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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 77: Army

The great days of Army football are detailed in black and white: Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside, Earl Blaik, Joe Steffy, Frank Merritt – these names are seen etched in college football history, but rarely in color. This isn’t just the case at Army but also at Navy, which like the Cadets has seen its football fortunes diminish since the 1960s. That won’t change; Army and Navy will continue to meet in December with everything on the line save a national title, though that does nothing to diminish the importance of the annual season finale. But we may be seeing a renaissance: last fall found Army, Navy and Air Force post a winning record in the same season for only the second time since 1964, with Army reversing a personal 13-year skid of five wins or less. Is it quite like the 1940s and ‘50s for the Midshipmen and Cadets? No, not quite. Yet I get a charge out of seeing Army back in the mix, just as Navy feels the heat from a once-downtrodden rival now experiencing new life a generation after it last tasted success.

Conference
Independent

Location
West Point, N.Y.

Nickname
Black Nights

Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 85

2010 record
(7-6, 0-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 60

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at N. Illinois
  • Sept. 10
    San Diego St.
  • Sept. 17
    Northwestern
  • Sept. 24
    at Ball St.
  • Oct. 1
    Tulane
  • Oct. 8
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 22
    at Vanderbilt
  • Oct. 29
    Fordham
  • Nov. 5
    at Air Force
  • Nov. 12
    Rutgers (at Yankee Stadium)
  • Nov. 19
    at Temple
  • Dec. 10
    Navy (in Landover, Md.)

Last year’s prediction

The offense will be better, thanks to an added year in the system and improved play from the Army fullbacks. There is also little reason to believe the defense will suffer any substantial decline from last year’s terrific numbers. However, the schedule toughens. Gone are Ball State, Iowa State and Vanderbilt — two wins — replaced by Hawaii, Kent State and Notre Dame, the latter two away from West Point. It’s for this fact that I believe Army will repeat last season’s five-win total. What I’m most interested in seeing is how Army fares against Air Force and Navy. Particularly Navy.

2010 recap

In a nutshell There were losses to Air Force and Navy to deaden the mood, and the sting from those rivalry losses always last throughout the ensuing winter, spring and summer. Remove that sour taste and you have a terrific year; even with those losses this was the best Army team since 1996, and the first winning team since the same year. Army went 6-6 during the regular season, losing three games by a touchdown or less: by 42-35 to Hawaii, 42-35 to Temple and 23-20, in overtime, to Rutgers. The option offense began to take hold in Rich Ellerson’s second season, as most expected it would. The Cadets averaged roughly 50 more yards per game on the ground than in 2009 and scored 34 rushing touchdowns, up from only 13 in 2009. The defense remained stingy overall, thanks to an offense that controlled the ball, but was prone to the odd lapse – see Temple, Air Force and even Kent State, to a degree. There’s room for improvement.

High point A 16-14 Armed Forces Bowl win over favored S.M.U. allowed Army to post its first winning record since 1996. It was vintage option football: build an early lead – it was 16-0 at halftime – and just hold on for dear life. S.M.U. scored twice in the second half, the latter drawing the Mustangs with two points with nine minutes left, but three turnovers and a pair of missed field goals sealed S.M.U.’s fate.

Low point Another loss to Navy, Army’s ninth straight in the series.

Tidbit Have you ever heard of the Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy? Inaugurated in 1936 by the two sons of prominent college football booster August Lambert, the Lambert Trophy recognizes the best football program – not just the best in the F.B.S. – that is either located in the East or plays at least half its games in the East. Penn State has taken home the Trophy a record 28 times, most recently in 2008. Connecticut was the 2010 winner, its first such designation, after winning the Big East and getting slaughtered in the Fiesta Bowl. Army has won the Lambert Trophy seven times, second-most behind the Nittany Lions, but hasn’t taken home the award since 1958, Pete Dawkins’ Heisman season.

