Monday, May 23, 2016

Army Football Preview: 2016 Season (Part 3)

We spent the last two weeks previewing the opening two-thirds of Army Football’s 2016 season.  After looking briefly at the various opponents, we predicted that Army would open somewhere between 4-4  or 5-3 over the season's first eight games.  That's not bad considering where we've been these last few years, but because of a scheduling quirk, only the 5-3 start truly sets Army up for a run at a bowl game.

It's time to finish strong.

Air Force

Last season: The Falcons went 8-6, finishing first in the Mountain division of the Mountain West.  They got trucked by Navy, though, and they lost to Cal in the Armed Forces Bowl by a score of 55-36.
Current Goal: Win the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy and a bowl game.
Air Force currently sits 74th on the FPI, with a raw score of -0.2.  They have the pieces to finish better than that, though, but only if their best quarterback can stay healthy.  Quarterback Nate Romine is one of the better throwers the Falcons have fielded, but he took a bad knee injury last season, and his backup wasn’t able to get the ball out as effectively to the rest of Air Force’s playmakers.  Air Force plays Army on the road late in 2016, so there’s probably a 50/50 shot that Romine plays.  If he does play, I would expect the Falcons to put up a lot of points.
Against this is the memory of last year’s Air Force game, probably the worst game of the season for the Black Knights’ offense and for quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw in particular.  Coach Monken played it extremely conservative in Colorado Springs, I think hoping for a close game that he could win on a last second miracle.  Army took a beating instead, moving the ball poorly and slowly getting pounded into submission by the Falcons’ triple-option.
Can one year and a change of venue make that much difference?
I want to believe, but it’s tough.  Army hasn’t beaten Air Force much—ever—and in this game in particular, the triple-option isn’t the threat that it could be.  Air Force knows Army’s offense very well indeed, and what’s worse is that they themselves run a version of it that takes advantage of Army’s weaknesses in a lot of telling and creative ways.
If Army opens 4-4, then this will be a game that they need.  Ironically, the version of this squad that’s 4-4 is much less likely to win.  On the other hand, a 5-3 Army team would carry the confidence to compete, and in their own building, that could make a huge difference.  Either way, this ought to be a more competitive game than it has been.
Works Cited: ESPNGazette

Notre Dame

Last season: The Fighting Irish went 10-3 but lost to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Current Goal: Win a National Championship.
Army makes a Blood Sacrifice to the Football Gods every year.  This year, that sacrifice is made against Notre Dame.  Oddly, this is an Army home game played as a neutral site contest at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, Texas.  San Antonio!  

Okay, so West Point has about 50,000 living graduates, a substantial percentage of whom are established somewhere in the great state of Texas.  I get that.  Clearly, somebody back at Army HQ is trying to bring football to the people where they actually live.  No problem.  However, Texas is a big-ass state.  The Alamo Dome may very well be the closest large stadium available to the soldiers of Fort Hood, America's largest Army base, but it's still more than two hours drive from San Antonio.  It's even further from Dallas and especially Houston, where grads working in the energy sector have mostly settled.  There are lots of those, but still...  The Alamo Dome seats some 72,000 fans.  If we assume that half of all living West Point graduates reside in Texas, and that they will ALL make the drive for this game with their spouses, that still won't fill the venue more than about half full.  Hell, they could probably deploy every soldier at Ft. Hood to this game in uniform and not quite fill the stadium to capacity.  That would be quite an amazing visual spectacle, though.

