Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Army Football Preview: The 2017 Season (Part 2)

Last week we talked a bit about Army Football’s offense and took a brief look at the first third of the 2017 football season.  This week we’ll talk about defense and take a look at the middle four games—UTEP, Rice, Eastern Michigan, and Temple.

In case you missed it, Part 1 of this series is here.
Army runs a 3-4 defense that’s predicated on linebacker play and on bringing blitz pressure from unexpected directions.  This is not to say that Army’s defensive line is unimportant, but in this particular system, those guys are more “shaping the battlefield” so that linebackers can blow plays up.  This system both works and is made necessary by the reality that Army’s defense—and especially its defensive line—tends to be undersized but fast.  Army therefore wants to occupy blockers or force them into uncontested space while allowing at least one blitzer to come free most every play.
Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  
Prior to 2016, the Black Knights often struggled to bring pressure, though they have long had a decent run defense.  At the same time, Army has generally been able to recruit fast cornerbacks and safeties, but with neither above average size at the safety position nor consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Army defense has tended to struggle against throws to tight ends across the middle of the field.  Prior to Coach Jeff Monken’s tenure, the team also struggled against deep, long-developing “go” routes, but this has been less of an issue since Monken took over.  
Army’s defense emerged as a legitimate force in 2016 largely because Army linebackers Andrew King, Jeremy Timpf, Alex Aukerman, and Kenneth Brinson became a four-man wrecking machine.  It must also be said that safeties Rhyan England and Xavier Moss stepped up their play, too, and that the team’s defensive line—and DE John Voit, in particular—became stouter and more consistent as well.  This allowed CB Brandon Jackson to emerge as a legitimate shutdown corner starting at around the midpoint of 2015, and though we’ll never see him play to his full potential, unfortunately, it would be impossible to write this without acknowledging that he was both a well-liked cadet and a Hell of a talented football player on the field.  Army’s secondary improved dramatically once Jackson got the start, and it’s from this base that last year’s historic 5th-ranked defense overall began to develop.  Rising yearling CB Elijah Riley has arguably better physical tools than Jackson had, but it wasn’t until late in Riley’s plebe season that he began to show anything like Jackson’s ball-hawking instincts and overall feel for the game.  It remains a tragedy that we’ll never get to see Riley and Jackson on the field together, locking down both corners at the same time.
Significant reasons for optimism exist as we head into 2017.  Army returns more than half of its defensive starters, including Voit, England, and Aukerman, all in their firstie seasons, as well as Brinson, Riley, and others.  Voit has been named team captain alongside QB Ahmad Bradshaw.  And sure, it hurts to lose guys like King, Timpf, and Moss, but especially at safety, I’ll be surprised if James “Gibby” Gibson can’t at least match Moss’s production.  Mike LB Scott Washle has arguably bigger shoes to fill, but reports are that he is a very good player who was basically stuck behind an all-around workhorse in Andrew King.  
In a larger sense, the Army team is improving by virtue of the fact that Coach Jeff Monken’s first full recruiting class will be in its 3rd year at the Academy during the coming season.  I expect that will mean a significant improvement overall, probably on both sides of the ball.  Indeed, watching the Class of 2019 move into legitimate leadership positions promises to be one of the most interesting aspects of the coming season.  Instead of relying on a clever scheme and a few standout individuals, this year’s Army team ought to be consistently hard-hitting across the board.  This will be a substantial change to the Army football status quo.
2017 Season Preview: Part 2
September 30th – UTEP.  The University of Texas – El Paso Miners experienced a truly miserable 2016, and that was with all-star RB Aaron Jones on their roster.  Now Jones is a Green Bay Packer, selected in the 5th round, leaving junior QB Ryan Metz alone to run the show.  At a recent spring scrimmage, Metz went a miserable 4/10 for 36 yards and an interception.  Maybe that’s why ESPN is currently projecting UTEP to be the one of the very worst teams in FBS college football, 128th of 130 in the FBS (-19.0).  S&P+ agrees, putting the Miners solidly down at 126th.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
After last year’s 66-14 drubbing in their own building, it’s a good bet that the Miners will have long since circled this appointment on their calendars.  All other factors aside, Army is certain to get UTEP’s very best effort in the return match at Michie Stadium.
