The recent round of conference realignment, which doesn't feel fully resolved, has made modern-day athletic directors ever more attuned to the need to reconsider their conference affiliation each season. Army tried life in a conference beginning in 1998. A seven-year foray in Conference USA never produced more than three wins in a season. Battered and barren, the Black Knights returned to Independent status in 2005. It was hard to justify being in a conference when such an existence regularly failed to deliver any sort of results. Given that Army has not been able to consistently perform at a higher level, making the leap to another conference (or any conference) just doesn't make sense.
Yet, the idea of one day being able to move to a conference is something Army should be willing to consider if the timing is right.
The Black Knights just need to look at what's happened with Navy's first move to a conference.
The Midshipmen played for a division championship and a possible spot in The American's first conference championship game. Navy, through the structure provided by a conference, very nearly played for a spot in the New Year's Six. Being in contention for a conference championship in late November gave Navy a level of prominence Army would love to have. The time's not right for West Point to adopt a league, but the trajectory of Navy's 2015 season perfectly illustrated the benefits of league membership.
In the meantime, what can Army do to maximize its Independent identity?
The most immediate and realistic portal of opportunity is to schedule wisely, given the freedom of an Independent school. With that in mind, let's compare the 2015 Army schedule mixture to the 2016 version. Let's see what Boo Corrigan and Jeff Monken came up with in each season:
Air Force and Navy will always be on the docket, so in essence, Army works with a 10-team discretionary schedule. Of the 10 slots Army had available in 2015, the program scheduled two Big Ten teams (Penn State and Rutgers), two ACC teams (Wake Forest and Duke), two team from The American (Connecticut and Tulane), two Football Championship Subdivision teams (Fordham and Bucknell), one Conference USA team (Rice), and one Mid-American Conference team (Eastern Michigan). It should not rate as a surprise that Army went 0-4 against the two Power Five conferences on the docket (Big Ten and ACC), and 0-2 against The American, which was the best Group of Five conference last season. Army went 0-1 against Rice and split against the FCS. The only conference Army posted a winning record against was the MAC. The Black Knights beat Eastern Michigan.
In light of this schedule mix and its results, it stands to reason that Army should have reduced its Power Five slate and increased its Group of Five schedule load while not reducing its two-FCS schedule.
The 2016 mixture: Notre Dame (Independent, essentially a Power Five team), two ACC teams (Duke and Wake Forest), three Conference USA teams (UTEP and Rice), two FCS teams (Lafayette and Morgan State), one team from The American (Temple), and one MAC team (Buffalo).
If Army is going to schedule a tough game, Notre Dame is an ideal fit. History and national resonance are part of any and every Army-Notre Dame game. That's good for the sport. Otherwise, though, the Black Knights need to schedule to get wins. Reducing their AAC workload from two teams to one? Good. Increasing their C-USA slate from one team to three? Good. Maintaining the two-FCS tally? Good. The only disappointment is the failure to increase the number of MAC foes, given that Army's only FBS win last year came against that conference.
All in all, though, these are solid marks. If Army wins big, it can adjust this kind of schedule mix, but at this point in time, the schedule largely meets West Point's needs.