Last week, we examined the rougher half of Army's 2016 schedule. The Black Knights will face six established coaches -- Brian Kelly, Matt Rhule, David Cutcliffe, Troy Calhoun, Ken Niumatalolo, and Rice's David Bailiff. If Army can win just one of those games (Rice or Navy), it will give itself a good chance to make a bowl game. Two wins in those six contests will give West Point a great shot at a postseason event.
This is because the other six games of the season enable Army to post a winning record.
If the Notre Dame-Temple-Duke-Air Force-Navy-Rice cluster is imposing and difficult, the other side of the divide is quite manageable for Army -- not easy, but certainly attainable.
In 2016, Army plays two FCS opponents, Lafayette and Morgan State. The Black Knights face four other vulnerable FBS foes: UTEP, Buffalo, North Texas, and Wake Forest. The games against Notre Dame and the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy opponents will sell tickets and generate buzz, but these six under-the-radar games will determine whether Army goes bowling or not in December.
The first (and perhaps second and third) point to make about the direction of the 2015 season is that it all went wrong on the first night, at home, against an FCS opponent. When Fordham ambushed Army at Michie Stadium, Army didn't merely lose a game and a portal to a 6-6 (bowl) season; the Black Knights lost a measure of confidence right out of the gate. The Black Knights didn't have to be great; they didn't have to be extremely good against the Rams, either; they just had to be good enough... but they weren't.
Establishing a higher regular threshold of consistency -- being competent at all points in a season, and in all kinds of situations such as before and after bye weeks, in the middle of extended non-bye stretches, and in all sorts of weather conditions -- can turn 2016 in the direction the 2015 campaign never could acquire. That's a broadly articulated goal, but it is particularly relevant to the weaker half of this 12-game slate.
Understand this: In 2015, Army played well enough against some of its tougher opponents to beat the lesser foes on its schedule. However, Army couldn't take that level of performance -- against Penn State, for instance -- and replicate it against Fordham. Army played well against the superior teams (including Navy), but fell dramatically against Fordham and Wake Forest.
The failure of the 2015 season lay not in the noble losing efforts against quality opposition, but in the severely deficient performances against mediocre (at best) opponents. Had Army's Penn State-level defense existed against Fordham, and had its Rice-level offense existed against Wake, what was a 2-10 season would have become 4-8. The season wouldn't have been a complete success, but the program would be viewed in a noticeably better light.
Nevertheless, Army has a chance to take a great leap forward this year. A 5-1 record in these six games against more frail adversaries (two in the FCS, four in the FBS) will give Army a great shot at a six-win campaign. Winning 83 percent of these six games -- allowing for one, but only one, stumble -- seems to represent the right mixture of optimism and realism. (A 4-2 mark, equating to a 67-percent success rate, should be the minimum expectation in these six games.)
This is how the challenge for Army should be framed in 2016: The year doesn't demand that the Black Knights reach a very high ceiling each Saturday. Yes, that would be great, but it's not the heart of the battle.
West Point's foremost task on the gridiron this fall is not to elevate the ceiling, but to raise the floor. If Army's least effective, least potent performance sets a far higher standard than in 2015, the team will very likely reach that 5-1 (83 percent) mark which would pave the way to a bowl... as long as the Black Knights can grab one game in the other (more overwhelming) six-game half of the schedule.
It's an underappreciated aspect of competition: America is a society and culture of winners, meaning that the American sports fan generally gravitates to the team or player who is the absolute best. Yet, the quieter and less sexy process of moving from also-ran to a relevant player on the scene is more subtle: Going from 6-6 to 10-2 demands the attainment of superpowered excellence, but the climb from 2-10 to 6-6 involves raising the level of one's worst performance, to make sure that the quality of a mediocre day at the office is still good enough to exceed a similarly credentialed opponent.
Consider, among the six lesser teams Army faces in 2016, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Army typically plays Wake closely, home or away. The last two games in the series were decided by a field goal, and the 2013 game was a seven-point game entering the fourth quarter. Army led that game with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
If 83 percent of life for Army is found in going 5-1 against the "Smaller Six," the Black Knights don't have to become a juggernaut. They have to find a way to make their average performance less deficient than it's been the past few seasons.
A season without stomach-punch losses to the likes of Fordham and Wake Forest will enable the coming autumn to fulfill its promise on the banks of the Hudson.