Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Army Football Preview: 5 Things on a Bye Week

We’re off this week, but the blog has been picking up readers, and I don’t want to lose momentum.  So these are my thoughts.  Gonna try to do this “5 Things on a Friday” style, with the implied task being to somehow keep this monster under 2,000 words.

Read on, friends.  Adventure awaits!
1. Sports Modeling & P(Wins) Comparison
ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) has not much cared for Army’s last two wins, especially this past week’s overtime miracle against struggling Temple.  What’s interesting about that is the ways in which FPI disagrees with Football Outsiders’ S&P+ modeling, which did like Army’s win over Temple.  Quite a bit, in fact.
Army's P-Wins vs. Opponents, Week 8.  Note: S&P+ will not be a permanent addition to this chart.
Both models use Offense, Defense, and Special Teams performances to build composite “power ranking” scores, but the models themselves work in very different ways.  ESPN tends to work a bit closer to the way that I do.  They take average performance and weight it according to strength of schedule, developing a model that becomes self-reinforcing over time.  By comparison, S&P+ takes more of a Monte Carlo approach, examining every drive/play individually and comparing it to similar plays across college football to see if your team is performing above or below expectations on a drive-by-drive basis.  The drives themselves serve as “runs” in the Monte Carlo analysis.  S&P+ therefore liked the big, statistically improbable come-from-behind victory last week while FPI has punished the Black Knights twice for failing to cover the expected spread against opponents with poor records.
In general, both models like Army’s offense, have been moderately positive about its special teams, and dislike its defense.  This is why I keep showing point differential and P(Wins), too.  Ultimately, it’s not the yards that matter, it’s the points.
The issue at hand is that Army’s defense has given up too many big plays.  That makes sense, though, considering the number of injury and academic losses the team has taken in its secondary, and more to the point, the general problem of recruiting kids with both size and speed to the Army Football team.  Army has gotten beaten deep by superior athleticism a few too many times.  However, they’ve played much better in goal line and short yardage situations, which is why the team’s point differential continues to look good, even after two close wins.
The difference is not academic.  If you don’t beat the Army defense for a long touchdown, your odds of actually getting into the end zone really kind of suck.  This was an important point on Saturday against Temple, and it stands in contrast to both Air Force and Navy, who feature offenses that are at least as prolific as Army’s but also defenses that give up a lot of points, even in comparison to their offenses’ relative successes.
2. Potential Bowl Opponents
Until this past weekend, I was under the impression that Army would face an opponent from the Big 10 in the Armed Forces Bowl.  I’d even done a little advanced scouting, thinking that we’d see either Purdue or Minnesota and decided that my personal preference was for the Boilermakers.
It turns out, however, that we’re looking at an opponent from C-USA.
C-USA contenders in order of my personal preference.
Per the list above, my personal preference is for Marshall, followed by Southern Miss.  Given geography, however, a matchup against UT – San Antonio seems much more likely.  The Armed Forces Bowl is in Ft. Worth, Texas, so UTSA seems the easiest regional draw, and oftentimes that’s what drives bowl invites below the Power 5/New Year’s 6.  As a matter of preference, however, I personally would still prefer to face the more storied Thundering Herd.
What’s weird in all this is the spread difference between S&P+ and the power rankings from FPI for the top teams in C-USA.  FPI would make Duke a 6-point favorite against Marshall while S&P+ would put the Blue Devils as a 6-point underdog.
Weird, right?  I think this tells us that the C-USA teams are playing very well in their own divisions but don’t necessarily have the horses to compete with the big boys.  Certainly, that is what ESPN and the powers of college football would like for us to believe.  However, this is again the kind of self-reinforcing logic that drives Group of 5 fans crazy and serves to make college power rankings a thriving cottage industry.
3. Marketing & Ticket Sales
With the exception of this past Saturday’s game against Temple, Michie Stadium has been generally undersold this season.  It’s bothering me, especially since my beloved Bridgeport Bluefish closed shop at the end of the summer due to lack of interest.  I talked to my buddy Chris, and he assures me that you guys will find this interesting, so here goes.
Warning: I am not a marketing guru.  However, I took a handful of marketing courses at Fordham’s B-School during my MBA, and if you’ve learned nothing from this preview series, you should at least know that I’m always willing to try my hand at another man’s career specialty.  I like to think of myself as a talented hobbyist, regardless of subject matter.
What I remember of marking can be summed as follows:
Value Proposition.  Know why people buy your product.  Sell that thing.
Repeat Customers.  It’s easier and cheaper to keep current customers than to get new ones.
I’m not convinced that Army Athletics is doing either particularly well.
Army Sports’ current campaign is “It’s Closer Than You Think”.  
As in, “If you have absolutely nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, why not drive up to West Point?  It’s closer than you think.”  The problem being that it’s closer to New York City*, and NO ONE in New York has nothing to do.
