Thursday, May 17, 2018

Army Football Preview: 2018 Season (3rd Quarter)

We’ve spent the last two weeks talking about the first half of Army’s 2018 football season.  We said that Army’s got a chance against Duke, and we talked a bit about the strategy that might keep them competitive with Oklahoma.  It is entirely possible that this team outperforms expectations and explodes onto the national stage.  More likely, however, the Black Knights stumble somewhere early, going either 3-1 or 2-2 through their first four games.  This middle stretch, then, starting with the Buffalo game and ending with the home game against Air Force, will decide what kind of team this is going to be.
Army ought to be favored at San Jose State, but the other four games--at Buffalo, vs. Miami (Ohio), at Eastern Michigan, and vs. Air Force--will most likely be close contests.  The Black Knights were very good in close contests last season.  They will need to keep that streak alive in order to win all four of these games and take some momentum into Philadelphia and the Army-Navy game.

The Black Knights on Defense
Though it took a few games to establish starters in 2017, Army once again looks good at linebacker heading into the coming season.  Rising cow Cole Christiansen was named a captain this year after leading the defense on the field in 2017.  He’ll be joined at the position by rising firstie playmakers James Nachtigal and Kenneth Brinson.  The team needs to replace the rather significant production of OLB Alex Aukerman, who’s graduating, but if there’s one position group for which Army recruited well during the Monken years, it’s linebacker.  Chandler Ramirez has the start according to the current depth chart, but again, this may take some time to shake itself out.
The same could be said of Army’s secondary.  CBs Elijah Riley and Jalen Sharp are both returning, and if they can stay on the field, they could add some much-needed consistency to the Black Knights’ pass defense.  Similarly, James Gibson and Jaylon McClinton are also both listed as starters at safety, but I expect both will wind up playing more situationally, and that we’ll see McClinton’s would-be backup Max Regan play quite a bit as well.   Gibson in particular tends to come in as a hitter in something like a big nickel role while we’ve seen McClinton shift to cornerback in each of the last two seasons following injuries on the outside.  The good news is that all of these guys are athletic enough to fill multiple defensive roles.  Still, the team would obviously be better off with a more settled rotation.  As with linebacker, Army must find a way to replace the production of playmaking safety Rhyan England, and that’s not going to be easy.  However, Regan and McClinton both saw significant time in 2017, so the situation is nowhere near as dire as it could be.  Regan in particular improved over the course of this past season.
The real question, to me, is how Army will fill out its D-Line.  NT Ray Wright is returning, but the team will definitely miss DE Jonathan Voit.  Rising firstie DE Wunmi Oyetuga has seen some playing time, but the guys behind and around him are mostly plebes.  Army runs a blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme that relies on its D-Line holding strong at the point-of-attack in order to set up lanes for blitzing linebackers and safeties.  The play of Wright and the rest of the D-Line will therefore be critical to the team’s success, though most of those guys aren’t yet proven commodities.
October 20th: vs. Miami (Ohio)
The Miami (Ohio) RedHawks look like the most improved team on Army’s schedule.  They went just 5-7 in 2017, but that with with an 0-5 record in one-score games.  That’s the kind of thing that seems unlikely to continue--statistically, at least--though at this point it’s become something of a long-term trend.  It’s also similar to what we saw from Eastern Michigan last season, when EMU had arguably the best underperforming team in all of FBS college football.  Army beat EMU on literally the last play of the game, but it was a close contest that I’m sure Eagles’ fans felt could have gone either way.  This season’s game against the RedHawks is liable to finish in similar fashion.
RedHawks QB Gus Ragland is back, along with several key contributors on offense, but he’s still learning to work with several new wide-receivers.  That’s not necessarily a disaster, and it comes for an offense that was already very good at avoiding negative plays.  Ragland went 150/268 in 2017 for 2,032 yards (56.0%) with 19 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions.  That’s not bad, but it marked a significant regression from his previous seasons, which had seen him complete 64% of his passes in 2016 and a whopping 69% as a freshman in 2015.  Ragland also took 18 sacks last season.  Given the number of starters his team is returning on its O-Line, however, I’d expect that number to decline, perhaps by quite a bit.
The RedHawks’ defense is returning a bunch of playmaking seniors as well.  This includes multiple starters along the D-Line, at linebacker, and at defensive back.  Indeed, more than 75% of this defense will be returning, with most of those guys playing in their senior seasons.  The RedHawks’ rushing defense gave up 2,001 yards on 449 carries in 2017 (4.46 yards/carry) but just 13 rushing touchdowns.  Given their expected improvement, it looks to be tough sledding against that group in 2018.
Miami (OH) FPI: -6.1 (89th)
Miami (OH) S&P+: -2.0 (82nd)
One of the biggest challenges inherent in playing in the MAC is the conference’s parity.  Building a winning culture is difficult year-on-year, especially when you factor in Power 5 bias at the national level.  We see the strength of that Power 5 bias in the rankings above, with S&P+ making Miami a basically average team while FPI gives “average” teams nearly a touchdown’s advantage.  Both systems have Miami in roughly equivalent spots overall, so really, the disparity says more about the rankings’ design than it does about either system’s specific beliefs about the Miami as a team.
