Army-Navy 2016: Into Oblivion?

Army-Navy 2016
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Via Last Word on College Football, by Mike Loveall

Army-Navy 2016: Sliding Into Oblivion?

It’s that time of the year again. A few teams have their championships. Many more have their bowl bids. And everyone’s regular season is over. That is, except for Army and Navy. The two service academies renew their 117-year rivalry this Saturday in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Army-Navy Rivalry

Of all the great rivalries in sport, this is the one most respected by all fans. Sure, MichiganOhio State, AlabamaAuburn, DukeNorth Carolina, and BarcelonaReal Madrid fans all think their rivalries are the greatest. But no other rivalry, no other game for that matter, commands the respect of neutral audiences more than Army-Navy. And for good reason. Almost every college football fan knows why this game means so much. Each cadet and midshipman represents the highest caliber of student-athlete that plays the game of college football. Each has a future of military service ahead of them. And no two teams have more mutual respect for one another than these two teams.

The pageantry and fanfare are well documented. The uniforms, the cadets and midshipmen marching onto the field before the game. The swapping of exchange students at midfield. And of course, the fact that it’s the only game on the entire college football calendar with virtually both student bodies in attendance. Last year, I wrote about how this game provides a chance at redemption for college football fans. And two years ago, I wrote about how Army-Navy is the connective tissue between the college football of yesterday and the game we love today. Those articles celebrate the rivalry. People will watch this weekend and they will enjoy the many great things about this particular game. As will I.

Erosion of Relevance?

But there’s a subtle undertone developing that threatens this rivalry. Army-Navy was once a game of national importance. The teams have three national championships (all Army, by the way) and five Heisman Trophy winners (three Army, two Navy) between them. The two teams sit at 31st and 24th, respectively, in all-time program wins in FBS history. And while most of the significant achievements are two generations removed from this weekend’s game, there is some recent success. Most of that is with Navy. The Middies have earned a bowl bid in 13 of the previous 14 seasons and a division championship this season after losing the tiebreaker for the division championship last season. Army is bowl-bound for the second time in six years. Therein lies the first ominous indicator for this storied rivalry.

Different Directions

Simply put, these two teams are headed in different directions. Navy owns a 14-game winning streak in this series. To put that in perspective, no team had won more than five straight in the 100-year history of the series until Navy started this current streak. Only twice in that century of competition did a team have an unbeaten streak longer than five games (8 and 6 games). And with Navy having wins over Houston and Notre Dame this season, there’s no reason to believe the streak ends here. Those wins against Houston and Notre Dame help show how big the divide is between the two programs.

Another indication of the divide between these two teams? The College Football Playoff Committee was forced to develop contingency plans for postponement of several bowl announcements — including the New Year’s Six (NY6) Cotton Bowl — in the case of a Navy win in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship Game last weekend. With a Navy win, the Committee would have to consider Navy for the Group-of-Five NY6 bowl berth.

Common Denominator?

The Navy athletic department is happy with the state of their program. They are in the best Group-of-Five conference in America and are one of the top teams in that conference. They are competitive on a national level, year-in and year-out. The same cannot be said for Army. The Black Knights have two bowl games in the past two decades. There is mounting frustration among the administration, athletic department and the fan base.

There will always be a discussion of the merits of investing in a football program at a service academy. But if Navy and Air Force can have successful football programs, why not Army? And make no mistake: in no other rivalry in all of sports is the identity of the competitors and the institutions more tied to the result of one game than with Army-Navy. Every single cadet and midshipman — from the Rhodes Scholars to the lowest ranked graduates — can tell you their class’s record against their opponent. My class? 2-2. The 14-year streak threatens to make this game a laughingstock for Navy and an annual reminder of futility for Army.

And make no mistake: in no other rivalry in all of sports is the identity of the competitors and the institutions more tied to the result of one game than with Army-Navy.

Double-Edged Sword

Navy’s foray into the AAC — a conference that determines one true champion with a championship game — created a scheduling problem. Neither institution is willing to have this game anywhere other than the last game of the season. Previous to this, the game’s television ratings suffered from being broadcast opposite one or two Power 5 championship games. However, with CBS willing to showcase this game, it was moved to the week after the conference championship games to accommodate all of the aforementioned competing demands.

On the surface, that looks great. It gives Army-Navy a national showcase on a national network. And that, in turn, generates great media attention like the coverage provided by ESPN’s College Gameday:

But there’s a problem with this. Showcasing Army-Navy after the season and after all of the championship games creates an “exhibition” mindset among casual fans. And a mindset reminiscent of how bowls were perceived before 1965, when final rankings and national championships were awarded before any of the bowl games were played.

The Exhibition Mindset

All of these contributing factors are leading this rivalry down a dangerous road. And if the trends continue, it’s easy to see competitiveness, money, television demands, and scheduling conflicts continue to whither away at this rivalry much as water shapes rock over many years.

As it is now, the game is more symbolic than meaningful to most fans. It’s a chance to feel good about a game. A rare opportunity to cheer for two teams to both be successful. A time to be a truly neutral spectator, unburdened by your own team interests or affiliations. Unless, of course, you are an Army or Navy fan.

It’s that gradual decline, from deciding national championships and Heismans, to mediocrity, to symbolic, to exhibition, that causes many fans concern. And the great legacy, the excitement, the grand spectacle that is Army-Navy cannot survive if it becomes merely an exhibition game.

Army-Navy 2016: The First Step

The first step to righting the ship is Army winning a few games. The competitive balance and relevance of both programs on the national level is — by far — the most important variable in ensuring the quality of this rivalry. The other things — television, ratings, scheduling — will find a way to work themselves out. And that’s what fans want to see: a competitive game that has meaning. All three academies face similar challenges, yet Army continually lags behind both Air Force and Navy in competitive balance.

This must change.

Certainly there are a myriad of unique considerations relating to upgrading Army football. But alumni and fans should expect the Army athletic department to figure something out. If Air Force and Navy can do it, I’m confident Army can, too.

Next, both administrations need to fully examine the benefits and drawbacks of the schedule. Is it time for Army to join a conference again? Maybe it is time to consider Army-Navy move to rivalry weekend, along side The Game, The Iron Bowl, and Bedlam? If both teams, particularly Army, want to move their programs into the modern age of college football, some fundamental assumptions must be challenged. Or do the administrations maintain the status quo. You cannot expect the college football world to acquiesce to this rivalry in the coming years.

Enjoy the Show

In the meantime, tune and watch the purest example of college football on Saturday. Student-Athletes whose daily routines are unique among the world of college athletes. And take time to enjoy all of the many great things that the best rivalry in all of sports has to offer.

Enjoy it … before it’s too late.


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