Friday, April 6, 2018

Army Football Preview: Spring Speculation

Given the information that’s been trickling out of Army Football’s spring training camp and ESPN’s just-released Football Power Index (FPI) rankings for the coming season, my sense is that after two years of relative success, the Black Knights face a “prove it” season for most of the national football audience.  If Coach Jeff Monken and company can finish with nine or more wins, retain the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, and hold serve against rising programs like Duke, Buffalo, and Eastern Michigan, then I expect the program will take a major step forward on the national stage, and Coach Monken will himself become one of the hottest coaching prospects for would-be Power 5 coaching vacancies heading into 2019.  However, the program first has to replace a lot of graduating talent, and that’s not always an easy trick.

As of this writing, ESPN’s model has Army ranked 98th of 130 FBS college football programs, with a composite score of -8.7.  This means that Army would be an 8.7-point underdog against an “average” FBS opponent in a neutral site game.  We get this from the team’s performance against its 2017 schedule, the strength of its recent recruiting classes, and the number of starters that the team returns for the coming season.  ESPN sites Fresno State as the “average” college football team, ranking them 63rd.  It’s notable, then, that the FPI model sees slightly more “bad” football than “good,” though this is consistent with last year’s rankings, which were themselves notable for the way they skewed in favor of the Power 5 bias.  Which is to say that I think Army would definitely be an underdog to Fresno State, but I’m not sure how many folks would actually lay 8.5+ points on the road in this particular hypothetical matchup.
The FPI model was developed to predict which teams would make it into college football’s Top 25 and into the College Football Playoff, and the model has been very successful at doing exactly that.  But again, the status quo gives Power 5 strength-of-schedule outsized weight.  College football itself has a stake in the current Power 5 bias, and since ESPN mostly covers the Power 5, the same can be said of the network as well.  It’s worth noting that Football Outsiders uses a very different, performance-based model and often gets very different results--especially as they pertain to C-USA and the MAC.  For now, however, this is what we have.  Army’s 2017 schedule was light on Power 5 teams and on strength-of-schedule in general, and FPI hits that very hard.
We’ll see more of the same in 2018.  Army’s strength-of-schedule is 113th of 130 teams.   Which is why ESPN thinks the Black Knights will go at least 6-6 despite their lowly overall rank.  FPI makes Army a favorite against Liberty, Hawaii, San Jose State, Air Force, Lafayette, and Colgate, and it gives the team slightly better than even odds against Miami (Ohio) at home.  All of which sounds reasonable, save that I think the Air Force game will be much tougher than the model predicts, and I think Army has better than its predicted chances against both Buffalo and EMU, though both of those programs ought to be better than ESPN is predicting as well.
Truth is, FPI really hates the MAC, and that makes some of this math more fraught than it needs to be.  Unless you actually believe that the Duke Blue Devils ought to 17-point favorites against Army to open the season.  In which case you probably also believe that UCF was overrated last year as well, and really, if that’s the case, you’ve come to the wrong blog.
Army’s O-Line
Army needs to find four new starting offensive lineman, and its success will make or break the season.  Really.  If firstie C Bryce Holland and company can play with the kind of passion and dominating physicality that last year’s unit found, then Army’s offense will move the ball regardless of who starts under center.
Having read some of the coverage, I’m cautiously optimistic.  Army has a lot of guys with game experience, a seemingly excellent group culture, and a better class of recruits has been coming in for quite some time.  Army ought to have the tools.  A lot will depend, however, on how fast the new guys can put it all together.
Though I have absolutely NO outside information, my sense is that QB Ahmad Bradshaw’s collegiate career is done.  Chris Carter also looks to be ineligible, which would seemingly make Kelvin Hopkins the heir apparent, but he’s been limited so far in practice.  The team has therefore turned to “experimenting” with SB Kell Walker at quarterback, an experiment that I confess I do not love.  I’m not sure that Coach Monken loves it, either, but he’s trying it, presumably because he’s worried about being able to replace Bradshaw’s ability running the ball inside.
Army beat writer Sal Interdonato quoted Monken as follows:
“Depending on what the other quarterbacks look like, it just may be a spring experiment.  If they can, Kell can play slot and B-back and all the other different things we did with him and I think we will be better off. If he’s got to be the guy that carries the ball some from that position, we are not opposed to doing it.”
That’s not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement.  But with Hopkins limited and Carter out, it’s either Walker or Luke Langdon or one of the current plebes.  Personally, I’d like to see somebody like rising yearlings Christian Anderson or Cam Thomas get a chance to win the job for multiple years, but I’ve not seen those guys play so much as a down of collegiate football, and I know that what they did in high school, impressive as it was, is at best a suggestion of their potential at the next level.

A lot of this probably also comes down to what kind of offense Monken and OC Brent Davis want to run.  Hopkins certainly throws better than Bradshaw did, and if Army is willing to open it up a bit, then that gives him a better argument.  Certainly, they could add a quick pass out to the flat to Walker as an offensive staple--Air Force uses this play like a long pitch--and that might work.  Getting the ball out in space might also take some of the pressure off the new interior O-Line.  But we wouldn’t necessarily see the same kinds of wearing drives up the middle that won Army so many games last season, including notably against San Diego State.  So if what they really want is to just pound the rock, well, Walker might actually be the best choice for that after all.
Wide Receivers
It looks like rising yearling WR Cam Harrison is having a good spring, and that he has better hands than anyone since Edgar Poe.  Monken also seems high on rising cow Kjetil Cline, so again, I find myself cautiously optimistic.  
If Hopkins does win the starters job, this offense could potentially throw much more and much more effectively.
There’s not a lot of news on the defense, but there also aren’t quite as many holes to fill either.  The biggest question is who’s going to get the Rhyan England role as captain of the secondary.  The team also needs a new rush linebacker to replace Alex Aukerman.  But if there’s one place they’ve been recruiting well over the past few years, it’s at lineback.

That's all I've got.  The Spring Game is next Friday night.

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