What Does Army’s C-USA Experience Mean for Navy in the American?

One of the underrated benefits of the Army-Navy Game is that the media uses it each year to reacquaint themselves with both programs. A lot of the stories in the week leading up to the game are reflections on each team’s season up to that point. If you need a snapshot of the big-picture issues facing either program in any given year, try narrowing your Google search to the first week of December. It’s like digging up a time capsule.

That’s how I came across this 1998 article about Army’s move to Conference-USA. I found it fascinating for reasons that others might find it a bit unnerving. Nearly 17 years later, we’ve come full circle. Switch “Army” and “Navy,” and these quotes could easily have been said today:

“We’ve been on TV seven times this season,” said Army coach Bob Sutton, in town last week to preview Saturday’s Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium (noon kickoff), the 99th meeting. “That’s more than we’ve ever been. We’ve already felt the impact in recruiting. [The conference] is close to a lot of our major recruiting areas, from Virginia to southern Florida across to Texas.”

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According to Lengyel, Navy has no problems scheduling quality football opponents. Next year, the Midshipmen’s first five opponents are Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rice, West Virginia and Air Force. (Navy has home-and-home games with Temple to open the 2000 and 2001 seasons).

TV, scheduling, and recruiting benefits for the team joining a conference? No scheduling problems for the team that isn’t? These are essentially the same pros & cons offered today by the other party. It’s sort of funny, but given Army’s eventual fate in Conference-USA, is it also foreboding?

I don’t think so.

Army’s reasons for joining Conference-USA were far different from Navy’s decision to join the American. Army felt that they were striking while the iron was hot, capitalizing on their top-25, 10-2 season in 1996. To them, the time was right to make a step up in competition; joining C-USA was the logical move to take their program to that ever-elusive “next level.”

Navy’s motives are different. I wouldn’t call Navy reluctant to join the American; to the contrary, they’ve been vocal advocates for the conference and leaders in shaping it. However, it’s a move being made out of perceived necessity, not ambition. It’s a different world in 2015, and Navy leadership feels that the days of viable independence are numbered. As scheduling, bowl game access, and television coverage are being consolidated among the conferences, Navy is joining the American in an effort to preserve their standing in the broader college football world.

To that end, the success of Navy’s decision can’t be measured solely in terms of wins and losses. Time will tell whether the decision to join the American Athletic Conference was the right one, but even now there are positive signs. Think about it; for the last 4 months, one of the main storylines about the Navy program has been how the College Football Playoff committee should handle a potential Navy berth in the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach Bowls. If the goal of joining the American was to preserve Navy’s relevance, the fact that this conversation is even taking place is a pretty decent indicator that the goal is being achieved.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Winning matters, and for most people it probably will be the only measuring stick they use to judge Navy’s decision to join a conference. With the similarities between Army’s 1998 optimism and that of Navy today, it’s only natural to fear that the same optimism will be met with the same results. Fortunately for Navy, though, the similarities end there.

Army wasn’t without success in the decade leading up to their C-USA debut, putting up 5 winning seasons in that span. There were two problems, though. The first was with who those winning records came against. Army went 9-3 in 1988 and 6-5 in 1989, but in each of those seasons they played four I-AA teams. They averaged playing three I-AA teams every year, mostly against the likes of Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette, etc. The rest of their schedules weren’t exactly filled with a who’s who of college football at the time, either. That leads us to the second problem. If Army had 5 winning seasons in those 10 years, that means they had 5 seasons against those light schedules that weren’t winning seasons. When the Cadets won 10 games in 1996, West Point leadership didn’t recognize it for what it was: an outlier for a .500 program straddling the line between I-A and I-AA. Army was in no position to make a move into C-USA, and made matters worse by replacing Bob Sutton with Todd Berry.

In contrast, a look at the 10 years prior to their joining the American Athletic Conference tells you that the Navy program is in a far better position.  The Mids have been a consistent 8-9 game winner over the last decade, and the schedules that Navy has faced were of a different caliber than the ones faced by those Army teams. Army won 27 games against I-AA opponents, while Navy has won 17 against BCS/Power 5 opponents. Army had only played 3 of its future conference-mates a total of 5 times in the 10 years prior to joining C-USA. Navy, on the other hand, makes regular appearances on many American schedules. Of Navy’s 8 conference opponents in 2015, 5 have played at least part of a multi-game series with the Mids since 2005 (a sixth, Houston, was scheduled to play Navy before a conflict forced them to cancel). While Army was stepping up to play in C-USA, Navy is joining a conference of familiar peers, and doing so with the program’s all-time winningest coach at the helm. There’s no guarantee that Navy will win, but there’s no doubt that they belong.

