After all, Navy's relatively easy schedule is often cited when discussing how former head coach Paul Johnson was able to right the ship in Annapolis during the 2003 campaign, with experts and internet pundits alike regarding the 37.6% winning percentage of Navy's 2003 opponents as a major factor in Navy's 8-5 finish that year. With Army moving towards a greater emphasis on the option offense under Rich Ellerson in 2009, the combination of schematic change and schedule downgrading seems consistent with Navy's established formula for winning at a service academy in the 21st century. Yet there is only one problem: Army's schedule may not be as conducive to winning as it initially appears.
Don't get me wrong. No one is disputing the combined 43% winning percentage of Army's 2009 opponents from a season ago (effectively giving Army the 4th easiest schedule in the country according to the NCAA), but the question does remain as to whether or not the Cadets will face similarly unsuccessful teams in 2009. Is this a case of Army getting the benefit of playing a host of traditional bottom feeders who will feed Rich Ellerson's attempts at resurrecting West Point football, or are the Black Knights in for a rude awakening of much-improved teams that will be better than their 2008 records indicate? Today, we take a look at the first third of Army's slate for the upcoming season, focusing in on the reasons for both optimism and concerns on the part of Army fans.
2008 Record: 3-9 (2-6)
2009 Returning Starters: 17 (9*, 8)
Reason to get excited: Like Army, Eastern Michigan has been stuck in a cycle of losing which has left the patrons of Ypsilanti, Michigan questioning whether the program can ever turn it around. Army actually beat Eastern Michigan a season ago, winning 17-13 during an October matchup which saw the Black Knights outgain the Eagles by 86 total yards. During the win, Army's defense held Eastern Michigan's offense to 162.5 yards and 12.75 points below their season averages in both categories. Eastern Michigan has only one win against an FBS non-conference foe since the 2001 season.
Reason to lose sleep: Eastern Michigan finished last season on a relative high note, defeating bowl bound Central Michigan 56-52. While the defense struggled all of last year, new head coach Ron English has a penchant for leading defensive turnarounds, having fielded Top 25 defenses at both Michigan and Louisville each of the past three seasons. With a veteran offense coming back to include quarterback Andy Schmitt as well as leading rusher Terrence Blevins (575 rushing yards, 12 TDs) and leading receiver Jacory Stone (88 catches for 943 yards), Eastern Michigan could very well be this year's surprise MAC contender.
Bottom Line: Eastern Michigan may be a perennial bottom feeder, but with new head coach Ron English coming in the Eagles should be on the path to improvement for 2009. While it'll take more than a single offseason for English to help shore up the nation's 95th ranked total defense and 103rd ranked rush defense, Eastern Michigan should be one of the MAC's best on the offensive side of the ball, so long as quarterback Andy Schmitt stays healthy. Having lost to the Black Knights on the road a year ago, Eastern Michigan's players will have no shortage of incentive to show up for the game.
Final Verdict: Eastern Michigan will be better better than the "experts" think in 2009.
2008 Record: 4-8
2009 Returning Starters: 11 (6*, 5)
Reason to get excited: The Blue Devils haven't had a winning season since Steve Spurrier departed as head coach in 1994, with the program winning only eight games over the course of the last five seasons. Duke loses their top tackler and arguably their best defensive player from a season ago in linebacker Michael Tauiliili, as well as their top receiver in Eron Riley. The Blue Devils return just 56% of their letterman from a year ago, which is the second lowest mark in the ACC. The Blue Devils have not beaten a team in their road opener over the course of the last ten seasons.
Reason to lose sleep: Duke defeated Navy 41-31 a season ago, and also blew out ACC foe Virginia and beat bowl bound Vanderbilt. Duke was arguably much better than their 4-8 record would indicate, losing games against bowl bound Northwestern, Wake Forest, and North Carolina by eight points or less. David Cutcliffe, who took over as Duke's head coach a season ago, posted the school's best record since 2003 and went 44-29 at Ole Miss between 1998-2004. The Blue Devils, while only returning eleven total starters, get back Second Team All-ACC quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, as well as a veteran defensive line which has had plenty of experience playing against the triple option.
