The Mailbag (7/18)

For a blog that has been dormant for months, I received a surprising number of questions. So let’s get on with it:

At the risk of asking something too obvious: You were pro-Big East, back when you felt the basketball schools were unlikely to leave. Are you still pro-American Athletic? How does this compare to Army’s ill-fated decision to join Conference USA?

There’s no doubt that the Big East isn’t the conference I thought (hoped) it would be when Navy signed on. It isn’t even the “Big East.” A lot has changed with the conference now known as the American. What hasn’t changed, though, is why Navy decided to join a conference in the first place. I’ve written more than once about how much I valued Navy’s independence. My argument was based on several factors, but primarily scheduling flexibility, bowl availability, and financial sustainability. Unfortunately, these advantages are quickly disappearing.

1) The Big 12, Pac-12, and Big Ten will all be playing 9-game conference schedules by 2016. The ACC abandoned its plan to go to a 9-game schedule, but added 5 games against Notre Dame every year to basically achieve the same effect for half the conference. The SEC hasn’t moved to a 9-game schedule yet, but everyone expects them to eventually. If TV is going to be shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for the broadcast rights to conference games, they are going to want more Alabama-South Carolina and less Alabama-Western Carolina if they expect to attract the viewers and ad buys that will bring a return on their investment. The more games conferences play against each other, the fewer they have for everyone else, especially in the second half of the season. An independent may or may not find teams to schedule at that point, but even if they do they will have far less control over who they end up playing. If even Notre Dame is going halvsies with the ACC, you know it’s getting tough.

That might not be all, either. College football has always valued an undefeated record above all else, but I wonder if that will be changing. We still don’t know exactly how the teams for the 4-team playoff will be chosen. All we know is that there will be a committee. What that committee will consider when making their selections is up in the air. Will they use an RPI-like metric similar to what’s used in NCAA tournament committees? If so, then schedule strength could become far more important, making more games against other “power five” schools a priority. There will also be six “host” bowls instead of the current lineup of five BCS bowls, which leaves room for a couple more teams that might have two or three losses on the year. It’s conceivable that one conference might have 3-4 teams in the College Football Playoff framework (two semifinals plus four host bowls). An extra loss on the schedule might not be the end of the world anymore.

The ingredients are there for the “power five” schools to be rewarded for scheduling more games with themselves and less against anyone else. More conference games are already happening. Whether that extends to non-conference games is yet to be seen, although the Big Ten has already moved away from scheduling FCS opponents. Either way, the more the “power five” isolate themselves, the less flexible schedules become for everyone else. For an independent that doesn’t have 8 conference games of its own to fall back on, that can be crippling.

2) As the power conferences grow, they are also adding to their bowl lineups to ensure that their expanded membership will have postseason homes. To make matters worse, in most cases they’re looking to schedule games against each other. That leaves fewer bowl games for everyone else, to the point that the other conferences are looking into creating new bowl games just to have a place to play. That’s not a promising environment for an independent looking to carve out its own arrangements. While Navy has been able to do so in the past, it is not safe to assume that they will be able to do so forever. Quite the opposite, really.

3) Independents will not have access to the majority of College Football Playoff revenue distributed between the “group of five” conferences. The conference with the best overall performance, as well as the conference with the team that receives the automatic host bowl bid, will receive the largest share of that money. Remaining independent wouldn’t just put Navy even further behind the “power five” revenue juggernauts, it would put them behind everyone else, too. Money might not be everything, but it’s pretty close to everything if you’re trying to remain competitive.

The bottom line is that as the power five conferences become larger and more powerful, it makes going it alone as an independent a much less viable option for anyone to remain competitive in FBS. God forbid they ever decide to break away from the NCAA altogether. There’s a lot more to be said about the American, and hopefully I’ll get to it at some point; but no matter how much it has changed, it is still the correct path for Navy football. Unless the ACC comes calling. (It won’t.)

As for Army, their stint in Conference-USA is the most overrated boogeyman ever. Army wouldn’t have won any more games as an independent than they did in C-USA if Todd Berry was still their head coach. Their problem was that they didn’t recognize the 1996 season for what it was: lightning in a bottle. Army thought the 10-win ’96 campaign meant they were ready to burst onto the scene, join the modern age, and abandon their small-school, regional schedules. They were not. In contrast, Navy has put together a decade of consistent success against schedules full of the same teams they’ll be playing in the American. There is no comparison. Whatever success or failure Navy has in the future, it won’t be because there’s some black magic about conference membership. In fact, I think Army’s reluctance to join the American will only prolong their struggles, but that’s a topic for another post.

