Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Army Football Preview: 2015 Season Overview

We’re two weeks from the start of college football, so now’s the time to preview the season.  Next week we’ll take a more detailed look at the opener, but I want to walk through the schedule first, lay out some thoughts, and maybe make a few cautious predictions.  If you’re new to Army Football[1], then hopefully this will serve as something of a primer.  If you’ve seen it all before, well, maybe there’s some news down at the bottom once we get into the games themselves.  Regardless, with new every football season, hope springs eternal.  Where we go from there is anybody’s guess.
Everything that Army Football does is predicated on the size of its linemen.  On offense, the team runs the triple-option because the triple-option’s zone blocking scheme allows Army the best chance of success against larger opponents.  All of Army’s linemen are routinely required to pass standard Army physical fitness tests, which include two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run.  That run can be tough for linemen.  In addition, all of Army’s players have to take and pass a full slate of Engineering pre-requisites including Chemistry, Physics, Statistics, and yes, even Calculus.  This is a substantial change from what’s required elsewhere, even at good schools like Duke and Stanford.  These things together tend to hamper Army’s efforts to keep big men up front, and the tendency of linemen to lose weight during Beast Barracks and Camp Buckner don’t help.  As a matter of reality, road marching and playing O- or D-Line are challenging but antithetical kinds of high-performance exercise.  Within these limitations, the triple-option allows at least the possibility of success, especially against slower teams.  Army has spent much of this past offense trying to build team speed.  Much of the team’s success depends on how successful that effort proves to have been.
In military terms, the triple-option is an envelopment.  It starts with the Fullback Dive, which is a fixing attack designed to hold the main force of the defense in place by threatening the defense’s center.  If the quarterback doesn’t hand off to the fullback, he can then keep the ball, running what we might think of as a shallow penetration off-guard or off-tackle.  If the defense has committed to the center, the quarterback will have a running lane to one side, and this can sometimes result in big gains.  If the defense commits to both the center and the shallow penetration, the quarterback pitches to the tailback, who will then have a lane on the outside.  This is what military folks would think of as the main effort since it has the best chance of going for long yardage.  
The Triple Option, courtesy of Wikipedia
Option 1: the QB hands off to the Fullback.  This is the Fullback Dive.
Option 2: the QB keeps the ball.  This is the Quarterback Keeper.
Option 3: the QB pitches the ball outside, usually to the Tailback.
Sometimes the defense will sell-out to defend across the entire line of scrimmage, at which point the quarterback ought to read the coverage, keep the ball, and drop back to throw (behold, my father’s favorite strategic maneuver, the Vertical Envelopment).  Army doesn’t pass often because its line is not typically stout enough to provide much in the way of pocket protection, and when it does pass, it doesn’t typically do so with great efficacy, but because of the nature of the offense, successful passing plays often go for big yardage.  By design, an Army pass ought to catch the defense totally flat-footed.  Air Force is very good at managing triple-option passing, but neither Army nor Navy has nearly the same level of proficiency most years.  Take that for what it’s worth.
On defense, Army plays a 3-4.  This is a nose tackle, two defensive ends, two inside linebackers, and two outside (rush) linebackers.  Like the offense, the defense succeeds based on speed and its ability to bring pressure from unexpected directions.  Army doesn’t typically have a lot of size on defense, so it has to swarm to the ball.  This often results in decent play early, but last year the defense broke down towards the end of most games.  In evaluating the defense, it’s also worth noting that Army had good play from its cornerbacks last year but questionable play from its safeties.  Rice in particular threw all over Army in the middle of the field.  Before Army beats anybody with real talent, the team will have to get this corrected.
Team Outlook