Tidbit (decade-by-decade edition) The Cadets were only too happy to turn the page on the 2000s. It was the program’s worst decade by winning percentage: the Cadets went 25-92, a 21.4 percent clip. The next-worst was the 1970s, during which Army won 35 percent of their games. In all, Army has had three decades of sub-.500 ball, with the 1990s – winning 45.5 percent – joining the above pair. The Cadets won at least 60.5 percent of their games in each decade from the 1890s through the 1960s; the 1910s, which saw Army win 80.8 percent of its games, was the program’s high-water point.

Tidbit (MacArthur edition) Douglas MacArthur: legendary general, brilliant military tactician, brilliant facilitator of economic and social change in Japan, Presidential hopeful, all-around American hero. In addition to his other, more well-known accomplishments, MacArthur was also manager of the football team in 1903, his final year at West Point. He is one of 26 members of the program to also be named First Captain of the United States Corps of Cadets, the most hallowed leadership position a cadet can hold. He’s the only one of the 26 not to have actually played football. It is MacArthur who was purported to say of Army athletics: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”

Tidbit (road games edition) Army has won five consecutive true road games, a program-high since taking six straight on the road from 1966-67. This streak has featured wins at North Texas, Eastern Michigan, Duke, Tulane and Kent State. What the streak does not include is losses on a neutral field, of which there have been a few: two to Navy in Philadelphia, one to Rutgers at the Meadowlands and one to Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium.

Former players in the N.F.L.

1 LB Caleb Campbell (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Presidential biographies
1. “Theodore Rex,” by Edmund Morris.
2. “With Malice Towards None,” by Stephen B. Oates.
3. ”Truman,” by David McCullough.
4. “Jefferson and His Time,” by Dumas Malone.
5. ”Grant,” by William S. McFeeley.

Coaching

Rich Ellerson (Hawaii ’77), 12-13 after two seasons at Army. Ellerson was hired in an effort to level the playing field with Navy, and after two years, Army’s decision has undoubtedly been the right one. The Cadets returned to bowl play last fall, snapping a 13-year skid without a winning record, and from the start Army has been far more competitive – despite some early growing pains on offense – than it had been under Stan Brock, who compiled a 6-18 record at Army from 2007-8. Army had decided early after firing Brock that their next head coach must be well-versed in the ways of the option, a decision that led them to investigate both of Navy’s coordinators before landing Ellerson, then the head coach at Cal Poly. The 2008 Mustangs led the F.C.S. in points (44.4) and yards (486.5) per game and finished third in rushing (306.5 yards per game), numbers that illustrated his grasp of the option. Overall, Ellerson posted a 56-34 record over eight seasons with the Mustangs, winning at least seven games each of the last six seasons. Cal Poly had only one winning season in the six seasons prior to Ellerson’s arrival in 2001, perhaps indicating his ability to build a winning program from the bottom up. Such an ability has come in handy at Army. The program’s decision to go forward with the option offense is an inspired move, even if one wholly motivated by Navy’s recent success, and Ellerson is the right coach to lead this team in a new direction. The job he has done in two years has been magnificent, significantly closing the gap between Army and its rivals Navy and Air Force, and Army should feel blessed it had the foresight to hire such a quality coach at such a crucial juncture in the program’s history.

Players to watch

Sometimes, one player can make all the difference. We saw Cam Newton almost single-handedly lift Auburn to a national title in 2010, for example. At Army, we saw fullback Jared Hassin, an Air Force transfer, cause a night-and-day difference with this option offense. He was the missing piece in 2009, and the numbers showed it: Army scored 34 times on the ground last fall, compared to only 13 scores the year before. Hassin’s impact was sizable; he led the Cadets in rushing (1,013 yards), becoming in the process only Army’s second 1,000-yard sophomore. What does he do for an encore? Well, Hassin’s production can only improve with another year in the system, and he should continue to be the centerpiece of this option attack.