Comparisons between Army and Navy are common, which is understandable given the unique nature of service academies. That doesn’t mean those comparisons always appropriate, though. Each program’s decision to join a conference was the product of different times and different teams. Because of that, we have every reason to expect a different outcome.

No, Army-Navy Being Played After Bowl Bids Are Announced Is Not “Bad For College Football”

In the dust-up over whether the Army-Navy Game should be moved to accommodate the College Football Playoff’s timetable for announcing access bowl bids, it appears that there might be some progress being made toward a common-sense solution:

Under discussion: If Navy is that highest-ranked team going into the Army game, a loss would drop it to the bowl inhabited by the No. 2 Group of Five team. The CFP Selection Committee would make that determination with its rankings.

“I know that there is a discussion about it,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk told CBSSports.com. “Call it a popular consideration.”

This is the same suggestion I made back in January, not that it was some stroke of genius on my part. It just seemed like a pretty simple accommodation.

Simplicity isn’t everyone’s goal here, though. The Mountain West has an interest in knocking the Army-Navy game down a peg, so commissioner Craig Thompson had to find someone in the media to get his message across. That message?

The simple fact is the stubbornness exhibited by those parties is bad for college football.

Bad for college football. The Army-Navy Game being played on the second Saturday of December is bad for college football.

That sounds like some weapons-grade hyperbole. There has to be some hard-hitting reasoning behind such a bold statement, right? Well…

“Let’s say everything is delayed a week,” Thompson said. “That gives a Mountain West team seven days, from Saturday to Saturday, to go to the Las Vegas Bowl. It’s hard enough now on Dec. 5 having barely a couple of full weeks to get ready for it. One week would be, c’mon.”

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“I’m a full American,” Thompson said. “I’m all in favor of the Army-Navy game. I think it’s a tremendous athletic event, but it’s disruptive to 128-plus other FBS schools.”

That’s the only reason that was given. This is apparently what’s “bad for college football.”

It’s an utterly ridiculous claim. Playing Army-Navy after the CFP makes its selections isn’t “disruptive to 128-plus other FBS schools.” It might be disruptive to one: the second-ranked Group of Five champion, if that champion is from the Mountain West, and if that champion is close enough to Navy in the eyes of the CFP committee for the Army-Navy results to even matter. Nobody else would have reason to care.

If Thompson is concerned that his champion won’t have enough time to prepare for the Las Vegas Bowl, then it makes more sense to move that game. Between the Las Vegas Bowl and Army-Navy, which one has been played longer? Which one has the better attendance? Which one has more people coming in from out of town? Which one has the bigger television audience? Which one is the more valuable media property?  Why move a fixture of college football’s regular season for the sake of a bowl game, when bowl game dates change every year? The value of the Las Vegas Bowl wouldn’t be any different if it was played on a later date, and it could have just as much time to promote itself as it does now.

(It should also be noted that Navy won the Poinsettia Bowl only 10 days after playing Army last year.)

It would be easier to move the Las Vegas Bowl if Thompson’s concern was truly rooted in preparation time for his champion, but it isn’t. Thompson sees this situation as an opportunity to weaken a rival conference, and to remove a thorn that has been in Air Force’s side since the school was created. To argue that this is out of some greater concern for college football would be humorous if it wasn’t so conniving.

You know what’s really bad for college football? That a system exists whereby the schools that have every financial and competitive advantage can quite literally write their own rules– rules that codify these advantages to ensure that they will be maintained forever. Among the schools left on the outside looking in, there is but one property with a financial heft comparable to those owned by the powerful. And who is looking to take that property away? Not the “Power 5″ conferences. They couldn’t care less. No, this is a challenge from another “have not” with an “if we can’t have it, no one can” attitude. Thompson’s Mountain West spent most of its existence criticizing the BCS monopoly, but now it wants everyone to fall in line for the good of college football? Nothing disingenuous there!

The Army-Navy Game has been the cherry on top of college football’s regular season for as long as anyone can remember. Based on the game’s ratings, that’s exactly where people want it to be. That there is some hypothetical scenario that might inconvenience the Mountain West is not reason enough to move the game. Some might choose to label Army and Navy as “stubborn.” Maybe it’s true. But in a world where so much of the fun and tradition of college football is being killed off for the sake of the Power 5’s bottom line, thank goodness someone is willing to be.

