army’s special teams were fucking miserable in 2016.  This showed up most obviously in the place kicking game where Army went an astounding 50% on field goals of all distances and managed to miss extra points with alarming regularity.  Punt and kick returns weren’t all terrible, but we still saw a half-dozen or so fumbles on returns, and though punt and kick coverage was generally decent, every single punt that Army put in the air was still something of an adventure.  Even on kickoffs Army was as apt to put the ball on the opponent’s thirty as they were to reach all the way to the end zone and thereby force the other team to drive the full length of the field.
Given that Army runs a decidedly non-explosive, ball-control offense, reality is that punting, covering punts, and kicking field goals are critical components of the Black Knights’ game.  To this end, Coach Jeff Monken and his staff have spent the offseason working hard to find some new legs, but after last year’s struggles, it’s hard to believe they’re going to find an easy fix.  Army put itself in a hole at times last season with its kicking woes, woes which occasionally cost the team games.  In the end, the missed field goal at the end of the Buffalo game almost cost the team its bowl bid.  That’s a serious problem.

The Black Knights will need to rectify all of this in order to take the next step.
2017 Season Preview: Part 3
November 4th – at Air Force.  Air Force lost a lot of key players this past year, but it still seems like there’s more hate for the team’s prospects than is in any way warranted.  SBNation projects the Falcons’ record at 4-8 (116th) while FPI has the Zoomies at 92nd overall (-9.1).  Granted, the Falcons lost almost all of their linemen, most of their defense, and Academy record-holding wide receiver Jalen Robinette.  That’s a lot of experience, and Robinette in particular represents a lot more talent than can be easily replaced by “the next man up.”
But.  If you saw last year’s Army-Air Force game, you already know that Air Force has a terrific—and so far unbeaten—quarterback in Arion Worthman.  Worthman and Robinette collectively were the reason that Air Force won their last game against Army.  I can’t count the number of times that Army Defensive Coordinator Jay Bateman had the right defensive call on the field, but Army’s linebackers just couldn’t close with the quarterback before he threw an intermediate pass—on the run—to Robinette.  Worthman absolutely killed the Black Knights despite what was an otherwise decent performance from the Army team, especially on offense.  Reality is that even if Army knows what it needs to fix in order to change the dynamic of this series, they still need to put together a team that’s athletic enough to make this plan happen on the field.  That’s not as easy as it sounds, and Air Force has an excellent track record year-over-year.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
And yet.