Coach Jeff Monken and his staff are in their second season, but this is only their first full recruiting class.  This year’s class is large and comparatively talented—particularly in comparison to the other service academies—but it’s unrealistic to expect new plebes to contribute immediately.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some plebe starters by the time Army takes on Tulane, however.
ESPN currently has Army ranked 124th of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).  Of the FBS teams on Army’s schedule, only Eastern Michigan is ranked lower, and considering that the Eastern Michigan game is away, it’s hardly a gimme.  In fact, Army is favored in only two games this season, vs. Fordham and vs. Bucknell.  Fordham and Bucknell are both Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools, so even if Army wins both games, only one of those wins will count towards the six it needs to attain bowl eligibility.
ESPN is currently predicting Army’s record at 3.7 – 8.3, meaning that the total over/under on wins is four.  That would match last year’s performance, which was good but by no means great.  The difference between 4-8 and 7-5 last season was a missed field goal at Yale, a fumbled pitch at Wake Forest, and a divinely inspired late timeout by Navy.  Against that, though, Army was lucky to get a late interception to seal an improbable victory against UConn at Yankee Stadium.  I enjoyed last season quite a bit, but if the Army team is going to take the next step, it has to find a way to keep its defense from getting gassed late in games, and its offense has to eliminate stupid mistakes and turnovers.  Those two things absolutely killed Army in 2014.  The defense looks better this season, but the offense hasn’t yet shown very much.  All things considered, that has me worried.
Season Preview
Week 1: vs. Fordham.  This promises to be one of the better games of the season.  Fordham is an FCS school, but they’ve made it to the FCS playoffs for the past several years in a row, and they have about the same level of talent as Army.  Like West Point, Fordham is a historically significant football school.  Vince Lombardi played at Fordham, and he got his start in coaching at Fordham before coming to coach at the Academy.  
Vince Lombardi has ties to both West Point and Fordham.
His West Point coaching sweater made headlines last year when it went up for auction.
What to watch?  Army ought to win this game, but if the offense struggles, that could mean trouble.  On the other hand, if the defense is greatly improved, Army will win big.  Fordham has a good passing attack, but it’s that rare team with players no larger than Army’s.  How Army does will be an interesting indicator of what we can expect from the season to come.
Week 2: at Connecticut. UConn went 2-10 last season, and there’s no reason to believe they’re better now.  ESPN has them at 118 of 128 nationally, predicting a record of 3.4 - 8.6 in the American Conference.  Their defense is not bad, but the offense has really struggled, and Army ran all over them at Yankee Stadium.  If that happens again, Army may truck them in their own building.
What to watch?  Army hasn’t won an away game since 2010.  This game is winnable, especially if Army can get good pressure from its offense on the outside, but if the offense makes a bunch of stupid mistakes, we could be in for a long season.  Bottom line, if Army wins, it’s okay to start hoping for a step-change in the football team’s performance.  If the team loses, and the offense looks like crap, we’re in bad trouble.
Week 3: Wake Forest.  Army played well against Wake Forest in 2014, and they have every chance of winning in 2015.  Like UConn, Wake Forest has struggled to manufacture points.  ESPN has Wake at 86 of 128 with a predicted record of 4 – 8 in the ACC.  This is a home game for Army, and the team can win if it plays good, consistent offense and keeps its defense from getting gassed.  
What to watch?  Two issues: turnovers and the defense’s performance in the fourth quarter.  The Demon Deacons are a bigger team.  Will Army get gassed, or can they hang tough for sixty minutes?
Week 4: at Eastern Michigan.  Army dropped games at Yale and at Kent State last season.  Those losses were terrible.  Army beat Eastern Michigan by something like thirty points at home two years ago.  This year, it needs to win on the road.
What to watch?  What kind of team is this?  Can it travel and win, or is it a perennial doormat every time it leaves Michie Stadium?  Army should beat Eastern Michigan.  A loss here would be disastrous.
Week 5: at Penn State.  Army puts an elite team on its schedule every year in order to give its best players a chance to get some tape against elite competition.  Those games bring in revenue, but they suck for alumni.
