Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Army Football Preview: First Look at 2018 (Part 2)

We mentioned last week that a slow start could potentially make it tough for Army to earn a post-season bowl berth in 2018.  That’s true.  First, because the team has two FCS games again this year, and only one of those potential wins will count towards bowl eligibility.  Second, because bowl invitations typically go out before the Army-Navy Game.  As a result, Army will need at least five FBS wins heading into the Navy game plus at least one FCS win in order to make it into the postseason.

Even then, there are no guarantees.  We saw a handful of six-win teams miss out in 2017, and Army is without a bowl tie-in contract this year.  Theoretically, that means this team could finish with as many as eight wins in the regular season—including a win over Navy, which wouldn’t count because it came too late, and two FCS wins—and still not receive a bowl invitation.  Granted, that scenario seems unlikely.  Still, an Army team with five unimpressive FBS wins that somehow drops miserable losses to teams like Buffalo, Hawaii, or Eastern Michigan is hardly a lock to be invited anywhere.
Army’s second half schedule presents a series of contests that could easily give the Black Knights problems.  Every non-Patriot League opponent has a decent amount of returning talent and strong incentives for improved play following uninspired 2017 campaigns.  In each case, a victory over Army would go a long way towards soothing last year’s disappointments.
2018 Army Football opponents overview via 2017 records, P(Wins), FPI, & postseason results.

