Monday, May 9, 2016

Army Football Preview: 2016 Schedule (Part 1)

This week we continue our pre-summer look at Army Football’s 2016 season.  In this post, we’ll preview the first part of the schedule and begin setting expectations.
Army's 2016 Schedule.
One would ordinarily divide a twelve-game season into quarters or thirds, separating the season into manageable three- or four-game chunks.  Given the way Army’s season opens, however, I’ve decided to take the first five games as a block.  The theme in the early going is playing well on the road, which is what Army is going to have to do if the coming season is to represent the step-change in performance that we all hope and expect to see.

ESPN released its Football Power Index (FPI) rankings last week, setting Army in 97th place out the 128 total teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).  Army has a raw score of -7.7.  This means that the network's computer model expects the "average" FBS team (#72 Oregan State, if you're wondering) to beat Army by 7.7 points in a neutral site game when all other factors are taken as equal.  Given Army's schedule, however, this FPI predicts a 6-6 record overall.  

That would certainly be an improvement over previous seasons.  However, preseason FPI rankings are notoriously inaccurate, and anyway, that finish would still leave Army out of a bowl game and last in the race for the Commanders-in-Chief's Trophy.

Week 1: at Temple

Last Season: Temple tied a school record with 10 wins, finishing first in the American Athletic Conference East but losing to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl.  I watched that game, and yes, they got trucked.  Overall, Temple played very well last season, but that bowl loss rankled, and they finished third in conference play behind eventual winner Houston and newcomer Navy.
Current Goal: Win the American conference and a bowl game.
Temple currently sits 65th on the FPI, with a raw score of +1.7 points.  I expect they'll play better than that.  The team is losing at least three players to the NFL on defense but returns its quarterback and a host of three-year starters on both sides of the ball.  They are also reported to have one of the best recruiting classes in the Group of 5 plus Independents.  Added to this, the Owls generally start their seasons fast.  They beat Penn State decisively in the opener last season and looked damned good doing it.  
For Army to have any chance in this game, the Black Knights will need to take advantage of Temple’s new starters on defense and play better than they have overall in several years.  Army is improving, but this is a tough way to start the season, especially on the road in Philly—in the Linc, no less—against what will be a massive hometown crowd.
Works Sited: Owl SportsESPN

Week 2: Rice

Last season: Rice finished last season 5-7, third in Conference USA-West.  Considering that the Owls went to bowl games the three previous seasons, that has to be considered a disappointing finish.
Current Goal: Get back to a bowl game.
How weird is it that Army’s first two opponents are both Owls?
Rice currently sits 114th of 128 in the FPI, with a raw score of -12.0.  That is terrible.  Given the way they've played the last few years, it also seems needlessly pessimistic.  Coach David Bailiff recently named senior QB Tyler Stehling the Owls’ starter following his club’s spring game.  Previously the team’s backup, Stehling went 24/48 for 320 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs last season.  That’s not an overwhelming performance, but the Owls also boast two running backs on their roster who each averaged more than 5 yards/carry in 2015.  It therefore seems likely that they’ll open the season with a run-first offense.  It may also be worth mentioning that Rice is in the midst of building a massive new football facility, which will presumably help dramatically with recruiting.  The facility is set to open before training camp, but it’s hard to see how it’ll make much of an impact before Army’s home opener.
This is an important game for both squads.  Army needs to get a win early, both to build confidence for the new season and to set a base of success before its three-game road trip.  This game could be made to order against a new starting quarterback and a presumably run-first offense, but there are no guarantees.  Army’s veteran linebackers should show up big-time, but Rice torched Army’s secondary over the middle two years ago at Michie Stadium, and they held on to win late in last year’s game as well.  If you’re Rice, and you’re looking to get back to a six-win season, you’ve no-doubt circled this game as an important building block on your quest to regain respectability.
If Coach Monken’s squad is finally going to turn the corner this year, they need to start at home against Rice.  If Army gets blown out of its own building—again—I’m going to lose a lot of faith in what otherwise ought to be a promising season.  Army needs to stop the run, hold onto the ball on offense, and generate turnovers with their secondary.  If they can do all of that, they can win this game.
Works Sited: ESPN

Week 3: at UTEP

Last season: UTEP finished last season 5-7, fourth in Conference USA-West.
Current Goal: UTEP installed a new offense over the offseason and will have a new quarterback.  Of course, the goal is always to make it to a bowl game, but it’s hard to say at this point exactly what would constitute success for the coming campaign.
UTEP currently sits at 122nd on the FPI, with a raw score of -15.9.  However, former Fresno State quarterback Zack Greenlee recently transferred to UTEP and looks to have the inside track on the starter’s job.  If he doesn’t start, then surely incumbent backup Mack Leftwich will.  Leftwich finished last season 105/192 for 1,228 yards, 9 TDs, and 3 INTs.  That’s excellent.  My cursory glance through UTEP’s fan site indicates that the team is going to a spread offense—not something that the Black Knights see every day.  It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out and how UTEP’s defense copes with the smash mouth triple-option that Monken showed in the Black and Gold game.
I want to say that this is a winnable game, but it’s tough.  UTEP recruits at about the same level as Army, but the school is a long way from West Point, and Army doesn’t always travel well.  In fact, up until last season’s game at Eastern Michigan, Army hadn’t won a road game in a half-decade.  However, last year’s road play was at least as good as the play at home, and this year’s team looks to match up a better against an offense like the spread than last year’s squad would have by quite a bit.  Army has a bunch of really good young cornerbacks and an aggressive corps of linebackers.  Meanwhile, the spread is usually mean to outrun a defense, but against Army, you’d really rather try to wear them down with size and power.  
I honestly can’t say how this game will turn out, but an Army win here would be huge.  Is this a ball-hawking secondary?  It certainly could be.  A few ill-timed throws in a new offense coupled to a successful triple-option attack could get it done, but how well can Army execute?
As always, that’s the question.
Works Sited: Mine RushESPN