Bottom Line: Despite having two FCS opponents on the schedule this season, David Cutcliffe's Blue Devil team could struggle in getting back to their 4-8 mark from a season ago. Still, Duke has been quietly stockpiling talent despite their poor record over the last five seasons, so don't be surprised if they reach bowl eligibility in 2009.
Final Verdict: Duke's record may end up being about the same as it was last season, but the Blue Devils will be better in 2009 than their 2008 record indicates.
2008 Record: 12-2
2009 Returning Starters: 11 (4, 7)
Reason to get excited: The Cardinals and their record setting offense from a season ago lose some major pieces in quarterback Nate Davis (5th Round Draft Choice) and four full time starters from the offensive line, including an almost unheard of three First Team All-MAC selections. Ball State also loses defensive minded head coach Brady Hoke from last year's team, with former OC Stan Parrish stepping in as the new head coach. Parrish, who has been a head coach at Marshall and Kansas State, also has the ubiquitous distinction of having lost 27 of the last 28 games he has coached in as a head coach. The one win you ask? There was none; Parrish and his Wildcats tied a 1-7 Kansas team 17-17 during the 1987 season.
Reason to lose sleep: Losing Davis and four players from the offensive line aside, this is still a team that went 12-2 a year ago, and still one with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. Three of the top four tacklers are back, including MAC Freshmen of the Year Sean Baker at strong safety. Running back Miquale Lewis, who rushed for 1736 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2008, is also back, as is sophomore receivers Briggs Orsbon (68 catches, 813 yards). Parish has been high on redshirt freshmen quarterback Kelly Page, who is expected to start at quarterback for the Cardinals. Ball State has also had plenty of experience playing against the option in the past, defeating Navy in both 2007 and 2008.
Bottom Line: Replacing a player of Davis' caliber is next to impossible, while the team's losses on the offensive line will likely be felt especially hard during the opening stretch of the season. That being said, the Cardinals still posses the MAC's most talented core of skill position players on offense, and return a defense with seven starters who have had plenty of experience against the triple option over the past two seasons. Ball State shouldn't match their 12-2 record from a season ago, and the Cardinals could even struggle in getting back to the MAC Title game with key road dates against Northern Illinois and Western Michigan late in the year.
Final Verdict: Like Duke, Ball State may not be as good as they were in 2008, but against Army they don't have to be. This will be a key early season matchup for the Cadets which could end up being a "springboard" game for coach Ellerson's team.
2008 Record: 2-10 (0-8)
2009 Returning starters: 15 (9*, 6)
Reason to get excited: Few BCS conference teams have fallen as far as the Cyclones over the past three seasons, as Iowa State's two year experiment with Gene Chizik ended in Chizik's leaving for Auburn after posting a two year record of 5-19. Not a lot went right for the Cyclones last year, as the Iowa State defense gave up 35.8 points per game, with their only wins coming against FCS South Dakota State and MAC bottom dweller Kent State. Even against Kent State, Iowa State was outgained 410 yards to 374 yards, and arguably only avoided the upset because of a blocked kick. A 22nd ranked Iowa State team was actually outgained 365-229 by Army during a 2005 trip to Michie.
Reason to lose sleep: Yes, Iowa State went 2-10 last year, but they went 2-10 in what many people believe was the most difficult conference in the country. Iowa State may not have been as bad as their record indicated, as the Cyclones outgained Iowa in 17-5 loss, led Kansas by 20 at the half before letting the Jayhawks come back, and led Colorado 24-13 late before losing 28-24 to the Buffaloes. This year the Cyclones return 15 total starters including virtually the entire offense, which figures to finally be effective with junior Austin Arnaud back under center for a second full season. The defense should be better with Paul Rhodes coming in as the new head coach in 2009.
Bottom Line: Iowa State may have been one of the weakest BCS conference teams in the country during 2008, but the fact is that the Cyclones have nowhere to go but up in 2009, even if their final record doesn't top last year's 2-10 mark. With a veteran offensive line returning (70% of total starters from 2008), Army fans will have to look out for quarterback Austen Arnaud, who should finally be primed to join a list of highly touted Big Twelve quarterback in 2009.
Final Verdict: Iowa State will be better than they were in 2008, and will present numerous problems for Army on both sides of the ball despite what should be another losing season in Ames.
Tune in next week as Adam continues his look at whether or not Army's 2009 schedule will really be as "easy" as the experts say. As always, Adam can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com