Fast start a must for Army in 2003

The Black Knights will have their work cut out for them if they hope to reverse the misfortune of a dismal 1-11 campaign in 2002. Army faithful will get their first look at the 2003 team in a home opener against Connecticut just two months away at Michie Stadium. Army is heading into its fourth season under Todd Berry and it goes without saying that the outcome of this season will be crucial to the tenure of Coach Berry and his staff.

The Black Knights head into 2003 with a more experienced defense and a number of key returning skill position players on offense. However, Army must rebuild its offensive line, settle in on a quarterback, and build depth at running back if it hopes to be successful. The loss of 4 underclassman letterman running backs during the off-season, two of them having authored 100-yard games in their cadet careers, will leave Army with only one experienced running back, Carlton Jones, in 2003.

Most pre-season forecasts have Army near the bottom of the Division 1-A ranks. It is imperative for Army to garner some early season successes to avoid a repeat of last season. Team confidence was lacking in 2002, and the early season setbacks against Holy Cross and Rutgers started Army on what many longtime fans regarded as the worst season in Army Football history, rivaled only by the 0-10 campaign in 1973.

The 2003 members of Army football will be anxious to make a statement in this season and get off to a fast start. Army's 13-game 2003 slate begins with a four game road stretch. The first two games, against Connecticut and Rutgers, will be key. Connecticut is a future member of the Big East that finished strong in 2002 with a four-game winning streak. Rutgers garnered only 1 win in 2002, but it was a 44-0 drubbing of Army. Each of these teams is not highly ranked in pre-season forecasts, with Connecticut ranked 98th and Rutgers ranked 88th in the Sporting News pre-season poll. Army is ranked 108th in that same poll. It is both imperative, as well as plausible, that the Black Knights can garner wins at home against each of these teams. Starting the season 2-0 could set the stage for a run that could include a few conference wins, as well as a reversal of the recent misfortune against the other service academies.

To be successful, Army must have solid production from its starting QB, whether it be Nevels, Dahman or Silva, and its stable of veteran receivers. My guess is that Army's best chance of winning in 2003 is if the more mobile and experienced Reggie Nevels returns to the helm. The offense must be able to sustain drives and will have to establish a balance between run and pass for it to put points on the scoreboard.

Army's defense will be one of its most experienced heading into the pre-season, with 8 returning starters and the first team able to field 9 players with starting experience. There are a few honors candidates on defense, to include OLB Ryan Kent, FS Lucius Weaver, defensive ends Odene Brathwaite and Keenen Beasley, as well as cornerbacks Jonathan Lewis and Delente Brewer. Army's defense in 2003 must be able to not only stop opponents' drives, but also force more turnovers.

With a slightly improved offense and a potentially much better defense, Army will be harder to beat in 2003. Below is a brief look at each game on the schedule.

#98 Connecticut—The Huskies are an experienced team with 8 returning starters on each side of the ball. They may overlook Army after playing Indiana in their home opener. The difference in talent and experience is minimal, but with Army playing at home, I'll give them a 55-45 chance in this one.

#88 Rutgers-- The Scarlet Knights had only one win in 2002, but they proved to be much quicker and more athletic when they beat Army 44-0. Coach Schiano has established a recruiting pipeline in Florida and he has stockpiled some talent. The offense will be retooled under a new OC and the offensive line is being rebuilt. Army should give them a close game in 2003 if the team is healthy at QB. Army has a 45-55 chance of winning this one.

#82 Tulane-- Although Tulane was 8-5 with a bowl victory in 2002, the cadets have three consecutive wins over the Green Wave under Todd Berry. This game will be Tulane's first road trip in 2003. Army will be hard pressed to win a fourth straight, but with Tulane rebuilding its defense and a break here or there, Army could come out on top. Army has a 40-60 chance of winning this one.

#52 South Florida—The Bulls make their first appearance against the Black Knights as a C-USA foe after authoring a 9-2 campaign as a 1-A independent in 2002. These teams will be feeling each other out and the cadets will be hard-pressed to stop a wide open high scoring passing attack. The Bulls will be playing this year without star QB Marquell Blankell. If the Black Knights have some early season success against their first three foes, this game could be close. Army has a 30-70 chance of winning this one.

@ #24 TCU--- With many of the Black Knights hailing from Texas, the team could overachieve in this one, but an upset win is unlikely. The cadets have a 10% chance of stealing a win here.

@ #64 Louisville---Army wins this one only if Mike Wallace plays. Seriously, Louisville will be breaking in a new coaching staff and a QB. Nevertheless, it will be hard to beat one of the conference's traditionally top teams on the road. Army has a 25-75 chance of winning this one.

#85 East Carolina-- It is surprising that one of the conferences better teams is ranked so low in the pre-season. Nevertheless, the cadets under Berry put a scare in ECU in 2000 and 2001 and ECU will be fielding a new coaching staff this season. Give the cadets a 40-60 chance of pulling out a Homecoming win.

@ #42 Cincinnati—The Bearcats boast the league's highest rated QB in Gino Guidugli, which is likely the reason for the team's pre-season rank. The team will be breaking in a majority of new starters on both sides of the ball. The cadets have played Cincinnati tough both times they played them under Berry, losing in the closing moments in 2001. The Black Knights could have some confidence heading into this game and have enough talent to give the Bearcats a scare. Army has a 30-70 chance of winning this one.

@ #80 UAB—The Black Knights had a heartbreaking loss against an inexperienced Blazer team in 2002 on a last second TD pass. UAB is much more experienced in 2003 with 16 returning starters. Army will have a 30-70 chance of getting this one.

@ #46 Air Force—Air Force is coming off an 8-5 bowl season and fielded an inexperienced team in 2002. The Falcons have plenty of experience on both sides of the ball heading into 2002, to include a veteran O-line and QB Chance Harridge. The Black Knights have not won in Colorado Springs since 1977, when they effectively mixed in passing and option runs for a big win. The Black Knights showed that they could move the ball against the Falcons in the 3 seasons that they've played them under Berry, but mistakes and turnovers ultimately led to their downfall. Army will win in Colorado Springs one of these years. 2003 could be the year for a huge upset win. Give them a 30-70 chance of doing it.

#106 Houston—The Cougars will be fielding a young team with a new coach in 2003. If the weather is cold at Michie and the Black Knights are healthy, they should get this win. Give the cadets a 60-40 chance of getting this one.

@#32 Hawaii—Hawaii was not very good when Rick Greenspan scheduled this game a few years back. The Rainbows have been rebuilt into a solid club under June Jones. It will be tough to fly to Hawaii and get a win, but the Rainbows could be caught overlooking Army as Alabama looms on their schedule the following week. Give the cadets a 25-75 chance of getting this one.

#101 Navy—Navy appears to be on the road to football recovery after just one season under Paul Johnson. Their offense put points on the board against a number of teams and their season-ending drubbing against Army gives them a boost of confidence heading into 2003. Nevertheless, their talent pool is on par with Army's, so look for this game to be a return to a classic service academy match-up. This game is a toss-up at 50-50.

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In summary, Army's 13 game slate features 7 opponents ranked #80 and below in the national rankings. Although all of the teams are still ranked ahead of the Black Knights, the cadets could get their share of wins in 2003 if the can stay healthy, get some wins early in the year, and erase the mistakes and other problems associated with 2002. My prediction is 5-8 for this season's Army team.


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