Army has numbers at slotback, where Army touts four talented underclassmen but will miss the leadership of Patrick Mealy, last year’s third-leading rusher. The production won’t be that difficult to replace. Junior Malcolm Brown joined Mealy in the starting lineup a year ago, rushing for 343 yards despite playing in only five games thanks to a shoulder injury. Coming up strong behind Brown is fellow junior Brian Cobbs, a converted cornerback who led the Cadets with 6.0 yards per carry in 2010. Then there are the sophomores: Raymond Maples (208 yards, 1 score) will start, but look for an increased role for all-around athlete Jonathan Crucitti.

This is Trent Steelman’s team now. It really has been since his freshman season, when he took over from the start in the first of 25 consecutive starts, but now that Steelman’s entering his third season he’ll really begin to take on a strong leadership role with this offense. He’s already proven himself on the field, as Steelman enters 2011 in the program’s top 10 for total offense and with 12 career wins, the most by an Army quarterback since the great Ronnie McAda won 16 from 1994-96. Steelman came into his own as a player last fall, setting new career-marks in passing (995 yards) and rushing (721), nearly becoming the first player to pass for 1,000 yard and rush for 500 yards in the same season. And there’s no discounting the importance of having another year of experience in this system.

The Cadets don’t do much in the passing game, and no, there’s no 6’10-inch converted lineman serving as the prime target of Steelman’s attention. His favorite targets are senior Austin Barr (14 receptions for 215 yards, 3 scores) and junior Davyd Brooks (14 for 238 and a score), who combined to do most of the dirty work through the air. Junior Justin Allen rounds out the top three at the position. This being Army, you know the Army receiver corps can block a guy or two as well.

While the offense moves forward without its overlooked stars up front, the defense tries to rebuild without last season’s star power. There are significant losses at each step of the defense: up front, the Cadets must replace all-time sack leader Josh McNary, three-year starting nose tackle Mike Gann and longtime contributor Marcus Hilton at end; at linebacker, the Cadets lost leading tackler Stephen Anderson; and in the secondary, the Cadets must replace both starting safeties, Donnie Dixon and Donovan Travis. The losses are sizable. And they’re troubling: Army doesn’t just replace a McNary with its next premier end, as we well know.

Junior Jarrett Mackey moves over from the quick position to bandit, where McNary spent last season. Mackey started all 13 games a year ago, making 47 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 4 sacks, but he’s got a long way to go in order to supplant McNary’s presence. Unfortunately, Mackey is the only end with any experience: sophomore Quentin Kantaris played sparingly in 2010, and fellow sophomores Corey Watts and Clayton Keller didn’t play at all. There’s something to work with at the quick spot, a hybrid linebacker-end position: Chad Littlejohn moves down from linebacker, where he started seven games last fall.

The interior of the line might be an even larger concern. This is partly due to injuries, which sidelined projected starter A.J. Mackey during the spring. He was a part of the rotation behind Gann in 2010, playing in seven games and starting once. Junior Parker Whitten, who made the most of the added snaps during spring practice, is in the mix, as is Tom Houser. Both Whitten and Houser are small for this role, however, so Army really needs a healthy Mackey.

As at end, Army plans to replace a leading figure by having a returning starter change positions. Last year’s starting rover, Steven Erzinger (76 tackles, 4.5 for loss), make the move to the middle in an effort to replace Johnson. A familiar name is the favorite to claim Erzinger’s former role: Justin Trimble, the younger brother of Jeremy, Army’s all-time leading receiver, left the spring with a slight leg up over junior Nate Combs. Trimble has bounced around between linebacker and defensive back, which gives him a nice taste of what’s to come at his new spot. Army is deep at outside linebacker, where Zach Watts will likely start and Justin Schaaf and Bill Prosko reprise their roles as reserves.

Already hurting from the loss of two starting safeties, Army’s depth at cornerback took a hit following Richard King’s bizarre altercation with a rapidly-aging singer’s bodyguards in March, which resulted in King being suspended from West Point for the entire school year, barring appeal. His suspension would rob Army of one of its three cornerbacks with starting experience, dealing another blow to a secondary undergoing a painful transformation.