Really?  How far to Ruby Falls?
Epic fail.  I mean, EPIC.
New York is “the city that never sleeps”.  There is always something to do.
I've seen these a lot on Metro-North.
I’ve thought for years that New Yorkers would love to support Army Football once the team improved, but now the team has improved, and yet we still haven’t seen an overall bump in attendance.  However, I still believe the local market could embrace college football at Army, especially considering that the alternatives are basically unappealing.  Rutgers is in New Jersey (and bad), UConn is in Hartford (and also bad), and Fordham is in the FCS.  
Fordham at least had the right idea with this year’s slogan, “New York’s college football team”.  West Point, home to the fabled “Black Knights of the Hudson,” needs to find a way to tap this same regional connection.
In my capacity as an Army Football Season Ticket Holder, I’ve taken a lot of people on their first trips to West Point.  Without exception, they all say the same thing: “This is the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen!”  Or: “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my entire life!” 
What no one says ever is, “I can’t believe how close this was to your house.”
Because really, who cares?  We’re gonna tailgate and walk around.  The game itself will be three hours at least, plus the march on and the parachute jump.  We’re gonna be on post for pretty much the whole day regardless.  It’s either worth it, or it’s not, and twenty minutes’ drive time isn’t going to change the basic value proposition one way or the other.
West Point, mountainside riverine fortress with three routes of ingress/egress and fully a dozen satellite parking lots, is definitely not selling convenience.  What they’re selling instead is a one-of-a-kind patriotic football experience, featuring a bowl-eligible nationally-renowned team, peerless mountainside scenery, and the greatest student body in the entire world.
Somehow, we need to get that on the poster.
Concept sketch.  I'm sure an actual marketer could do better.
Now we need to find a way to get people to come back after their first visit.  This mostly exists as a challenge to improve game day convenience.  West Point has done a lot of work improving traffic flow, so I’ll reserve judgement on that part of it.  However, they definitely DO still need to work to get the word out to casual fans about arriving early and tailgating.  That’s not necessarily an easy fix, however.  Besides an email that most newbies probably won’t read, I’m not sure how you tell the intellectually incurious and uniformed the following:
“Security at West Point is a pain in the ass, and although we are doing our best, there are still limited routes of entry, multiple security checkpoints, truly remote satellite parking, and a complicated system of color-coded shuttle buses.  It’s not our fault!  This place was built on legitimately defensible terrain 100 years before the invention of the automobile.  Given the conditions, we strongly urge you to get here early to avoid traffic, tailgate with your favorite food and beverage, and leave yourself plenty of time for the walk/ride up to the stadium.  It’s totally worth it, but it takes patience and a bit of planning.  Alas, our graduates have both qualities in abundance, so they probably haven’t noticed your personal discomfort with the hills, nor will they understand why you were late for kickoff.
“It’s nearly impossible to get here at the last minute and catch a game.  Don’t be that guy!”
A guy in my office complained about the traffic, security, and required walking after a game last year, and I surprised to the point of shock.  I said, “How can you get to Thayer Gate at 11:00 and expect to catch kickoff?”  But he didn’t know any better, nor did he ask around or do any research ahead of time.  
Amazingly, this is how most folks live their entire lives.  It’s a problem for Army Athletics in the sense that they absolutely must manage expectations and information flow in order to get repeat customers for football games.
4. Navy drops a second game
Navy lost to UCF last weekend.  This was not a huge surprise.  UCF has the 20th ranked football team nationally.

I bring it up mostly because QB Zack Abey finally got hurt.  They’d been running him 30+ times per game, so really, it was only a matter of time.  He’d carried 25 times in just a little over a half of football when he went out with a concussion, having taken a shot to the ear-hole.  That brought up his backup, QB Garret Lewis.
For what it’s worth, I liked the Mids’ offense a little better with Lewis in there.  He kept the team moving and distributed the ball a bit more evenly across the various branches of the triple-option.  The Mids’ fullbacks got more work, and Lewis threw okay.  They had a fumble on an option-pitch, but UCF was forcing errors all over the field.  I mean, the game was relatively close during the entire contest, but I never thought Navy had the better team, and they wound up losing by ten.
5. Initial thoughts on Air Force
Good offense and a great quarterback, but they’re particularly young on defense, and they’ve given up a ton of points.  If we were playing at home, I’d be reasonably confident.  On the road, well, Air Force is a tough place to play.
The early line is even.  That sounds about right to me.
That’s all I’ve got.  Enjoy the bye week!

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*To be fair, Army has a decent fan following Upstate and in the capital region around Albany.  I've seen more random Army Football gear in sports bars near New York's capital than I ever have in NYC.  However, the City itself remains an untapped resource.

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