Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Army Football Preview: 2017 First Look (Part 1)

College football season is over, alas, and now we've got the long wait until Spring Practices.  Army ended on a winning note but also raised expectations substantially for next season.  With that in mind, let's take a quick look at the coming schedule.

Via GoArmyWestPoint.Com.

Army has a good schedule in 2017.  We've got most of Army's recent opponents list, minus an ascendant Wake Forest team that would have been a tough out this year, with several teams coming off seasons similar to Army's.  Though there is every reason to hope for continued success, the Black Knights will need to play better to achieve even the same results overall.

Week 1: Fordham.  The Fordham Rams (8-3, 5-1 Patriot League) are coming off a typically strong year, though any season that sees Fordham outside the FCS Playoffs isn't super-successful.  

Army's rivalry with Fordham is one of my favorites for a couple of reasons.  First, I did my MBA at Fordham and am therefore an alumnus of both schools.  Second, both schools have excellent, long-established football history.  Finally, Army and Fordham share history with the greatest coach in football history, Vince Lombardi.  Lombardi played his college ball on Fordham's O-Line and did his first coaching for the Rams.  He then came to West Point, where he became an assistant coach.  In fact, had the United States never founded a Naval Academy, I dare say that Fordham would be Army's chief rival.  As it is, however, the Rams play Holy Cross for the Crusader Cup every year at Yankee Stadium.

With firstie Ahmad Bradshaw leading the offense in his final season, Army ought to win this game handily.

Week 2: Buffalo.  Army lost a miserable game on the road at Buffalo this year amidst a flurry of penalties and sloppy play.  Coming off three straight wins, this was a classic trap game, and Army fell straight in.  Despite that win, Buffalo finished just 2-10, 1-7 in the MAC.

I expect QB Tyree Jackson to improve substantially in his sophomore season, but this is still a game that Army ought to win.  A lot will depend on how much better Army's secondary is able to deal with Jackson's quick passing game over the middle of the field.  Army fans may also remember Jackson running the Read-Option as well.

Week 3: at Ohio State.  Every year, Army schedules a game that is a kind of blood sacrifice to the Gods of Football.  Three years ago, it was Stamford.  Then Penn State.  Then Notre Dame.  Army happened to play well against Penn State, but beyond that, these games tend to be an exercise in misery.  To make matters worse, the Buckeyes are coming off of one of the most successful seasons in school history.

Army Head Football Coach Jeff Monken said after the Navy game that his goal is to get Army to the point where they can compete against any team in the country.  I expect the 2017 edition of the Black Knights will be significantly improved over the 2016 edition based on the number of rising upperclassmen, but this particular game will be an acid test of Monken's progress towards his stated ambition.

Week 4: at Tulane.  The Green Wave finished 4-8, 1-7 in the American Conference-West.  They beat up on American doormat UConn to end their season, but beyond that, it's been a while since Green Wave fans had much to cheer about.

This year's Tulane team played decent defense but had trouble moving the ball and scoring points.  The Green Wave lost 3-7 to Wake Forest and 21-14 to Navy, and then things started to get ugly.

Army ought to win this game, but it's not going to be an easy road trip, especially coming off a tough game at Ohio State.  Injuries may well be an issue next season based on the design of this schedule, in which case, we ought to start seeing them right about here.

Week 5: UT-El Paso.  The Miners just finished a truly miserable season.  They went 4-8, 2-6 in Conference USA-West, and had very little to cheer about.

The good news for UTEP is that All-American running back Aaron Jones is a junior.  If he comes back for his senior season, he could be a force--and potentially spearhead a turnaround.  The bad news, though, is that Jones already has the interest of pro scouts, and although a successful senior season might see his draft stock rise, another mediocre campaign probably won't help.

If I'm Jones, I declare for the draft.  Running backs already have a limited shelf life, and really, why play for free if you don't have to?  However, people make strange decisions, and Jones may hope a solid senior season can put him into the First Round.  That is certainly possible.

After their 66-14 drubbing this year, there is no way the Miners come in sleeping on this game.  I'll call it for the Black Knights right now, but a lot of things could affect this game between now and game day, and really, it's tough to destroy a team two years in a row.

Week 6: at Rice.  Rice is another team coming off a miserable season.  Though in recent years the program has been much improved, 2016 saw the Owls crash back to earth, going 3-9, 2-6 in Conference USA-West.

Rice turned to freshman QB Jackson Tyner towards the end of their season (32/67 for 318 yards [47.8%], 2 TDs, 1 INT), and there's little doubt that he'll be better next year.  Still, Rice lost to nearly everybody this season, with a defense that was ranked 125th of 128 FBS teams.  They may well be better in 2017, but at first glance, this looks like a multi-year rebuilding project.

* * *

The issue with this schedule isn't the teams that Army has to play.  Of the games listed above, the Ohio State game is the only one that isn't eminently winnable.  Instead, the issue is potential injuries.

Army has a bye week scheduled before the Air Force game, and it has its traditional two-week bye before the Navy game.  That's good because it puts emphasis on Army's most important games.  However, getting there requires the Black Knights to play eight games in a row, culminating in the game against Temple at Michie Stadium.  Navy started to see significant injuries on its squad after eight straight games, and though I like the emphasis on Commander-in-Chiefs' games, injuries will be a significant danger for the Black Knights headed into 2017.  Having an experienced squad will help mitigate the risk, but the front end of this schedule is going to be a long, hard slog no matter which way you look at it.

Also worth noting is that this is the first season in many years that will feature just one FCS game.  That's good in that it significantly improves Army's bowl chances, and based on the way the team has gone under Coach Monken, 2017 was probably the right year to make the jump.  This season will also see the Class of 2019 in their cow seasons, their first as team leaders, and I expect that will mark a MASSIVE improvement in overall team play.  To put that another way, this will really be Coach Monken's team.  He'll have recruited nearly everyone on it, with increased talent across the board as a result.

Next week, we'll look at the back half of the schedule, talk a bit about specific position to watch in Spring Camp, and maybe make some predictions.


  1. Good overview. Some nitpicks:

    Fordham and Holy Cross do not play at Yankee Stadium every year.

    UTEP's Aaron Jones declared for the draft about a week before the posting date of this preview.

    1. Thanks for the updates. I saw the advert for the Crusader Cup on the train ride home & thought it was an annual thing. Too bad. I really liked watching football at Yankee Stadium.

      Good news about Aaron Jones. Smart decision.