We’ll begin our look at the state of the Navy football program by talking about… Air Force basketball?
If the Los Angeles Clippers and the Kansas City Royals had a child, it would look like the Air Force basketball program. Throughout its history, Air Force basketball has been really, really bad. Really bad. In the 19 seasons that Air Force was a member of the WAC, their basketball team finished 3-13 or worse in-conference 15 times, and peaked with a 6-10 record in 1988-89. Things didn’t get much better in the Mountain West, as the Falcons could do no better than 4-10 in their first four seasons in their new league. Then something strange happened. After their third straight 3-11 campaign, Air Force won the conference in 2003-04, finishing 12-2 (22-7 overall) and earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. It would be the first of 5 straight seasons of .500 or better for Air Force, and it came at a time when Navy basketball was struggling. Naturally, Navy fans attempted to explain the two teams’ differing fortunes. Air Force used a Princeton-style offense; some fans felt that it was the basketball version of the triple option, and the only way a service academy team could win. Other fans felt that Air Force just attracted better players because they played in a fairly high-profile basketball conference.
Both explanations made me chuckle. Even though it probably shouldn’t surprise me at this point, sometimes I’m amazed at how short the average fan’s memory can be. Only a few years before everyone declared the Princeton offense the only way to win, Navy was the dominant Patriot League team of the 90s. Had basketball changed so much in 3 years that now the Princeton offense was the only way for a service academy to win? After two decades of the WAC and Mountain West being the Air Force program’s biggest hinderance, had it all of a sudden become the reason for the program’s success? Of course not. Anyone looking objectively at the Air Force program could see that the same obstacles that they’ve always had were still there; sure enough, the team has gone 0-16 and 1-15 in-conference over the last two years. But for a 5-year stretch, the Falcons had captured lightning in a bottle. It happens sometimes, but people don’t want to believe in luck. They need more tangible explanations, so they come up with what they can… Even if those explanations contradict the lessons they should already know.
Short-term memory also seemed to be a common theme around Navy football as the team got fall camp underway, with the image of the Mids standing victorious over the beaten-down carcass of a Big 12 team being tough to forget (not that we’d ever want to). The 35-13 pounding of Missouri in the Texas Bowl has its side effects, though; with such a convincing performance to wrap up 2009, expectations for 2010 are higher than they’ve been in Annapolis for a long, long time. The main question coming out of media day this year has been how Navy will handle those expectations and the hype that accompanies them. The Mids have received votes in both preseason polls, and Ricky Dobbs has been called a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. It’s all a little bit surreal, especially for those of us who have been Navy fans for a long time. Navy fans used to swing a little too far in the other direction on the emotional pendulum. After 20 years of bad football, they refused to believe that any success achieved by the program was anything more than fleeting, even though there were several fundamental changes that made it possible. Yet half the people holding these lofty expectations also thought the world was ending after the Hawaii game, and that Army was catching up to Navy after a ho-hum performance by the Mids (relatively speaking) in Philadelphia. Like most things, one has to take all the top 25 votes, BCS speculation, and Heisman talk with a grain of salt.
Of course, we can’t completely ignore the win over Missouri either. While we should know better than to base our expectations for 2010 on the outcome of the Texas Bowl, the game still gives us a benchmark to measure just how far the Navy program has come since the last time they went bowling in Houston back in 2003. The Missouri team that Navy beat in December is better than the Texas Tech team they lost to seven years ago. Missouri came into the game with a better record, a similar high-flying passing attack, and a much better run defense. The Tigers were only two years removed from being the #1-ranked team in the country. While a lot of the players from that team were gone, they were replaced by players like Blaine Gabbert, who was the top quarterback recruit in the country in 2008. Service academies aren’t supposed to beat teams like this, let alone completely dominate them. The Mids have come a long way.
The victory over Mizzou capped off a 10-win season that featured a record seventh consecutive Commander-In-Chief’s trophy. More importantly, it was the second CIC Trophy, and second winning season, for Ken Niumatalolo as head coach. There isn’t much left for Ken Niumatalolo to prove. He’s won 10 games in a season. He completely outcoached Gary Pinkel in the Texas Bowl. He beat Notre Dame. In two years, he has as many wins over top 25 teams as Navy had in the preceding two decades. We have reached the point where Army fans think that a two-touchdown loss to Navy is a reason for optimism. Think about that. One might argue that Johnson still had a hand in recruiting and developing a lot of these players, but most of that development came under the tutelage of the assistant coaches that are still here. Any talk from the media and in the recruiting pitches of rival coaches that Navy will slide now that Paul Johnson is gone rings increasingly hollow.
With 14 starters returning, there is no reason to think that the Mids of 2010 won’t continue to maintain the standard of the last seven years. Four of the five returning offensive linemen have starting experience. The top two fullbacks are back and healthy. The secondary might be the best overall unit on the team. The biggest concern for the Mids is at linebacker, where only Tyler Simmons has significant playing time at the position. Coach Green relies on his linebackers to make the bulk of the plays in his 3-4 defense, and the last time the Mids had this much turnover at LB was in 2007– a year Green would probably like to forget. Should we be worried about a repeat? Probably not. The linebackers in ’07 were freshmen and sophomores pressed into service due to injuries in the depth chart. In contrast, this year’s LBs are juniors and seniors who have been waiting for their chance. For all the attention the offense gets, it was the defense that was the team’s strength in 2009, and it could very well be again in 2010. With so many key pieces in the offense returning, hopefully it won’t have to be. The biggest piece is, of course, quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Dobbs had a statistical giant of a season last year, but the irony is that it would have been less impressive on paper if he was better with the offense. Ricky will have fewer carries as he improves his reads and checks. That might not be good for his Heisman hopes, but it’s better for the team.
All in all, it’s business as usual in Annapolis. Navy has found a winning formula, and there’s no reason to think that will change anytime soon.