That leaves junior Josh Jackson (33 tackles, 1 interception) and senior Antuan Aaron as the clear starters at cornerback. It also pushes a defender like James Whittington or Waverly Washington into a more significant role, which might cause problems for the Army pass defense. What else might cause problems? A pair of fresh, untested faces at safety. It’s all about sophomores here: sophomore Reggie Nesbit, sophomore Lyle Beloney, sophomore Tyler Dickson and sophomore Thomas Holloway, to name a few.

Beloney leads Nesbit in the race at strong safety; Beloney has yet to take a collegiate snap and Nesbit is a converted linebacker, so this pair is learning on the fly. It’s only slightly better at free safety, as Holloway has played in one game and Dickson three. Army’s safeties are far removed from the duo that fared so well in 2010.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line This front set the tone for the entire offense in 2010: the same five started 12 of 13 games, providing not just production but also much-needed consistency. A year later, Army is forced to start nearly from scratch. Four starters are gone, as well as a handful of key reserves, leaving left guard Frank Allen as the lone returning lineman with extensive starting experience. He’s therefore the anchor of this group, the foundation around which Ellerson and his staff will attempt to build a line capable of keeping the option offense afloat. The biggest hole is at center, where Army lost not just starter Zach Peterson but also Thomas Hagan, his leading reserve. So it’s here that Army really starts from scratch, as neither contender, Will Wilson and Michael Kime, have taken many snaps at all. Wilson’s size – he’s at 280, Kime around 240 – gives him the edge. It’s a similar story at right tackle, where Army can tout two underclassmen, juniors Ben Jebb and Derek Bisgard, but can’t feel comfortable about the lack of experience both bring to the table. Joe Bailey has played in 23 games, starting three back in 2009, so he’s a good option at right guard. He’s also in the mix at left guard, but I find it hard to believe that Allen won’t retain his spot in the starting lineup. When taking Allen into account, the left side of the line seems to be in good shape: Brad Kelly and Mike McDermott are two long-armed seniors with starting experience, so perhaps the drop-off at left tackle won’t be too significant. But as a whole, the line is a tremendous question mark.

Game(s) to watch

Navy. The Cadets will have nearly a month to prepare themselves for this one, and they’ll need every second of that time if they hope to end the long losing streak against the Midshipmen. Then there’s Air Force on the road, a team Army hasn’t topped since 2005. The Cadets also take another trip to Yankee Stadium, playing Rutgers a year after losing, 27-3, to Notre Dame.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The days of 3-9 are long, long gone. Even in 2011, with pretty major issues to address on both sides of the ball, Army is far removed from the painful days of Todd Berry, Bobby Ross and Stan Brock: these are new days in West Point, and Army’s climb towards bowl play, while rapid, has left this program in a wonderful place as we enter the second year of this decade. All applause should head in Ellerson’s direction. Army did pave his way somewhat by turning to the option in Brock’s final season, but the job he’s done rebuilding these Cadets deserves far more recognition than it’s received. For example, consider the following factors: Army is seriously depleted along the offensive line, the lifeblood of this offense, and has major holes on defense following the departure of several key figures. Three years ago, such issues would spell disaster – even greater disaster, one could say. Now, I’m confident that this coaching staff’s deft touch will help Army largely overcome these concerns, potentially lining the Cadets up for a second consecutive bowl berth. I could see that happening: Army has some winnable games, a nice returning corps of talent and, after last season, the knowledge of what it takes to play football at a higher level. But it’s going to be very difficult to get back to six wins. It starts with the schedule, which has some winnable games, as noted – Ball State, Tulane, Miami (Ohio) and Fordham – but is far more difficult than it was a year ago. And try as I might, I can’t overlook the holes along the offensive and defensive line. Army’s not going to take a significant step back, but it looks the Cadets will lose an extra game or two. Still, if last year taught us anything, it’s that the Ellerson-led Cadets can and will exceed expectations.