Week 8 vs. Miami (OH).  Miami of Ohio is typical of the teams Army faces in the back half of its 2018 schedule.  The RedHawks went 5-7 last year (4-4 in the MAC East), successfully accomplishing their goal of becoming more competitive in the MAC.  They got solid wins against Buffalo and Akron among others and lost a close contest to Eastern Michigan late, and they did it with an extremely young team, boasting just ten seniors and a junior quarterback.  But they still wound up posting a losing record.
The team should improve dramatically in 2018.
Miami QB Gus Ragland went 11/21 (55.6%) for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns in the RedHawks’ final game of 2017, a victory over struggling Ball State.  It will be asking a lot to get Ragland from a career 56.0% completion percentage to something closer to 60%, but even so, Miami has to be considered a potential contender in the MAC East given that they’ll boast a senior quarterback and a lot of returning starters.  Anything less than a bowl berth would be a distinctly disappointing outcome, though the RedHawks themselves have been up-and-down the past few years—and prone to epically slow starts that make it tough to contend down the stretch.  The fact that this game is in the back half of the season favors Miami rather strongly given their recent history.
The good news is that the RedHawks won’t have seen anything like Army’s offense prior to the game.  That almost always favors the Black Knights, especially at home.  Worse yet, the RedHawks weren’t particularly stout against the run last season, giving up 166.8 yards/game and 4.5 yards/carry.  Past iterations of the Army team have made good progress against teams with similar defensive statistics.
Barring an epic collapse on the Hudson, this ought to be a game that the Black Knights can win.  However, I expect it will go down to the wire.
Week 9 at E. Michigan Eagles.  I hated it for Eagles fans last year (5-7, 3-5 in the MAC West), but they never quite put it together.  EMU beat Rutgers behind 5th year senior QB Brogan Roback, but they were unable to capitalize.  They dropped six close games in a row before breaking through by pummeling Ball State, but by then it was too late.  They needed to run the table to reach bowl eligibility but couldn’t do it despite having plenty of talent and a legitimately excellent defense.
Roback is gone, and in his place the Eagles will presumably look to graduate transfer QB Tyler Wiegers, who served previously as a backup at Iowa.  Wiegers is 6’4” and 225 lbs and was once considered one of the best quarterback prospects in the state of Michigan.  He hasn’t seen a lot of game action at the collegiate level, however, and considering that he’s got an NFL frame, that’s not a particularly good sign.  He was just 4/6 passing (66.7%) in four years with the Hawkeyes, giving him all of 35 yards and exactly one touchdown over the course of his career.  But Wiegers has a lot to build on.  EMU had excellent receivers last year, and their running game appears to be a point of emphasis this offseason.  Assuming they maintain the same level of play they got on defense in 2017, they could take potentially a big step forward in 2018, and they might even contend for the MAC title.
As of this writing, the game has to be considered a toss-up.  If Wiegers proves to be an accurate passer, then this is gonna be a legitimately tough matchup.  If he disappoints, though, or if EMU’s defense is even marginally less stout than it was in 2017, the Eagles may yet take a step back despite the talent they’re accumulating on their roster.  We’ll know more once we get a few weeks into the season.
Week 10 vs. Air Force.  The Falcons went just 5-7 last year (4-4 in the Mountain West-Mountain) but return rising senior QB Arion Worthman along with the vast majority of their (very) young defense.  They will certainly be better, though in fairness, that Air Force defense could hardly get much worse.  More to the point, Army has gotten the better of the Zoomies in recruiting these past two years, and missing out on a bowl berth had to hurt their prospects going forward.  
As Army fans know all too well, academy recruiting can be a zero-sum game.  After decades as the go-to place for academy football, Air Force has finally started struggling.  That sort of thing can be hard to get turned around.
There is a lot of football to play between now and Week 10 of the 2018 season, so I’m hesitant to make any predictions.  Worthman is probably the best of the Academy quarterbacks, and that counts for a lot.  But Air Force’s offense never recovered from the loss of WR Jalen Robinette at the end of 2016, and if the Zoomies can’t play better defense against the run next year, they’re not gonna beat anybody.  Was last year’s performance indicative of a larger issue, or was it a one-off following the loss of an outsized number of senior starters in 2016?
Either way, this has to be considered a winnable game for the Black Knights, especially at home.  It’s not necessarily a game that we ought to expect to win, however.  A lot depends on how Air Force’s defense shakes out as well as what we get from Army’s new O-Line and quarterback.
Week 11 vs. Lafayette.  The Leopards (3-8, 3-3 in the Patriot League) are annual foes for most every Army team save Football.  We swam against them, for example, every year that I was at West Point.  Unfortunately, they’re not usually one of the Patriot League’s better teams, and this is especially true of the football team.  Army’s last contest against Lafayette exposed a team that was woefully unprepared for the option offense, and thing got ugly.
For better or worse, this game ought to be another mismatch.  Army may well hang sixty again, as they did in 2016.  Coach Monken and company should set a team goal to get every quarterback on the roster into this game for at least one full series.
Week 12 vs. Colgate.  This second FCS game was added when North Texas cancelled the second half of their four-year series with Army following their loss at the Heart of Dallas Bowl way back in December 2016.  It’s a shame because the Mean Green were a good matchup for Army, and the series itself brought some national-level interest to both teams, but what can you do?  
Colgate’s Raiders (7-4, 5-1 in the Patriot League) won the League Championship in 2017 in what has to be considered a surprising finish.  Though they struggled against non-Patriot League teams, they were almost perfect record in League play.  Preseason prognosticators had picked Fordham and Lehigh to vie for the Patriot title, but the Raiders beat Fordham handily and took Lehigh to the wire, eventually losing a shootout by just three points.  The Raiders dropped a game to Buffalo 33-10 and to Furman 45-14, but they absolutely crushed most of the teams in their actual weight class, and that was enough to earn them the title.
Colgate is likely to be a much better matchup than Lafayette, but this is still a game that Army should win.  The scores against Buffalo and Furman are more indicative of what Army should expect than are the scores from Colgate’s Patriot League contests.
Week 14 vs. Navy.  QB Malcolm Perry will be a junior.  Can he stay under center all season, or will he and firstie QB Zack Abey again split time?  I personally expect the later, but I doubt this is what Navy’s coaching staff wants or expects.
Historically, it has been incredibly hard for one team to win at Army-Navy three years in a row.  With Army’s comparative youth and Navy potentially returning a senior quarterback, this game is liable to be a very tough contest.
Bowl Season.  As I mentioned in the opening, Army doesn’t have a contracted bowl tie-in.  Despite fan preference to the contrary, my sense is that the Academy likes having the security of a pre-programmed bowl game.  In fact, AD Boo Corrigan and company would probably like to go back to the Armed Forces Bowl if possible—or to another bowl game in the great state of Texas anyway.  Coach Monken and company went out of their way to praise the bowl’s organizers after last year’s game, and this same group also owns and operates the Heart of Dallas Bowl.  But then, playing games in Texas is a good way for Army to put asses in seats.  Half the Army is stationed in Texas, alongside fully 10% of the Association of Graduates.  That’s worked out well these past two years for all concerned.
Assuming an opening week loss at Duke and a Week 4 loss at Oklahoma, Army will need to win five of the following seven to qualify for the postseason: Liberty, Hawaii, at Buffalo, at San Jose State, Miami (OH), at Eastern Michigan, Air Force.  Yes, that is doable.  It may even be likely.  However, just one misstep on the road could leave this team without much margin for error.  Buffalo and Air Force should have substantially better teams in 2018, and Eastern Michigan might too.  Army will need to win all of the games it’s supposed to win in order to maintain the standard that it set for itself these past two years, and in particular, it will need to perform well early in order to set the stage for continued success down the stretch.
It ought to be an exciting season.
Go Army!  Beat Navy!!!

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