Anyway, FPI has the Fighting Irish ranked 20th overall at +14.9.  Wow!  Yes, they’re losing some guys to the draft, but they also have one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in the country.  Oh by the way, they absolutely trucked Keenan Reynolds and last year’s historically fantastic Navy squad.  Let’s assume that Army drops this game and move on, yes?
Works Cited: ESPNMore ESPN

Morgan State

Last season: The Bears went 4-6, finishing in the middle of the FCS Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC).
Current Goal: Run a competitive FCS program.
Army’s last home game is the polar opposite of its contest against Notre Dame.  Morgan State fields a middling FCS squad that had ten players suspended last season due to academic violations and which also featured multiple players getting stabbed.  All else aside, it’s hard to see how they improve in their conference with that kind of recent history, much less win an FBS game on the road.  Imagine trying to recruit after a season like that.
Just as I disagree with Army’s playing Notre Dame in Texas, so too do I disagree with scheduling this game.  Morgan State isn’t a historic or local rival like Fordham or one of the Ivies would have been, and having this game on the schedule makes it harder, not easier, for Army to get to a bowl game.  Remember: bowl eligibility requires six wins, and only ONE of those can come against an FCS opponent.  Scheduling Morgan State here may help Army get right before facing Navy, but in all other ways, it’s indefensible.  
If the Athletic Department wanted to schedule another FCS game, they should have put Harvard, Princeton, or Yale back on the schedule.  I can see the argument for putting West Point up against its historic rivals from the Ivy League and the gentlemanly days of college football.  I don’t understand why we need to see the Black Knights play a middling team from the MEAC, especially late in the season.
Works Cited: ESPN


Last season: The Midshipmen went 11-2 behind would be Heisman Trophy candidate Keenan Reynolds and an offensive squad that featured eleven seniors.  Navy finished second in the American Conference West and won the Military Bowl, defeating Pitt 44-28.
Current Goal: Beat Army.  Stay competitive in the American Conference despite losing the entire starting offense to graduation.  Retain the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy and bowl eligibility.
Navy currently sits 81st overall with a raw FPI score of -2.2.  I won’t belabor this game too much, but with all of the new starters Navy’s got coming in, that FPI score strikes me as somewhat generous.  The coming Army-Navy game is therefore Army’s best chance in years.  
Keenan Reynolds is gone, and he took his entire starting offense with him.  His backup is okay, and Navy has had a bumper crop of O-Line recruits in recent years, so I don’t think the program is necessarily going to fall off a cliff or anything.  Still, let’s not fool ourselves about Reynolds.  The guy was a physical phenomenon, and if he didn’t play particularly well against Army in 2015, he was nevertheless more than capable of transcendent play when his team needed it.
Just as I’m not sure what to expect from Army in 2016, Navy is something of a mystery as well.  In an ideal world, the squads will come into this year’s game relatively evenly matched, with records that put them about on par as far as expectations are concerned.  I don’t know if that’s what’s likely to happen, and for that reason, I think it’s a little early to talk predictions, but…  
If you’re looking for a good bet in Vegas right now, take Army and the points[1].  If nothing else, I expect this will be a close game.
Works Cited: ESPN

So.  If Army starts 5-3, then they need to beat Morgan State and Navy in order to get to a bowl game.  If they start 4-4, they’ll need to do that and find a way to beat Air Force, too.
All told, I would feel better about the coming season if that North Texas game were on the road, and Army faced Buffalo or UTEP at Michie Stadium.  As it is, I think Army could win seven or even eight games.  However, after last year’s repeatedly frustrating failures and inconsistencies, I’ll be happy with incremental positive progress and more in the way of concrete hope for 2017.  With that said, anything less than five wins in 2016 has to be considered a severe disappointment.

As a final note, I understand why Navy plays Notre Dame every year.  The schools are tied together in history, with Notre Dame having contributed significantly to the Navy's war effort during World War II.  That kind of rivalry is good, and it's defensible even in the face of repeatedly uneven contests.  Army also has some historic ties to Notre Dame--in football history, at least, if not necessarily in defense of the nation--but the corresponding big-time college football program for West Point really ought to be Texas A&M.  An A&M at Army game would certainly fill the Alamo Dome.  I'm not sure that Notre Dame at Army will.

[1] I’ve said this every year, and it’s been a good bet every year since Monken took over as Army’s head coach.

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