October 7th – at Rice.  The Rice University Owls also experienced a dreadful season in 2016.  Now the Owls are getting a new quarterback, a new quarterbacks coach, new starting wide receivers, and a new defensive scheme.  Coach David Bailiff remains, but he personally represents about the only consistency the Owls are going to see in the coming season, a season which also features just five home games.
It’s possible that the Owls’ shift to a 3-4 defense will allow new playmakers to emerge, but FPI and S&P+ are both dubious, ranking the Owls 118th (-14.5) and 120th respectively.  In particular, the Owls struggled to find consistency passing in their spring game, and with both their quarterback and their receivers new to the field, it’s hard to believe that this is going to be Rice’s turnaround season.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
It says something about S&P+ that the system hates Rice this much and still calls the Army game a toss-up.  Granted, Army has to go on the road, and they’re usually good for at least one inexplicable loss every season, but still… the Black Knights have got to be the better team here.  
Maybe this is a trap game, but it’s still one that Army ought to win handily.
October 14th – Eastern Michigan.  Folks are sleeping on the Eastern Michigan Eagles, and it’s inexplicable.  EMU went 7-6 last year, earned a bowl appearance, and very nearly won against heavily favored Old Dominion University.  I watched the game, and for what it’s worth, I thought it was electrifying.  Now Coach Chris Creighton is entering his fourth season with the program, and he’s got a fifth year senior to captain the ship in QB Brogan Roback.  Granted, the Eagles are facing some turnover on their offensive line, but with Roback and a crew of returning wide receivers, the Eagles should be markedly better in 2017, not worse.  
Nevertheless, FPI and S&P+ are projecting the Eagles at 102nd and 96th overall, respectively.  That’s madness.  This team is going to be much, much better than that.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
As I said, those numbers are bullshit.  You show me Rice vs. Eastern Michigan on a neutral site, and I’ll show you an old school ass-whupping.  The Eagles might well hang fifty on the Owls without giving up more than fourteen in return.  Saying that they’re statistically comparable is admitting that the statistics aren’t really worth very much, and that the base reporting is either lazy or based on outdated preconceptions.  Neither is acceptable.
This is one of the games I’ve got circled on my calendar as a potential barn-burner.  It should be a very close contest.  Army may well pull it out at home against EMU, but to do so, they’ll need their very best stuff.
October 14th – Temple.  Army set the tempo last season with their underdog victory at Temple in Week 1.  Temple went on to win their division and beat Navy in the AAC Championship game but then lost their bowl bid against Wake Forest.  They then lost QB P.J. Walker and RB Jahad Thomas to graduation and Head Coach Matt Rhule to Baylor.  Temple has historically been a very good defensive football team, and to this end, they hired Coach Geoff Collins, previously the coordinator of the Florida Gators’ all-world defense.  Collins seems like a good fit, but FPI and S&P+ aren’t necessarily buying it, ranking the Owls 83rd and 67th, respectively.  That’s not terrible, but it’s nowhere near where they were at the end of 2016.
It seems like Temple’s offense might’ve gotten the better of its defense in their spring game, which is unusual for spring games in general and for a team with a bunch of rookie quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers in particular.  Collins hasn’t named a starter yet, but freshman QB Todd Centeio appears to have had the best numbers, going 9/13 for 110 yards and a TD.  That’s not bad, and if the defense can get its act together between now and next fall, Temple may yet contend for the AAC title again in 2017.
3rd Party Odds of Victory:
 -- FPI:
 -- S&P+:
The raw statistics don’t know what to make of Temple, and at this point, neither do I.  By October, though, I expect the Owls will have settled into their rhythm.  That makes this a tough late-season game.
It’s worth noting that this game will be Army’s eighth in a row.  Team health is likely to be as much a concern as anything by that point, though the Black Knights ought to be considerably deeper next year on both sides of the ball.  Hopefully, this will help mitigate some of the impact of playing more than half the season straight without a bye week.
* * *
Works Cited
ESPN, “Army Black Knights FPI – 2017,” ESPN. 
Jeremy Carranco, “Miner football completes first scrimmage of spring,” The Prospector, March 24, 2017. 
JeremyShapiro, “Rice football to hit the road early, often in 2017 season,” SBNation: Underdog Dynasty, Jan 26, 2017. 
Joe Serpico, “Temple Owls Cherry and White Spring Game Recap,” SbNation: Underdog Dynasty, April 23, 2017. 
“Rice Spring Football Primer,” SWC Roundup, February 28, 2017. 
Ryan Zuke, “News, notes and highlights from Eastern Michigan's spring football game,” MLive, April 08, 2017. 

1 comment:

  1. I've updated this post to correct two typos:
    -- Army runs a 3-4, not a 4-3 as was originally stated.
    -- "with NEITHER above average size at the safety position nor consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks..."

    Sorry for the confusion.