As Navy Players Get Drafted, Don’t Forget the Lessons of the ASO

It’s been quite the spring season for Naval Academy athletics. Baseball, track, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s tennis… All of them had very good campaigns. The women’s rowing team captured the Patriot League championship in exciting fashion, and in doing so clinched the conference’s all-sports Presidents’ Cup for Navy for the third time in four years. It’s boom times for the Blue and Gold, yet on-field success might not even be the biggest Navy sports story so far in 2015. Big news came off the field as well, as two Naval Academy athletes were drafted by professional leagues. Joeseph Greenspan was selected by the Colorado Rapids in the second round of January’s MLS SuperDraft, while the New England Patriots picked Joe Cardona in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Their selections re-ignite one of the oldest debates in service academy sports: under what conditions should athletes be allowed to turn pro?

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The Draft Post

The draft was basically “blah blah blah Joe Cardona blah blah blah,” but in case you were wondering, here’s the list of past Navy opponents who were selected:

Round 1

Kevin Johnson – CB – Wake Forest
Laken Tomlinson – G – Duke

Round 2

Donovan Smith – T – Penn State
Devin Smith – WR – Ohio State

Round 3

D’Joun Smith – CB – Florida Atlantic
A.J. Cann – G – South Carolina
Tevin Coleman – RB – Indiana
Craig Mager– CB – Texas State
Tyler Kroft – TE – Rutgers
Jeff Heuerman – TE – Ohio State

Round 4

Jamison Crowder – WR – Duke
Justin Hardy – WR – ECU
T.J. Clemmings – T – Pittsburgh
Jamil Douglas – G – Arizona State
Doran Grant – CB – Ohio State
Terry Poole – G – San Diego State

Round 5

Adrian Amos – S – Penn State
Jesse James – TE – Penn State
Michael Burton – FB – Rutgers
Nick Boyle – TE – Delaware

Round 6

Michael Bennett – DT – Ohio State
Evan Spencer – WR – Ohio State
Leterrius Walton – DT – Central Michigan
Rakeem Nunez-Roches – DT – Southern Miss*

Round 7

Ben Koyack – TE – Notre Dame
Joey Iosefa – FB – Hawaii
Corey Robinson – T – South Carolina*
Akeem King – DB – San Jose State
Rory Anderson – TE – South Carolina

*Did not appear against Navy in 2011 game

SHENANIGANS

Army-Navy is played on the second Saturday in December. Conference championship games are played a weekend earlier. When Navy elected to join the American Athletic Conference, it created the possibility for the somewhat unusual scenario where Navy could still have a regular season game to play after already appearing in a conference championship game. (It’s unusual for football, anyway. It happens all the time in other sports, like lacrosse). Other than the timing feeling a little weird, it isn’t really an issue since Army-Navy will be a non-conference game.

The creation of the College Football Playoff adds another layer of complexity to the whole equation, though. Not only are conference championship games played the weekend before Army-Navy, but the New Year’s 6 bowl pairings are announced as well. This could potentially create a problem. Navy, by being a member of the American, would be eligible for the New Year’s 6 bowl slot reserved for the highest-ranking Group of 5 conference champion if the Mids win the league. But how can you name the G5 representative if one of their conference champs still has a game left to play?

Pretty easily, actually. All it would take is a little bit of contingency planning.

Let’s say that the G5 bowl berth came down to Navy and Boise State as the champions of their respective conferences. This is assuming that Army-Navy even matters; it’s entirely possible that, say, a 1-loss Navy team would get the G5 nod from the committee regardless of the Army-Navy result if the other G5 champs have 3 or 4 losses apiece. But let’s assume for now that Navy and Boise State are close enough in the committee’s eyes that they’ll want to know the result of Army-Navy before deciding on the G5 representative. In that case, the two conferences and their bowls can simply work out an arrangement. If Navy wins, they can head to the Peach Bowl or whichever NY6 bowl is in the rotation, and Boise can head to the Las Vegas Bowl. If Navy doesn’t win, then Boise can go to the NY6 and Navy can head to Vegas. Piece of cake, right? The schools can even begin selling tickets to either one, and just give refunds for the game that doesn’t come to pass. It’s possible that one conference’s bowl games wouldn’t want to take another conference’s champion; a bowl contracted to the American might not want a west coast team, for example. In that case, each conference’s bowl partners can simply offer conditional invites. The AAC operates the Miami Beach Bowl anyway, so I’m sure they’d have no problem making the necessary arrangements. It’s not that hard.