Dream season Army beats Navy and eight others in a 9-3 finish.

Nightmare season Army loses to Navy and eight others in a 3-9 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Army fans congregate? Both Army Sports and Go Black Knights do a great job of covering Army athletics. As always, list other options in the comment section below.

Word Count

Through 44 teams 123,648.

Up Next

Who is No. 76? Tomorrow’s university is the only one in its conference to be named after a person, not a location or direction.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. jjtiller says:

    Can you image Army and Navy in the Big East?

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Purdue is next. John Purdue donated the land to the Indiana university system. Only school in the Big Ten (12) to be named for a person.

  3. BobJ says:

    Stanford is another answer to today’s question, but they’re likely to be ranked higher than #76.

  4. JimBob says:

    BobJ

    Typo. It’s spelled “Stanfurd.”

    Go Bears!

  5. Joel says:

    Gotta be Purdue, since we’ve already seen Vanderbilt.
    And that subtle mention of “or direction” has to mean Northwestern–all the normal “directional” schools also have the location in their name.

  6. Joel says:

    Although Baylor is another possibility. I would expect to see them higher though.

  7. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Vanderbilt is also a possible answer, and this seems about the right place for them.

  8. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Ahh, Vandy already went. My bad.

  9. Dave says:

    @ jjtiller –

    I’ve wondered about that for a while. Seems like a good fit. Most of their natural geographic rivals (Rutgers, UConn, ‘Cuse) are already there or might be coming (Temple). The conference is weak enough that they would have respectable showings. And, with TCU, Louisville and USF, the conference has enough geographic breadth to help with recruiting. If Air Force followed TCU over from the MWC, it would be even better and ensure continuity of the rivalries (in a conference that doesn’t have many good ones).

    Anyone know if the Big East would be interested? Seems like they could use the additional schools to be a viable conference, and having schools with the prestige and history of the service academies couldn’t hurt. Granted, the fan bases aren’t huge, but they’re dedicated, and anyway how big is USF’s fan base?

    The bigger obstacle would probably be Army – its last foray into a conference (USA) was a disaster. But I think this would be different in that it’s a BCS conference (albeit a weak one).

  10. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Kent State (which already went as well) also fits the bill here.

  11. Clayton says:

    I think adding Army/Navy to the Big East would be a solid fit. Rumors are going around and it’s unclear how many teams the Big East is looking to add, but they at least want to add one more and it’s also been stated that they are looking to go to 12 with a conference championship game (and also a possible Big East network.)

    Army/Navy (or maybe even just one or the other) is a great geographic fit, but it looks like the Big East is more interested in adding Houston/UCF mainly because of the TV markets. The larger the TV markets of the teams in the conference are, the more money they will get from ESPN when their contract expires coming up in the near future(And if not ESPN, NBC and Fox have also had their names being thrown out there if ESPN’s deal isn’t big enough.)

  12. Dave says:

    I don’t know how a preview of Army could fail to use the word “veer” a single time. The system did not stay the same. In 2009 the scheme was a Paul Johnson-ish flexbone. In 2010 Ellerson put out the closest thing to a pure – if such a things is possible – veer attack college football has seen in years.

  13. Rob says:

    FYI, in 1996 Army (10-2-0), Navy (9-3-0), & Air Force (6-5-0) all had winning records, not 1963.

    Air Force did not go to a bowl game though in 1996. Last year was the first year that Army, Navy, & Air Force all went to bowl games in the same season.

    Paul: Thanks, Rob. Had my lines crossed a bit. Fixed it above.

  14. Dave says:

    @ Clayton –

    Houston or UCF might make sense from a TV market perspective, but in my opinion such a move would cement the Big East’s position as the “BCS conference most likely to get demoted.” You need more than just 10 (or 12) teams and a bunch of TV revenue to make a viable conference – you need some kind of regional base, intra-conference rivalries, traditions, and conference pride. I get grabbing up TCU – it’s a matter of survival, as you need at least ONE good team – but if the Big East keeps ignoring the above factors it risks turning into Conference USA.

