2014 College Football Week 16 Preview: Army-Navy

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The 2014 college football regular season is almost complete.  With the spectacle of conference championships and drama of the College Football Playoff and bowl selections over, there only remains one game to go.  This week’s Week 16 College Football Preview is focused solely on Army-Navy, because that is the only game slated this weekend.  And, it’s the final act of the 2014 college football regular season.  This is the second year that Army-Navy has served as the conclusion of the college football regular season.  Before we look at the game, let’s give credit where credit is due.  ESPN – the mothership and symbolic entity of evil television money – has made a concerted effort to highlight some less visible venues this year with their GameDay program.  While North Dakota State was met with mixed reviews, the trip to Cambridge for “The Game” was generally well received.  This week, they extend their GameDay program and will be on site in Baltimore for Army-Navy.

Army (4-7) v. Navy (6-5), at Baltimore, MD, Saturday, 3:00 p.m. ET, CBS

Navy comes into this game trying to extend its winning streak in this series to 13 straight victories; the previous longest streak in series history was five.  For those that have watched Army-Navy before, this game will be similar to many of the 114 previous meetings.  Both teams feature the running game almost exclusively.  For Navy, they use a traditional triple-option attack.  For Army, it is more of a speed-option with a little more motion incorporated than a more traditional option attack.  The school’s rushing numbers are almost identical.  Army’s leading rusher and go-to guy is halfback Larry Dixon (1,012 yards on 176 carries) with quarterback Angel Santiago being the second leading rusher (793 yards on 182 carries).  Army’s offense has had trouble with turnovers and red zone conversions at times this season.  Navy’s leading rusher is the quarterback, Keenan Reynolds (1,082 yards on 205 carries).  Reynolds is really the central figure for the Midshipman offense.  He has almost twice as many carries as the next nearest rusher, which is not normal even in a traditional triple option attack.  Additionally, he does have the ability to throw downfield, either out of the option or as a straight drop-back passer.  The passing game is the biggest difference between the two offenses this year.  Army has totaled an anemic 710 yards passing for the season.  Navy, while not setting any records, at least has the threat of a passing attach incorporated in their offense.  Navy has 964 yards and eight touchdowns through the air.

Neither defense has been especially good this season, particularly against passing attacks.  Navy does have a slight size and athleticism advantage, so look for their defense to have a little more success than the Black Knight defense.  Navy has played a much tougher schedule, being competitive against both Ohio State and Notre Dame.  Navy has, at times, been inconsistent this season and are not as good as years past.  Army has not been able to put together a solid game all season.  They have had some injuries, but they’ve only found four victories, and one of those was against FCS competition.  Their best victory of the season came against Connecticut.

And just like the offenses, the outcome of this game will look familiar, too.  Navy will execute better and will limit their mistakes.  They will make key third-down and red zone plays through the air.  And, like the previous 12 years, will walk away from this game victorious.

Prediction:  Navy 41, Army 24

 

No Army-Navy preview would be complete without some commentary on the meaning and importance of this game.  Let me oblige. I’ll spare you the trite comparisons; describing this as a game that matters and warriors and soldiers and patriotism.  Because that’s not what this is.  The cadets and midshipman aren’t soldiers and sailors – yet.  This game doesn’t really matter on the national football scene.  And this is one of the lesser forms of patriotic action one could undertake.  No, the importance of this game isn’t about what it is, it’s about what it was and what it will be about.

In our current football world – dominated by TV ratings and money and wins and loses – the Army-Navy game does something that no other game can do:  it connects the history of college football with our collective future.

Both Army and Navy are great historical programs in college football.  Army has three national championships and three Heisman Trophy winners.  Navy has one national championship and two Heisman Trophy winners.  Ever wonder why Notre Dame plays Navy every year?  Well, if it wasn’t for the Navy, Notre Dame would have collapsed and went bankrupt during World War II.  I’ll save you the google search, here it is.

This game has been played for 114 years.  And, as mentioned above, if you watched that very first game in 1890, it wouldn’t look too awfully different from today.  Yes, the uniforms are a little snazzier and the players a bit bigger and stronger, but this weekend’s game will still be won or lost by young men pounding away at the line of scrimmage and (for the most part) advancing the ball by running up-the-middle, off-the-tackle, and around-the-ends.  More importantly, the Army-Navy game that your grandfather watched on television (as one of the first and only nationally televised games in the pre-CFA era) is very similar to the one your father watched, and that game will be very similar to the game you will see on Saturday.  It’s a game that connects us – college football fans everywhere – to our collective past in a way that is both fundamental and relevant.  One of the magical things about the Army-Navy game is that what it was largely remains what it is.

Another magical thing about Army-Navy is what it will be about.  College Football today looks strikingly different than it did just a decade ago.  Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC?  West Virginia in the Big 12?  Heck, the Big 10 has 14 teams.  Directional teams like Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Eastern/Central/Western Michigan are all playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level.  And that’s just in ten years.  That doesn’t even go back to the Southwest Athletic Conference days and Big 8 days.  Did you know that not so long ago Florida wasn’t that good and SMU was a national powerhouse?  And that sometimes we had split national championships because of bowl contracts?  What will college football look like in ten or twenty more years?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But what I do know, or am reasonably certain about, is what Army-Navy will look like.  It will look like it does today.  The very epitome of the word “student-athlete” taking on worthy competition on the field of friendly strife in a game – nothing more, nothing less – that rallies both groups of graduates to a central, neutral place to rekindle old memories, fond and painful, and renew the purest and healthiest rivalry in all of sports.