The real loser of last year’s Army-Navy game was the Air Force Academy.  In a world in which there are only so many D1-caliber players who can qualify to attend true top-end universities, Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Ivies exist collectively in a zero-sum game.  Smart, service-minded kids all over the country saw last year’s Army-Navy game, and regardless of which side they favored, they thought, “That’s The Game.  I want to play there.”
Of course they did.  Who wouldn’t?
Army held the recruiting advantage over Air Force this year for the first time in my personal memory.  I can’t help but wonder if some of this is down to the leadership problems that the Air Force itself is having across the force, or if high school kids even care about that sort of thing.  Regardless, it won’t be easy to go into Falcons’ stadium and beat the Zoomies on their own turf, but I believe it can be done.  Maybe the Black Knights do it this year, and maybe they don’t.  As long as current recruiting trends last, it’s only a matter of time.
November 11th – Duke.  The Blue Devils regressed last year following the preseason loss of their projected starting quarterback.  Into the breach stepped then-freshman Daniel Jones, and if he didn’t necessarily light it up from his first play under center, he nevertheless played well enough to lead his team to a win over Notre Dame and to mark himself as the obvious quarterback of the future.  Now Coach David Cutcliffe is working to enhance the receiving corps that’s going to make Jones look good, and if history is any guide, he’s very likely to succeed.  Cutcliffe, after all, is the man who taught Peyton Manning how to be Peyton Manning.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
FPI puts this year’s Duke team at 52nd (+2.4) while S&P+ tracks them at 65th.  Speaking personally, I think 52nd is closer to their floor than their ceiling, especially considering that defense has been the strength of the Blue Devils’ team these past few years.  If they develop a dynamic offense to go with their previous core strengths, then watch out!
The flipside of that, though, is that Army fans will know their Black Knights have truly turned the corner when they finally beat a Duke team at the height of their full strength and power.  Like the Temple game last year, this would be a signature victory.
November 18th – at North Texas.  Army fans have seen North Texas twice in the last twelve months, so I don’t want to belabor this matchup too much.  The Mean Green are a very similar team to Army in the sense that both have been historic D1 doormats who’ve succeeded in rejuvenating their programs under dynamic new head coaches.  
As of this writing, FPI ranks North Texas 125th (-15.6) while S&P+ has them 106th.  Last year’s team only won five games, so at least statistically, this doesn’t seem like a huge drop.  However, last year’s North Texas team opened hot before fading down the stretch due largely to injuries.  And yeah, injuries are a part of football, but recent history still suggests that the Mean Green could easily outperform expectations.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
This is a game that Army should win, but it’d be wrong to expect anything other than a straight-up dogfight.  Since this will be the third Army/North Texas matchup in a little over a year, expect the Mean Green to be more than ready to deal with Army’s triple-option offense.  Thus, there will be no surprising North Texas.  To win, Army will have to be the better team on the field.
December 9th – Navy.  There’s a lot of football to play between now and the second Saturday in December, so I don’t want to get too deeply into this particular matchup.  However, Navy lost almost all of its offensive starters last year—and their backups—and its defense was never better than mediocre despite the Mids’ impressive overall record.  This is important because Navy’s particular brand of the triple-option is a Hell of a lot more dependent on downfield passing than is Army’s, but where Will Worth and Keenan Reynolds were both very accurate with the football, QB Zach Abey is a career 20/35 for 352 yards (57.1%) with 1 touchdown against a whopping 4 interceptions in just two starts.  
We might expect Abey to improve, but then again, so might QB Ahmad Bradshaw.  If you’re Navy, the better play would be to lean more heavily on FB Chris High, but so far, Coach Ken Niumatalolo has shown little willingness to do that, even when his quarterback is throwing picks.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
This year’s contest is at the Linc in Philly, and it’s technically an away game.  That means that Navy will be in its home Blue & Gold while Army will be in visitor’s white.  I’ve been wondering if that means we won’t get a tribute uniform like we got from Nike last year via the now iconic 82nd Airborne uniforms.  
Speaking personally, I’d like to see a 3rd ID “Rock of the Marne” variant to honor my first unit’s performance in World War I, but though I can imagine this working in grey, tan, or even light green, it’s hard to see how they’d do it with jerseys of pure white.  But again, what do I know?  Nike’s got teams of actual designers, and I expect they made enough money off the 82nd Airborne jerseys to justify repeating the experiment.  
Here’s hoping, anyway.
Bonus Preview
December 23rd – The Armed Forces Bowl.  This is Army’s official bowl tie-in and a game in which the Black Knights are scheduled to be the Home team.  In theory, this game will match a winning Army program against an opponent from the Big 10, a team which will presumably have around six or seven wins.  Last year, the possibilities would’ve included Indiana, Maryland, and Northwestern.  Of these, I think the Black Knights might’ve matched up successfully against Indiana considering that Wake Forest beat Indiana pretty handily, and Army beat Wake Forest.  However, I suspect that Maryland and Northwestern would’ve been tough outs.
For what it’s worth, last year’s armed Forces Bowl saw the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs beat Navy in a very exciting back-and-forth contest.  In 2015, Cal beat the scunion Air Force, 55-36.  Army last played in this bowl in 2010, beating SMU 16-14 in another very exciting contest.
Can the Black Knights get back to another bowl game?  
It sure would be nice if they did.
* * *
Works Cited
“Armed Forces Bowl: Our History,” ArmedForcesBowl.Com. 
Bill Connelly, “2017 Air Force football should remain steady in the most exciting ways possible,” SBNation: College, April 11, 2017. 
Bill Connelly, “There is no set of expectations Navy and Ken Niumatalolo won’t defy,” SBNation: College, April 28, 2017. 
Dan Lamothe, “Checkpoint: The Air Force fighter pilot shortage is already a crisis — and it could soon get worse,” The Washington Post, August 10, 2016.
ESPN, “Army Black Knights FPI – 2017,” ESPN. 

Steve Wiseman, “Duke receivers shine during spring work,” The News Observer, March 4, 2017. 

No comments:

Post a Comment