Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Army Football Preview: First Look at 2018 (Part 1)

Groundhog Day has passed, and so has National Signing Day.  And though Lacrosse season has only just started, I know there are at least a few of you out there who can’t wait for Army Football to open their 2018 campaign.  The good news is that the Black Knights look to have a pretty impressive class headed to the storied banks of the Hudson River this summer.  The bad news is that we have more than six months to go before we see the team back on the field for games that actually matter.
What’s next for Army Football?

To be honest, I don’t love next season’s schedule.  It’s possible that Army could be as successful in 2018 as they were in 2017 based on their opponents list, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily likely given the way this schedule is constructed.  Moreover, even if the Black Knights do manage to win nine or more regular season games, they’re still likely to face the kinds of strength of schedule issues that hurt them at the end of this past season.
Heading into 2018, we have questions along the O-Line, at quarterback, at wide receiver, and in critical spots across the defense.  Army is losing a lot of upperclass leadership.  However, this is a team with a lot of young talent as well, and spring camp will go a long way towards answering at least some of the burning questions.  Regardless, I expect Army’s offense to be a bit more varied in 2018 than they were this past season, though that may well take some time to shake itself out.  Let’s therefore start with the schedule and wait until spring to talk about any of the team’s potential position battles and would-be schematic changes.  
2018 Army Football Opponents: 2017 Wins, P(Wins), FPI, and Bowl Results.