What to watch?  Don’t watch this game.  Take the weekend off and do something else.
Week 6: Duke.  According to ESPN, Duke is the #62 school in FBS college football, predicted to go 6-6 in the ACC.  Out of 128 teams, they are almost exactly average.  By comparison, ESPN expects Army to lose by 17.2 points to an “average” team on a neutral field.
What to watch?  If Army wins its first four games, then it’s okay to watch this game as a litmus test for the rest of the season.  Duke is undeniably a better team, but Michie Stadium offers a significant home field advantage.  A good performance here could potentially mean a lot.  On the other hand, if Army struggles early against teams it ought to beat, this game won’t mean squat.
Week 7: Bucknell.  The homecoming game.  Army’s gonna beat FCS Bucknell by fifty.
What to watch?  The triple-option on a day when everything is working perfectly.
Week 8: at Rice.  I don’t see any way that this game is watchable.  Rice is only ranked 96 of 128 (predicted 6-6 record in Conference USA), but the team has a lot of big players, especially tight ends, and they smoked Army last year in their own building.
What to watch?  I’m skipping this game.  Ugh.
Week 10: at Air Force.  After a bye week, Army heads to Colorado Springs to take on Air Force.  The Zoomies are currently ranked 104 of 128 according to ESPN (predicted record 5.3 – 6.7 in the Mountain West), but they have owned this series, and it’s tough to play in their house.  With luck, this will be a heated rivalry in a few years, but I doubt we’re there yet.
What to watch?  Air Force runs a really interesting version of the triple-option.  Watch this game to see how Army’s defense handles it as we look towards Navy.
Week 11: Tulane.  Tulane is currently ranked 90th of 128 by ESPN (predicted record 6 – 6 in the American Conference).  I haven’t done any research for the game yet, but I expect this to be a good one.  I have it circled on my calendar as one to which I might take family and friends.
What to watch?  In the best reasonable scenario, Army wins its first four games, drops a close one to Duke, struggles on the road, and then refocuses for a late season push at home.  This, then, could potentially be the team’s fifth bowl-eligible win.  It could be a very important game.
Week 12: Rutgers.  Rutgers always seems to beat Army by fifty.  When I was a cadet, this game was often played in Giants Stadium, and it was always an ass-whooping.  I don’t have high expectations.  ESPN has Rutgers at its 79th team, predicting a 4.8 – 7.2 finish in the Big Ten.  I’ve never been a fan of the Scarlet Knights, and I doubt I ever will be.
What to watch?  The play of the plebes.  Some ought to be starting by this point.
Week 15: Navy.  Two bye weeks, and then we get to the big game.  Army-Navy is the college football game.  Not because it has significance to the military but because both teams play 100% real student-athletes who will go on to contribute in material ways to American society outside of football.  Army-Navy is what big-time TV money has stolen from the rest of college football, what college football can never get back now that it’s sold its soul.  That pure part of the game exists exactly one place, and it’s here.
What to watch?  In the ideal scenario, Army wins this game and becomes bowl-eligible.  That would be an amazing thing.

Next week: We take a closer look at the Fordham game!

[1] I refuse to call it “Army West Point”.  The school is the United States Military Academy at West Point, and it is the nation’s oldest, most prestigious service academy.  Cadets from West Point are commissioned into the Army, hence “Army Football”.  West Point is “Army”.  By comparison, the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis is “Navy”.  The United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs is “Air Force”.  These names are used interchangeably, especially Army/West Point and Navy/Annapolis.  
West Point’s recent change to “Army West Point” was an attempt to clear up confusion amongst the Great American Public (i.e. everyone who’s not a member of the West Point community), but even Academy spokesmen will tell you that the new lingo is not for use in general conversation.  Historically, West Point’s teams have been “Army Athletics”, and that is the usage I prefer.


  1. I'm not the biggest fan of college football, but I would totally watch Army with you. XD

    1. It's fun. The football itself is strictly a purest's version of the game, but the experience of being at the Academy, seeing the cadets, old classmates, and everything else is always a good time. If you're ever out here during football season, definitely let me know, & we'll go to a game.