Craig Thompson doesn’t want to hear that, though. He’s the commissioner of the Mountain West. You remember the Mountain West, right? They’re the conference that made special arrangements so Boise State’s home games would be sold as a different television package, all to the detriment of the league as a whole. Somewhat ironically, Thompson doesn’t want any accommodations for Army-Navy:

“All games should be done by Selection Sunday for those teams to be considered for a College Football Playoff bowl,” Thompson said.

But why? He wasn’t quoted as giving a reason in the article. Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson is also said to take issue with Army-Navy, but he’s probably only latching onto this to make his conference seem like a bigger player than it is. The two strongest conferences in the G5 are clearly the American and the Mountain West, making Thompson the likely driving force behind this story. His conference has the most to gain, and despite any reason he might give in follow-up articles on the subject, this is his true motivation.

The simplest and most reasonable course of action here would be to simply have the aforementioned contingency plans in place. Other commissioners have raised concerns that perhaps other schools would want to schedule games on the second Saturday of December, but that’s easy enough to get around. Just make a rule that nobody else can start scheduling games that weekend. Army-Navy could just be grandfathered in, since the game’s second-Saturday date precedes the creation of the College Football Playoff. It’s not as if Navy gains any kind of advantage toward gaining the G5 NY6 bowl berth by playing that weekend. If anything, playing Army-Navy the week after a conference championship game is a competitive disadvantage.

For Thompson, that’s not really the point. His “play it as it lies” stance is completely self-serving. The Army-Navy Game is a threat to his conference, and to Air Force in particular. With Navy joining the American, Army-Navy is about to become a showcase game for that conference. It’s something that no Mountain West game even comes close to matching. Not only is this exposure for the American, but it will add tremendous value to that league’s television package when it comes up for renegotiation (Navy is still obligated to fulfill its contract with CBS and will not be part of the AAC’s package until that expires). Once the true value of the total AAC TV package is realized, the MWC’s Boise-or-bust arrangement is going to look even worse than it does now. It will be harder for his conference to be competitive from top to bottom. Not only that, but Air Force clearly feels threatened by the Army-Navy game; their coaches’ Twitter accounts make that rather obvious.

There are three likely outcomes from this, with two of them being favorable to the Mountain West. If the CFP decides that Navy wouldn’t be eligible for an NY6 bowl, Thompson will have succeeded in potentially eliminating his strongest rival’s champion from consideration, paving the way for his own. If Army-Navy is forced to move, he will have succeeded in hurting his competition’s television value while scoring a recruiting win for one of his conference’s members. These types of tactics are par for the course with Thompson and the Mountain West, who you might recall worked to break up the WAC in order to prevent BYU’s athletic department from having a place to land after they left the MWC.

Thompson didn’t succeed in retaining BYU then, and he shouldn’t succeed in his transparent efforts to hamstring the Army-Navy game now. Army-Navy is the traditional end of the regular season. It’s a staple of the college football landscape, and certainly much bigger than whatever quibbles Thompson wants to raise. The third possible outcome– just having a contingency plan in place– is far more reasonable. Regardless of whatever jokes people want to make about college football and common sense, I expect sanity to prevail.

AND NOW YOU KNOW

In news that will surprise nobody, I don’t like Air Force. There are certain corners of the Navy diaspora that take great offense to that; I’m frequently told that I don’t “get it.” We’re all service academies, after all. One team, one fight, right? If you say so. I’ve always felt that was a one-way sentiment on the part of some Navy fans, based more on wishful thinking than anything else. You never saw any Air Force fan upset over Fisher DeBerry taking cheap shots at Army or Navy, did you? Of course not. If you asked them, Navy fans like me were just bitter because Air Force won so many games.

That’s nonsense, of course. Those of us who grew up as Navy fans in the ’80s and ’90s were used to seeing the Mids lose to just about everybody, so there was nothing special about Air Force in that regard. No, this was different. When you talked to people in and around the Navy program, you would hear stories about some of Air Force’s recruiting tactics that really caught you off guard. Fans of every school have stories that they heard from a friend of a friend about how their rival does shady things, so it’s easy to dismiss these things. Besides, Fisher DeBerry’s gone now, so everything’s different, right?

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Postgame Haiku, Vol. 87

Even though we had
A lifetime’s worth of fumbles
Defense wins the day

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