Week 1: at Duke.  I like that Army plays Duke.  You meet a lot of everything when you work in Manhattan, but some schools are over-represented, and Duke is one of them.  Duke grads tend to be successful, put-together people, which is a big part of what’s made this a low-key but very real football rivalry since at least the 1950s.  Army needs to play some Power 5 teams given the current structure of college football, and Duke in particular is a worthy opponent because the Blue Devils also face legitimately strong academic requirements.  For example, they also have to take Calculus to graduate.  They also happen to need this game as badly as Army does because they face an in-conference rivalry with Georgia Tech, for which the Army game often serves as a tune-up.
But.  I don’t love that Army is playing at Duke in the first week of the season.  The Blue Devils (7-6, 3-5 in the ACC Coastal) have opened strong the last several years in a row before fading as the season progressed.  Their offense uses a lot of option concepts, and honestly, it can take a few weeks for all that pounding to take its toll on their quarterbacks.  Worse yet, Army will (presumably) be starting a new quarterback whereas Duke will return rising junior Daniel Jones.  Jones was electric in their bowl win over Northern Illinois.  He’s losing his starting running back and three starters along the O-Line, but he’s returning his top three wide receivers and ought to play better overall in his third collegiate season under center.  Really, this Duke team has the potential to be a Top 25-caliber opponent.
Can Army beat Duke?  Yes.  Would this matchup be better suited to later in the season?  Also yes.
I double-checked, and yes, the
Flames' mascot is a bird.
Week 2 vs. Liberty.  Liberty (6-5, 2-3 in the Div 1-AA Big South) was called “Jerry Falwell University” when I was a kid.  After winning the Big South Championship eight times since joining the conference back in 2007, they are finally making the transition to the FBS starting in 2018.  They shocked underperforming Baylor to open last year’s campaign and finished with a winning record, but I still think they are in for a rough ride.  The Flames have gone just 6-5 in each of the last two seasons, and their strength-of-schedule is about to increase exponentially.  
Liberty opens against Old Dominion at home in Week 1 before heading to Michie stadium for Week 2.  They get a reprieve afterwards with Norfolk State, but then they have North Texas at home followed by a road trip to New Mexico and then New Mexico State.  So if the Flames can’t stop the run, they’re liable to struggle mightily.  Oh by the way, the play at Auburn late in the season.
I am not overly surprised that Liberty’s athletic department wanted to put Army on their inaugural FBS schedule, but this contest should still be a mismatch.  Really, Army ought to beat these guys like government mules.
Week 3 vs. Hawaii.  I always expect the Rainbow Warriors to be better than they are, but they haven’t actually been good since former Titans OC Norm Chow did away with the team’s once-potent run-and-shoot offense during his brief stint as Head Coach.  Alas, Chow’s pro-style scheme didn’t fit his players’ skill sets, and although he was fired mid-season in 2015, the Rainbow Warriors have yet to recover.
Hawaii went 3-9 in 2017 (1-7 in the Mountain West-West) with wins over San Jose State, FCS West Carolina, and FBS roadkill UMass.  Of perhaps more immediate relevance is Hawaii’s Mountain-West rivalry with Air Force for the heralded Kuter Trophy, symbolizing the eternal friendship between the U.S. Air Force and the State of Hawaii.  The Rainbow Warriors have held the trophy since their double-overtime victory at Air Force in 2016.  It’s worth noting that the Falcons won the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy that year.
Given that they have Air Force as in-conference (but not in-division) rivals, I would expect Hawaii to be reasonably well-versed in Army’s offense, especially as the Black Knights ran it in 2017.  However, this game offers an extreme case of collegiate football traveling, and that’s got to be a concern.  It is notoriously difficult to go from west to east to play an early game, and all other factors aside, I think that matters.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a 3:30 kickoff, but even then, the Warriors are bound to be a little jetlagged.
I expect this game to be competitive, but Army ought to get a win here at home.
Week 4 at Oklahoma.  Army’s going to win its annual blood sacrifice game one of these years, but it’s hard to believe that 2018 will be the year.  The Sooners went 12-2 (8-1 in the Big 12), and although they’ll lose Heisman Trophy winning QB Baker Mayfield (thank God), they won’t regress that much.  Consensus heir apparent QB Kyler Murray might only be 5’10” or 5’11”, but he’s a five-star athlete with a very good completion percentage who’s also a threat to run the ball.
For the optimists: the Sooners had the 42nd ranked rushing defense in 2017, allowing 466 carries for 1,874 yards (4.02 yards/carry; 144 yards/game) and 19 rushing touchdowns.  The 2017 Army Football team probably could have made something out of that.  However, 2018 will be a different year, and more to the point, it’s hard to imagine Army winning a shootout in Oklahoma.
Week 5 at Buffalo.  The Buffalo Bulls have quietly become one of college football’s most improved teams.  Proof?  They went 6-6 this year (4-4 in the MAC East) with wins over FAU and Ohio and an epic, heartbreaking 71-68 loss to Western Michigan after eight (!) overtimes during which they didn’t even have their starting quarterback.  Tragically, the Bulls weren’t invited to a bowl game.  That was a shame.  I really wanted to see a Rocket City Bowl featuring Buffalo and UTSA.
The Bulls may not be a perennial powerhouse, but this is a tough game to schedule immediately after Oklahoma.  Buffalo’s defense was very stout against the run last year, especially along their oversized interior D-Line, and QB Tyree Jackson is a rising junior.  He gashed Army last year for multiple big plays.  If he can stay healthy, the Bulls ought to have a Hell of a season in 2018.  They’re not that far away from contending for a MAC title.
On the plus side, Buffalo plays at Rutgers the week before this game.  A win there would be a big confidence booster coming into the Army game.  It’s also possible, however, that both teams come into this game a bit banged up.
Both teams have to consider this a winnable game.  It’s also an increasingly important regional recruiting rivalry as well.
Week 7 at San Jose State.  San Jose State is that rarest of college campuses, available only in the great state of California, in which collegiate swimming and water polo hold arguably higher places in the public consciousness than does collegiate football.  Granted, everybody has a swim team.  But SJSU has not just a men’s water polo team, they also have women’s team as well.  That’s impressive.
Since I know you’re wondering, yes, I love water polo.  But the nearest Master’s team is all the way out in Stamford, and those guys are annoyingly serious.  My desire to occasionally throw the ball around in no way equates to a willingness to regularly drive all over creation for competitive adult tournaments in Upstate New York and New England, especially when the other players will undoubtedly have spent more time in the pool than I have.
Anyway, the SJSU Spartans went 2-10 in football last season (1-7 in the Mountain West-West), with a win against FCS Cal Poly and a shocking upset over Wyoming to close out their season.  One would think that this is a winnable game, but SJSU Head Coach Brent Brennan will be in his second year with the program, so at least some improvement seems likely.  That improvement potential was limited at the end of 2017, however, by the departure of OC Andrew Sowder for the same job at Kent State.  Rising sophomore QB Montel Aaron was already just a 56% passer with 8 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.  It’s not impossible that he improves with the installation of a new system, but it’s not hard to imagine a regression of performance, either.
Still, this game introduces an unfamiliar opponent on the West Coast, so anything is possible.  Often that’s a net positive for Army, especially considering that SJSU had one of the worst rushing defenses in the country in 2017, but this is more a game that the Black Knights should win than one that I necessarily expect them to win.  The Spartans have seen Air Force’s offense enough times to have an idea of what to expect from Army, and traveling all the way out to the West Coast has rarely benefited the Black Knights over the past twenty-plus years.
* * *
The MAC continues to make up a significant portion of Army’s overall schedule, but the 2018 season sees a notable shift away from Conference USA and towards the Mountain West.  I don’t know that this necessarily portends a better strength of schedule going forward, but it definitely brings some unfamiliar opponents.  I’ll be curious to see if that--and Army’s recent success--also leads to fewer noon kickoffs as well.
Army likely outperforms if they can get an opening week win against Duke.  By contrast, if the Black Knights drop a game against Liberty, Hawaii, or San Jose State, the team may yet wind up struggling down the stretch.  Bowl eligibility is hardly a given with the way this season’s schedule is laid out.  Army needs to get off to a fast start, so that they can take momentum into their second half contests, many of which promise to be much more challenging than the tilts against Liberty or San Jose State.
Next Week.  We’ll look at the back half of the schedule and talk a little about what makes post-season play a potentially uphill climb.

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