Week 4: At Buffalo

Last Season: The Bulls finished last season 5-7, fourth in MAC-East.
Current Goal: Establish the offense.  Build a squad that can successfully recruit in order to begin building long-term success.
Buffalo is currently 111th on the FPI, with a raw score of -11.1.  The Bulls are yet another squad without an established starting quarterback, though graduate transfer Grant Rohach from Iowa State looks to have the inside track.  He went 13-for-17 for 118 yards and 4 touchdowns in the Bulls’ spring game, a game dominated by the offense.
Buffalo struggles by virtue of its location.  The coaching staff is stuck recruiting mostly in New York State, and if that gives them some quality kids over the course of a very large geographic area, it’s nevertheless a long way from football’s true heartlands.  The current recruiting class is small but has five three-star athletes.  This gives the team a very different makeup from Army, which has a lot of recruiting depth but often struggles to find premier talent.
Two years ago, Army held on to beat Buffalo at home in Coach Jeff Monken’s first game as head coach.  The current Army team is light-years ahead of where that one was, though last year’s record didn’t necessarily show it.  This is definitely a game that Army can win, particularly if they can hold on to the ball and play well against the pass.
Works Sited: UB Bulls.ComESPNBull Run

Week 5: Bye

Week 6: At Duke

Last Season: Duke went 8-5 but only 4-4 in conference play, netting them fourth place in the ACC Coastal despite a very impressive start.  Last year’s squad had one of the nation’s top defenses.  The Blue Devils finished the season on top, winning the New Era Pinstripe Bowl 44-41 over Indiana.
Current Goal: Improve in conference play via an improved pass rush.  Make the jump to perennial college powerhouse.
Man, this is a tough game.  Duke currently sits 54th on the FPI, with a raw score of 4.4.  That's about where they finished last year, but it doesn't exactly tell the story.  The Blue Devils mounted a truly elite defense last year and flat-out destroyed Army at home.  They lost ten players to graduation, including at least one NFL draft pick at safety, but they return twenty-three players on offense and twenty-one on defense overall.  They won't be a young squad by any means.  With Coach David Cutcliffe at the controls, it’s doubtful that they’ll suffer much in terms of play on the field, either.  
Like the other teams on this list, Duke is looking for a new starting quarterback.  Incumbent senior Thomas Sirk tore his ACL tear during offseason conditioning, making Duke’s offense something of a question mark.  Backup Parker Boehme went 43/78 for 579 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT last season, so it’s not as though they don’t have anybody with live game experience, however.  Given Cutcliffe’s history developing quarterbacks, I expect Duke’s offense will function just fine.
Works Sited: Go Duke.ComESPN
As I noted in the opening, this is a tough way to start the season.  Army usually plays a smattering of smaller schools from C-USA and the MAC, with the occasional ACC or American conference school thrown in for variety.  2016 doesn’t deviate from this pattern, but it takes some of the better schools on offer, particularly from the American conference, and this could wind up being a big deal.
To put it another way, Army usually has one or at most two super-tough games, one or two FCS games, and a host of “winnable” games against minor FBS programs.  One of the tough games is usually played against an ACC team like Duke in the regular rotation, and the other is a game I think of as Army’s annual Blood Sacrifice to the Football Gods.  This is made against a major college program like Stanford or Penn State.  As it happens, Duke and Navy both wound up being better than Penn State last year, but this was most certainly not what the schedulers had in mind when they drew it up.
2016’s Blood Sacrifice comes against Notre Dame—on the road at the Alamo Dome for some unfathomable reason, though it’s technically an Army home game—but the games against Duke and Temple could easily wind up being just as challenging, and they’re both on the road.  That’s tough.  Meanwhile, Air Force also has a very good program, and there are still two FCS schools on the schedule, Lafayette and Morgan State, only one of those wins counts towards bowl eligibility.
Reality is that this could be a very tough season, and that’s still true even if Army improves dramatically.
FPI templates six wins, but I'd rather set the over/under at seven, which is what the Black Knights will need to reach bowl eligibility given its two FCS opponents.  Assume wins against Lafayette, North Texas, and Morgan State, noting as we do that only two of those three count towards Army’s bid to reach the Armed Forces Bowl.  We now need to find five more wins, and here’s a hint—it’s almost impossible without victories at UTEP and Buffalo.
This early season stretch is critical, and it takes place mostly on the road.
Best Case Scenario: Army goes 3-2, pulling out a tough win against Rice before winning at UTEP on turnovers and at Buffalo on the strength of its ball-control triple-option offense.  The team makes few mistakes, giving them a chance to win even in tough spots.
Official Prediction: Army goes 2-3 on the strength of its defense, especially its secondary and linebacking corps.  The offense plays better, but injuries, youth, and occasional turnovers make it hard for the Black Knights to reach their full potential.
Pessimistic Prediction: Army goes 1-4, and if the defense looks better, the offense is more of the same.  Turnovers plague the team, but a spark of optimism remains amongst the Army faithful.
Next week… Army turns the corner!

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