With Ryder, Bertrand, Gaines, Adams and Ferguson, the Midshipmen have a lot of experience returning in the secondary. That group played well in spots, but only combined for 4 INTs (the team had just 8, with Warrick leading the way). Any indications that this group can become more opportunistic, like the 2009 secondary (13 INTs, led by Merchant and Middleton)?  

It’s hard to know what to make of turnovers. Do they happen because of something the defense did right, or because of something the offense did wrong? Usually a bit of both. Because of that they’re difficult to predict, and I don’t know if they’re a reliable way to measure defensive performance. I’m also not so sure it’s the secondary alone that’s the issue. Their cause would be helped if the front seven could force quarterbacks into making a few bad decisions. I think the secondary is good enough to do their part, but interceptions are a team effort.

With Warrick and Wetzel gone, who will step up and lead the Navy defense in 2013?

The answer to this question is almost always the ILBs, and I don’t think this year will be an exception. That’s not based on any particular insight other than the historical pattern. The best overall unit, though, might be the defensive line. Evan Paleilei returns at one DE spot after starting all 13 games in 2012. Paul Quessenberry played in every game as a sophomore and should be ready to start as a junior. Losing Danny Ring hurts at NG, but that might have been the deepest position on the defense. Barry Dabney started 10 games last year. Travis Bridges showed moments of potential, and he was still learning the position after switching from the OL. Bernie Sarra had a fantastic spring and might have earned a place in the starting lineup anyway. This is as well-established a group as we’ve had on the defensive line in recent years, and that bodes well for the defense as a whole.

If you want to look at disturbing trends, take a look at Navy opponents’ yards per pass attempt. Since 2010, Navy has slipped from 7.0 ypa (50th in the country) against FBS opposition to 8.1 ypa (104th) in 2011 and 8.2 ypa (107th) last year. That’s too many passes going over DB heads. Unfortunately, it isn’t only the passing game that has suffered. The trend is the same against the run, where Navy has fallen from 3.9 ypa (48th) in 2009 to 4.9 ypa (92nd) in 2010, 4.7 ypa (87th) in 2011, and 4.9 ypa (99th) in 2012. The quickest way to solve both problems is through the defensive line. I’m optimistic that this group is up to the challenge.

Do you know the story behind Ashley Ingram’s new title as “Running Game Coordinator?”

In Coach Niumatalolo’s words 

“Quite frankly, the reason it came up is because he got offered the job at Austin Peay. I think that speaks volumes for Ashley and the type of coach he is,” Niumatalolo said after Navy opened spring football practice on Tuesday. “I was very happy for him, but I didn’t want to lose him. So we tried to do all we can to keep Ashley. Because not only has he been a tremendous football coach, he’s been a heck of a recruiter for us too.”

I don’t know if Coach Ingram’s responsibilities within the coaching staff are any different now, but giving him a raise and a loftier title helps to keep his career moving forward even though he’s staying in Annapolis. A head coaching offer at Austin Peay is no small thing to turn down.

I can’t remember a year in which we returned such little production at slot. 1) Does this concern you? 2) Who steps up? 3) Does this put any more or less pressure on our talented but young QB?

1) No. Well, sort of. We’ve seen enough out of Darius Staten and Geoffrey Whiteside to know that they can run, so it isn’t “production” that I’m concerned about. How well any of them block is more of an unknown. There are a lot of sophomores on the depth chart at slotback right now. In the past, younger guys were rotated in for a play here and there to get some carries, but didn’t stay in for very long since they aren’t always sure who to block (think Karlos Whittaker). If the young guys don’t know where to go when they don’t have the ball, that will be a huge problem.

2) Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t think it will be any one guy. Fortunately, this is one position where it doesn’t necessarily take one guy stepping up. Slot by committee is just fine. Wouldn’t hurt to have a go-to receiver in the bunch, though.

3) The only way it’ll add any pressure is if they’re stuck in a bunch of 3rd & longs after missed blocks and forced to throw more than they want. As far as production is concerned, it doesn’t matter who the slotbacks are. Keenan’s job doesn’t change. Either he makes the right read or he doesn’t.

What’s the deal with Josh Tate? First off the roster (June 7), then back on (June 30 and still most recent depth chart). He is named in the legal action in the news against Navy players. Does his re-appearance suggest he has been cleared somehow?