Either way, the line heading into this game ought to be about even once home-field advantage is considered.  This is a game that the Black Knights will need to win, but it’s one which will require the team’s very best stuff, especially against what ought to be a very stout rushing defense.
October 27th: at Eastern Michigan
Last year’s Eastern Michigan game was an all-time classic.  Army’s offense moved the ball with relentless efficiency, but fifth-year senior QB Brogan Roback kept his Eagles alive with a series of 3rd-and-long heroics, mostly wing-and-a-prayer passes downfield to WR Sergio Bailey II.  EMU ultimately had a chance to tie the game late, but they chose to go for two and got stuffed.  Michie Stadium went wild.  Afterwards, the Eagles became the good team that couldn’t catch a break.  Ultimately, they went just 5-7, losing six consecutive games by one score or less.
EMU might be better this year, but it’s hard to imagine that they won’t miss Roback, Bailey, and some of the other offensive playmakers they had in 2017.  They have yet to name a starting quarterback, but it looks like the job will go to either sophomore QB Isaac Stiebeling, Roback's back-up in 2017, or to Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers.  Neither has seen much game action.  Stiebeling was just 8/17 passing for 49 yards (47%) last season.  By comparison, Wiegers has gone 4/6 for all of 35 yards (67%) and a touchdown--in 8 separate appearances!--at Iowa.  Worse, the Eagles graduated four of their top five wide receivers.  Army fans ought to remember those guys.  Most of them were really good, and Bailey was exceptional.  Junior WR Matthew Sexton is the only experienced receiver the Eagles are returning, though they’ve brought in a pair of junior college transfers.  Still, that’s going to hurt.
But.  EMU returns most of its running backs, most of its offensive line, most of its defensive line, and two of its starting defensive backs.  This from a defense that was very good last season (though not against Army), particularly against the run.  The Eagles therefore look very much like they’ll be a run-first team in 2018.  I expect that they’ll look to control the clock and win with their defense.  That’s not exactly what we’ve seen from them these past two seasons.
EMU (OH) FPI: -11.2 (107th)
EMU (OH) S&P+: -6.1 (96th)
FPI and S&P+ both make Army a slightly better team right now, but that’s notably before the effects of home-field advantage.  Even so, it’s hard to see how EMU keeps this game close without the heroics of Roback and especially Bailey.  The Eagles needed multiple last-gasp plays just to keep last year’s game exciting.  Personally, I don’t think Eastern Michigan is going out-smashmouth Army without making a quantum leap in its defensive efficiency against the triple option, and we’ve not seen anything in the last few years to expect that’s coming.
Unless EMU is able to resurrect its passing attack, this looks like Army’s game to lose rather than the Eagles’ to win.  It’ll probably still be close, but this is a game that the Black Knights absolutely must have.
November 3rd: Air Force
Until this past season, it had been a Hell of a long time since Army won a game in Colorado Springs.  But the Black Knights’ return to prominence--and especially the return of the Army-Navy Game as a compelling national event--seems to have taken a chunk out of Air Force’s recruiting.  It caught up with the Falcons in 2017.  Air Force’s offense was about as good as they usually are, but their defense was terrible, and that hurt.  The Zoomies wound up 5-7 overall.  They had a couple of impressive wins, including a victory over a very good Colorado State team, but they missed the postseason for the first time in what felt like a generation.
The good news for Air Force fans is that their quarterback, rising firstie Arion Worthman, is returning.  He will be a two-year captain.  I personally think he is the best quarterback currently playing at any of the service academies.  But he could use a little help in the passing game, and he probably needs to find a way to use the Option Pitch a little more effectively as well.  Worthman kept the ball almost 38% of the time in 2017.  That made the Zoomies’ offense predictable and opened Worthman himself up to substantially increased injury risks.  Alas, the overwhelming use of the Quarterback Keeper has become a toxic effect of the inherent athleticism under center at the service academies, and that’s not good for anyone long-term.
It’s hard to predict how Air Force is going to perform in 2018.  The Zoomies have a couple of highly touted sophomore running backs, but pass protection--and the passing game in general--looked to be a work in progress during the spring game.  Air Force’s defense came up with a few picks, and Worthman himself took at least one sack.  Unfortunately, that may well push Worthman to keep the ball more, which will almost certainly hurt his team over time, even if he personally plays very well.
2017 saw the Zoomie rushing defense give up a lot of big plays.  They’re returning seven defensive starters, but the national media flat doesn’t believe because of what they saw this past season.  If Air Force can turn that around, and Worthman can find a way to distribute the ball a little more evenly across the components of the triple-option, then he and the Falcons may yet outperform.  But no one is expecting that right now, and Worthman himself had to bribe his fellow cadets with Chick-Fil-A to get them to come out to the spring game.  That’s not a great sign.
AFA FPI: -9.8 (101st)
AFA S&P+: -10.2 (112th)
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is one of those guys who's perennially rumored to be going somewhere else.  One wonders how that has affected his program.  As I noted earlier, the Zoomies’ recruiting ranks have been down over the past few years and in press conferences, Calhoun looks like a guy who frankly doesn’t want to be there anymore.  Another tough year, and the Air Force Academy may well be looking at a systemic long-term problem.
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Next Week: We spend a little more time talking about offensive distribution with the triple-option and then close out the season preview with a (very) early look at the Army-Navy game.
Go Army!

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