Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Army Football Preview: The 2017 Season (Part 1)

We’re into the doldrums of early summer, which means there’s a lot of baseball on TV but not much else.  It’s the toughest time of the sports year for me personally, though in all other ways I love this season very much.  Nevertheless, the dearth of quality sports TV gives rise to some wacky projects, not least of which is my way-too-early annual preview of the coming Army Football season.  
This preview makes use of both ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and SBNation’s S&P+ rankings.  In many ways I loathe S&P+ due its tendency to insist that Team B is better than Team A despite the fact that Team A won their game last Saturday night, but what can you do?  S&P+ is particularly bad at predicting the performance of Army Football because of the emphasis the model puts on explosive plays.  Explosive plays are exciting, sure, but they’re not exactly a staple of the Black Knights’ particular variant of the triple-option, a point that even SBNation acknowledges in its annual preview of Army’s season.  By using two data points from two independent models, however, I hope to provide a more balanced look, even if I personally think FPI has done a better job modeling Army’s particular performance in recent years.
As of this writing, FPI has Army ranked 75th of 130 teams in FBS college football (FPI of -3.2).  That rank breaks down in terms of offense, defense, and special teams, but it’s mainly based on a point differential versus a theoretically “average” team in a game played at a neutral site.  FPI is projecting that Army would lose that game by about a field goal.  By comparison, the most “average” team in the FBS is San Diego State (FPI of -0.1), which is interesting because of 130 FBS teams, SDSU is ranked 62nd—solidly in the top half.  This suggests that there are more bad teams than good.  That’s easy to prove.  SDSU posted a winning record in 2016, including a victorious appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl over a Houston team that at one point had been ranked in the Top Ten.  So if you’re telling me that Army would be just a field goal underdog against SDSU, well, that’s not too bad.
S&P+ ranks Army 102nd in the FBS, 118th on offense and 75th on defense.  This is with the caveat that even the study’s authors admit that their system does a poor job evaluating the triple-option.  
Before we go on, let’s acknowledge that not all triple-option offenses are created equal or run with the same basic philosophies in mind.  I mention this because lots of folks say that Army and Navy both run the same offense, but this is only true in the sense that they have many of the same plays in their playbooks.  However, these schools run their similar playbooks in very different ways.
Navy runs a quarterback-intensive system that puts the load squarely onto their QB’s shoulders.  A typical Navy offensive play sees their QB fake the fullback dive and then take the ball himself off-tackle for an outside quarterback-power run.  You’ll see this in probably half of their offensive snaps, with another 10% to 20% being QB-keepers that become downfield or outside throws.  It’s ironic because FB Chris High is arguably the most talented player on the Midshipmen’s offense, but he carries less than a dozen times per game with another two to three targets outside in the flat.  That is goddamned madness, but Navy made it work because they got exceptional play from QB Keenan Reynolds and—surprisingly—from backup-turned-badass QB Will Worth.  Once Worth went out, however, Navy struggled with offensive consistency, though they remained very explosive.
The Triple-Option.  Covered in detail in my preview of the 2015 season.
This is not what Army is trying to do at all.  Coach Jeff Monken has said that he wants his quarterbacks to be like basketball point guards, distributing the ball and managing the offense but not relying on what he and the coaches call “out of body experiences” to win games.  Army quarterbacks are supposed to make use of their teammates and run their system correctly.  However, Bradshaw and his team are at their best when he personally carries something like 25% of the total snaps, with the Fullback Dive accounting for fully half of the offensive output.  Indeed, a good gauge of how successful Army’s offense is in a game is in seeing how much Bradshaw has to personally carry the load.  If Bradshaw carries a lot, this indicates that Army’s opponent has successfully bottled up the Dive and taken away the option-pitch, leaving Army’s QB to take what the defense is giving him.
Army tends to run an inside power game with outside plays coming primarily from misdirection.  When QB Chris Carter is in the game, you’ll also see a smattering of short throws into the flat, while Bradshaw himself almost always looks downfield.  In theory, this ought to allow Army to run a legitimate two-quarterback system with Carter coming in to dictate occasional coverage changes to opposing defenses.  In practice, however, Bradshaw’s straight-up been the better player, which is why he’s now the team’s captain.
2017 Season Preview: Part 1
September 1st - Fordham.  The Fordham Rams went 8-3 last year behind QB Kevin Anderson and RB Chase Edmunds, both of whom are returning in 2017, though Anderson returns as a red-shirt senior grad student.  Amazingly, 8-3 might actually be considered a disappointment for the Rams, a team that’s played in the FCS playoffs frequently over the last decade or so.
Army’s matchups against Fordham have been hotly contested in the recent past with Army winning a close game back in 2014 while Fordham pulled off the upset in Bradshaw’s first start in 2015.  Last year the Rams took on Navy in the opener and got smoked.  I doubt that happens this year if for no other reason than the Rams are a lot more familiar with Army than they’ve ever been with Navy.  Nevertheless, both ESPN’s FPI system and SBNation’s S&P+ give Army better than decent odds.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