I don’t really follow roster updates all that closely, but I know he never left the depth chart. If that’s the case, I don’t think he was ever off the roster. Either way I wouldn’t read anything into it.

In your opinion, who was the most effective quarterback during Navy’s option era?

Over the course of his entire career? Ricky Dobbs. For one season? Kaipo, 2007.

What are the chances we see a varsity hockey program anytime soon? Or ever?

Soon? 0%

Ever? 1%

The sports that have been added recently are women’s sports, and that’s mostly to help increase the overall number of women in the Brigade. While the sport has its fans, there is no similar motivation to add hockey. At this point it probably makes more sense to drop sports than to add something that expensive. If I was forced to add one more sport to NAAA’s lineup, it’d be women’s water polo. If I was forced.

It seems that FB is our most talent rich three deep. It has been suggested that the coaching staff consider moving Copeland to SB to strengthen our inexperienced cadre. Now that Trey Miller is off the squad, do you think this would be a wise move? Thanks!

Not really. You aren’t going to make the slotbacks any more experienced by adding someone who has never played the position. Let’s be honest, though; nobody is suggesting to move Noah for the slots’ sake. They’re doing it because they’re infatuated with Chris Swain. I’m excited about Chris’ potential too, but Noah is a much better fullback than he is being given credit for. The one-two punch of Noah and Chris is going to be a real strength for this offense. To move Noah would just take one inexperienced position and turn it into two inexperienced positions.

Can you discuss the latest rules changes and how they may (or may not) affect Navy football in 2013?

The rule change that’s getting the most headlines is the one that makes targeting a “defenseless player” above the shoulder an automatic ejection. While I applaud efforts to improve player safety, it’s a horrible rule. The problem is in how it’s enforced. Too many times we’ve seen how “targeting” has really meant “15 yard penalty for hitting too hard.” I don’t like the rule, but it’s something everyone (not just the Mids) will have to deal with. I’m sure Navy will end up on both sides of the referee’s judgment at some point this season.

Other rules to get used to: automatic 10-second runoff for injuries inside of 1:00 left in a half (meh) and requiring at least 3 seconds left if a team wants to spike the ball to stop the clock. I assume the latter is to make clock operation more consistent and to avoid home cooking. I’m sure there will be a controversial call or two over the season relating to these rules, but everyone will get used to them.

There is another cut blocking rule change this year, and for once it might actually be to Navy’s benefit. It’s less of a change than it is a simplification of the rule book, which should help prevent incorrect calls for illegal blocks below the waist. Basically, if you and the ball are both inside the tackle box and within 5 yards of the neutral zone, you can cut block. If you are outside of that “cut block” zone, or once the ball leaves that zone, you can still cut block, but only from the front of the defender (“front” being defined as “between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock”). Crackback blocks below the waist are still illegal. None of this is new; it’s just spelled out more clearly.

And that’s it for the mailbag. Hopefully it doesn’t take me 5 months to write my next post.

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks, Mike. Welcome back!

  2. Interesting factoid……Mike Schofield told me he could win the NC if Navy ever added Women’s Water Polo. The girls who grow up in the Navy Junior program are playing for ALL the top-10 teams.

  3. Thanks for answering!

  4. Excellent column, especially coming off an extended break ;-)

    Let me stir the pot for the future.

    The Navy now has fewer ships than it’s had since 1917. I’d guess the number of Naval Aviation squadrons is at a low point as well. Same for the Marines.

    Sooner or later some politicians are going to ask, “Why do we need to have 4,000 Midshipmen at USNA?” They’ll ask the same question about USMA and USAFA.

    Back in my Midshipman days we had a thousand ship Navy. My class graduated 848. The Brigade’s authorized strength was 3,400 although it probably never reached that. West Point’s was 2,400. There wasn’t yet an Air Force Academy graduating class. The Naval establishment, including the Corps, was huge by comparison with today’s. I think the same is true for our brother services.

    When and If, Congress decides that the Service academies’ authorized strengths are way out of proportion to to the officer input requirements of their respective branches, it may well reduce the strengths by as much as half.

    If, or, as I fear. it’s more likely to be “When, that happens there “Ain’ No Mo’ !! ” FBS or conference or Notre Dame or bowl games — for any of us us.

    Think about it … Grim, isn’t it?

    • The USN uses OCS as the means to throttle back or increase officer accessions. USNA will stay same size.

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