    PS BEAT NAVY!

  15. Clayton says:

    The Big East ultimately hasn’t done the best when it comes to expansion. The massive basketball league really complicates things, but adding Villanova as a football school would be a major mistake. Adding Army/Navy would be really nice, and I admit it would be better than any of the combination of Houston/UFC/ECU. But I don’t know if Army/Navy want to be added. Haven’t heard much about their interest. The Houston/UCF/ECU fans are chomping at the bit to get into a BCS conference.

  16. Jim Dotter says:

    To all the Big East for Army and Navy:

    Why would we want to give up our independence?

    (That bowl check is awfully nice without splitting it with the conference!)

  17. Dave says:

    Jim –

    Because the bowl check for the Armed Forces Bowl or the Meineke Car Care Bowl ain’t that big. Wouldn’t you love to see Army snag that automatic Big East BCS bid, and play in the Orange or Fiesta Bowl? If UConn can win the Big East, we sure can! And just imagine, if Army put it all together one year and went undefeated – wouldn’t it be nice (I realize this is entering the realm of fantasy) to at least have a theoretical shot at playing for a national title? It’s not going to happen as an independent playing Temple, Ball State and Northern Illinois, even if we did run the table, but it could happen in a BCS conference…

  18. NUwildcat09 says:

    Paul, I love all of your articles, but I’m pretty sure it’s the ‘Black Knights’. This is the most comprehensive assessment I’ve read of Army, and I enjoy learning about upcoming opponents. I’m hoping Persa can dissect the secondary, but I’m afraid of NU’s inability to stop the run. Giving up 183 rushing yards to Texas Tech does not bode well for a defense against the option.

  19. Burnt Orange says:

    On the Big East taking Army and Navy, Bob Sutton had Army surging fifteen years ago- they won 10 games and came close to beating Auburn in a bowl game. Two years later, they are in Conference USA with a much tougher schedule and two years after that Sutton was gone.

    If they go to an expanded Big East,they cannot do things like schedule four MAC teams and Fordham in a given season and they risk once again derailing their hard won success. I hope they stay independent.

  20. Brandon says:

    I don’t think Army or Navy need to join a conference just yet. They have the TV deal with CBS college sports so a lot of their games are now on TV.

    As a Navy grad from the Weatherbee era (99-01) and Johnson’s first year (02) the only team I ever saw Navy beat in person was Army, the only other team they beat while I there was SMU in 2002.

    I think Navy could be ready in a couple of years to join the Big East, they can retain the games against Army, AF and Notre Dame and then have a good schedule against competition that is at about the same level.

  21. Army and Navy would die in the Big East. They would be in trouble in the Mountain West, the WAC and maybe in the MAC. See Army record in Conference USA. Both schools need a lot of Ball States, Fordhams etc. They will sometimes surprise somebody at home. They play very hard but lack the players. Their glory years were pre 1964 in the era of single platon football

    Good luck against each other. USAA pays each 4 plus million US dollars for their game, a BCS Bowl payout with no need to split with anyone. That is four plus million that Air Force never sees and that all non BSC Bowl teams never do as well.

    They should play their soft schedules and let others dream. With USAA money, both schools never had it so good. All hail to both.

  22. Jim Dotter says:

    I don’t think we (Navy) needs to join a conference, until Chet retires. He may not be perfect (the damned into the sun home game TV shot); but he seems to get damned good football deals ($). Which in turn takes care of the other sports very nicely. And who knows, his relief may be just as good!

  23. Jeff Gottlieb says:

    Frederic-

    I doubt that Navy would be in “trouble” in the Mountain West given the fact that Air Force is competitive in the conference and has stuggled to beat Navy over the past decade.

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