As a parting thought, I’ll note that this is one of my favorite college sports rivalries.  First because my closest rival from my swimming days swam at Fordham and second because I did my MBA at Fordham’s Graduate School of Management, making me an alum of both schools.  Speaking specifically of football, this particular rivalry is important because 1) these schools are both old-time college football powerhouses, 2) they are geographically close and compete regionally for both fans and recruits, and 3) they both share history with Vince Lombardi.
Really, I think Army should play Fordham every year.  This matchup is an ideal season opener.
September 8th - Buffalo Last year’s game at Buffalo was the one that the Black Knights would like to have back.  They put the ball on the ground far more than usual, let their offense get stymied once too often, let then-freshman QB Tyree Jackson throw all over them, and missed a last-second chip shot field goal that would have saved the game despite all of that.
Buffalo currently ranks 123rd in FPI (-15.0) and 128th in S&P+.  Their quarterback is a big guy with a lot of innate athleticism, but he’s been inconsistent as Hell.  He went 11/17 for 133 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs during the Bulls’ spring game, so it’s a little hard to say that he’s turned the corner, but at some point, we have to expect that his mental game is going to catch up with his physical abilities.  What makes it worse for Army in particular, however, is that Buffalo’s best pass catchers may well be their tight ends.  Army’s biggest defensive weakness is and has been its ability to defend intermediate passes across the middle of the field.  On top of that, Buffalo’s defense, which was dreadful last year, looks to have improved, perhaps significantly.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
Those odds mean nothing to me.  Army was heavily favored last year but still laid an egg.  Three years ago, Army got off to a fast start and then nearly blew a 30-point lead against this same team.  If there’s good news for 2017, it’s that the Black Knights won’t be sleeping on the rematch.
September 16th – at Ohio State.  This is the game where it really hurts that Army players can no longer go pro immediately after graduation.  Not because a bunch of Army players necessarily want to go pro or ever could but because such a huge percentage of high school players think they might be good enough to play in the pros given the right circumstances and therefore rule Army out before they ever even learn about the place.  That’s really who the new policy hurts the most—delusional high school athletes.  
There are a TON of those kids out there.
Reality is that though Ohio State heads into 2017 as the pre-season #1, even most of their players won’t ever make it to the pros.  In fact, 95% of college players won’t, with an additional 4.5% maybe spending a little time on a practice squad somewhere but making so little money that they probably would’ve been better off with more and better career options.  Meanwhile, big time college football remains a job in and of itself.  And yet here we are.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
FPI also ranks the Buckeyes #1 (+29.0 FPI) while S&P+ has them 2nd.  I personally have no idea why the Army Athletic Department put this particular game on the schedule, especially as an away game.  I could see maybe putting it on at home or at a neutral site as a way to grab revenue from the Buckeyes’ gigantic fan base, but why play it at Ohio State?
September 16th also sees the 2nd game of the Bridgeport Bluefish’s final homestand of the season, against the probable division champion Somerset Patriots.  The ‘Fish are liable to need this game to secure a wild card slot in the Liberty Divisional Series and perhaps keep hope alive that they’ll somehow bring home their second ever Atlantic League Championship.  It’s also Star Wars night at Harbor Yards, so the game will feature tons of folks in costume along with fireworks afterwards.
September 23rd – at Tulane The Tulane Green Wave finished last season 4-8 (1-7 AAC), but they closed out with an at-least decent defense and a good-looking win against conference rival UConn.  They have a new quarterback this year in junior transfer Jonathan Banks, and if they can avoid turnovers and maintain something like consistency on offense, they may—finally—begin to turn the corner.  For better or worse, they still have to play in an otherwise competitive American Athletic Conference, though.
FPI has the Green Wave at 77th (-4.5) right now.  S&P+ puts them at 94th.  With those stats, this game ought to be a pick ‘em.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
Army was very good on the road last year, and I don’t know that I believe in Tulane to quite the degree that some of the preseason prognostications seem to, but this will still likely be a tough game.  Both teams know they will need the win.  Tulane needs to establish progress and reinstitute a winning culture while Army will need the game if it wants a legitimate path to another postseason bowl appearance.  This game will therefore be a bellwether.  A strong win here sends a statement about what kind of team Army’s going to be in 2017.  A close loss does the same.  

As a final thought, Tulane plays Navy on September 9th.  They’ll have seen and prepared for a triple-option team in the recent past ahead of their game against Army.  That’s not a disaster, but it’s certainly not an advantage, either.  As we saw last year with both Temple and Notre Dame, teams who’ve already seen the triple option are much better prepared to deal with it the second time in a season.

Next week we'll look at defense and the middle of the season.
* * *
Works Cited
Bill Connelly, "What’s next for Army football after its best season in 20 years?," SBNation: College Football, May 5, 2017.

"Defense Shines in Blue and White Scrimmage," Buffalo: Football, April 14, 2017.

ESPN, "Army Black Knights FPI - 2017," ESPN NCAAF.

"Football Opens 2017 Spring Practice Season," FordhamSports.Com, March 21, 2017.

Guerry Smith, "Tulane spring football preview: All eyes are on the quarterbacks, but there's more than that to watch," New Orleans Advocate, March 17, 2017.

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