It’s a game that will be reflective of our national future.  While it’s a game between cadets and midshipman, it’s also a game between future soldiers and future sailors.  It’s a game between young men – representing the other young men and women of the Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen – who knowingly have committed to a lifetime of service to their nation.  I love college football and have other teams I cheer for, but there is no denying that the stories yet to be written about the lives of service represented on the field and in the stands at Army-Navy is special and unique amongst all of college sports.  And we know this because of the stories of the lives and service of those that played the game before.  There are certainly special stories in each program, and the discussion surrounding what Army-Navy will be about is not meant as a dismissal or recusal of those stories.  It is only meant to highlight that the story of this game will be about more than individual efforts on the pitch or single stories of competitors, it will be about those players and those they represent and their collective service to the future of our nation.

It can also teach us what we can be.  I consider myself a member of another team’s fanbase, and with the proliferation of social media and technology, college football fans have become almost combative in nature.  If you’ve spent one day on a sports-centered Twitter account or a college football message board, you’ve seen the gambit of fandom: from positive support to the home team to good-natured ribbing of the opponent to spiteful animosity towards your own players, coaches and administrators to downright vitriolic meanness directed towards others that cheer for another team.  My own fan base recently sent hundreds of tweets to a prospect who de-committed from our program.  Why?  Why would you send a mean tweet to an 18-year-old young man who chooses to play football where he wants?  The reason is obvious:  because we as sports fans, collectively, are not the best version of ourselves that we can be.

How can we be?  Watch Army-Navy.  You will see not what we are, but what we as college sports fans can be.  Will Ohio State fans always hate Michigan fans?  Yes, and vice versa.  Will Alabama fans always hate Auburn and Tennessee fans?  Yes, and vice versa.  Will everyone continue to hate Florida State?  Yes, at least until Miami gets back to being Miami.  It doesn’t mean we have to have toxic words and poison trees.  It doesn’t mean we have to have drunken fights or sophomoric tweets to young student-athletes.  It doesn’t mean we set things afire after winning and destroy things after losing (isn’t it one in the same anyway?).  Yes, you’ll probably see funny and quick-witted signs during GameDay on Saturday.  I’m sure you’ll see ol’ Wazzou flying in the background.  But what will be missing is hate.  In its place, respect.  And acknowledgement.  And camaraderie.  Watch as both teams stand with each other while each Alma Mater is played at the end of the game.  Watch as grown men cry; some in exultant victory and some in agonizing defeat.  What you will see is what each and every one of us can be:  a better person and a better fan.

This game isn’t perfect.  There have been cheating scandals, a decline in importance, and program instabilities.  It’s not a game of heroes, just young men playing a sport they love in unique and special circumstances.  Rather than being heroes, they embody heroes.  They represent heroes.  And they represent each and every one of us.  But in our money-driven, myopically focused 24 hours sports news cycle, we’re constantly searching for perfection.  We’ve forgotten that perfection is not the goal; the goal is continually striving for perfection.  This game isn’t perfect, it just strives for perfection.  It strives for the best student-athletes, it strives for the best atmosphere, and it strives for the deepest meaning.  Does it get there?  No.  Does it get close?  Maybe.  Is it a contrarian example of righteousness in a depraved and shallow college football landscape.  Yes, undoubtedly so.

So I hope you watch this game on Saturday.  I hope you include your son or daughter.  And when they ask if this is the big game, tell them “No.”  The players aren’t as fast or as big.  There are no championships on the line, just pride.  It’s likely that none of the players in this game will be going on to NFL rosters.  And you probably won’t see anyone walking around the mall in Los Angeles or Chicago with a Navy “Reynolds” or Army “Dixon” jersey on.  But tell them about college football when you were growing up.  Maybe call your dad and ask him to explain to them how this game – THIS game, not THE game – is similar to how college football used to be played.  Ask your dad if he ever watched Bellini or Blanchard, Davis or Dawkins.  Ask him to tell you or your kids about the great Roger Staubach.  And if you have a veteran in the family, ask them about the stories that these young men, and the men and women of the Corps and Brigade, will write in their futures.  And then, ask your family member their story.  With veterans less than 1% of the U.S. population, use this game as an excuse to hear the story of a veteran family member.  Let this game connect you; connect you to the past, connect you to you and your family in the present, and your children and all of us in the future.  Tell your kids, and yourself, about what college sports was and what it can be.

And then, tomorrow, when the GameDay crew is back in Bristol and the world is back to rapt attention of Manziel’s start and Winston’s hearing and Barrett’s investigation, we can all go back to being what we all really are.  For a day, at least, let’s be what we can be.

 

**Editor’s note:  The author is a graduate of West Point.  Go Army, Beat Navy!

 

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Photo credit: West Point – The U.S. Military Academy via photopin cc