2008 Record: 8-5
2009 Returning Starters: 12 (6*, 6)
Reason to get excited: Is Troy Calhoun even going to have a team to field come November 7th? A recent story published in the Colorado Springs Gazette brings up some serious concerns in the personnel department for the Falcons, including whether or not star players Tim Jefferson, Asher Clark, and Reggie Rembert will on the field and at full strength in 2009. Even if they are, the Falcons probably weren't as good as their 8-5 record a year ago indicates, as Troy Calhoun's team was the beneficiary of some very lucky breaks. The Falcons struggled at Michie a season ago, and were held to just 142 rushing yards (second lowest output of the year) by Army's defense.
Reason to lose sleep: Air Force was one of the youngest teams in the entire country last season, and the Falcons bring back 44 lettermen in 2008. Eligibility issues aside, Jefferson showed remarkable promise as a true freshmen last season, garnering MWC Freshman of the Year honors. He's a heady player who understands the offense, and athletic enough to make plays in both the run and passing games. The Falcons have no shortage of young talent, with junior fullback Jared Tew and sophomore Asher Clark ready to step in and fill the void left by the departed Todd Newell. The Falcons also return two of the top defensive stars in the Mountain West, as the defense which held Army scoreless for nearly 59 minutes last season gets back linebacker Ken Lamendola and safety Chris Thomas.
Bottom Line: The Black Knights had an excellent opportunity to score a major victory against the Falcons at Michie Stadium last year, but with Tim Jefferson back at quarterback and the Air Force offense at full strength, it will be hard to expect similar results in 2008. Air Force is still a very strong team on defensive, and has the experienced senior leadership to deal with Army's option attack. Likewise, Army's offensive line could struggle against Air Force's ‘50' front, which slowed down Navy's triple option considerably during last year's meeting. While Army certainly proved capable of hanging with Air Force a season ago, this game could look much closer to the 2007 installment of the rivalry than the 2008 version.
Final Verdict: If Jefferson and Rembert are cleared to play, then the 2009 Falcons will be better than their 2008 record indicates.
2008 Record: 4-7
2009 Returning Starters: 19 (10, 9)
Reason to get excited: Sure, Army may have lost to FCS opponent New Hampshire last year, but the Keydets are far from the established power that the Wildcats are. VMI's triple option offense under OC Brent Davis may catch most defenses off guard, but it's not like Rich Ellerson or the current Army defense has never faced off against the triple option before. VMI lost 51-31 to Ohio last season, and the Keydets are only 1-12 against Army in the all-time series.
Reason to lose sleep: As Army found out against New Hampshire a year ago, there is a big difference between just playing an FCS team and beating one. The Keydets may have finished the year a ho-hum 4-7, but with the top rushing offense in the FCS and the country's 15th ranked scoring offense they weren't without their share of superlatives. With ten starters back on offense and a full season under their belts after the arrival of head coach Sparky Woods in 2008, expect VMI to be one of the most improved FCS squads in the country this year.
Bottom Line: This is no "gimme" game, not by any stretch of the imagination. While Army holds a unique advantage in that Rich Ellerson has worked with Brent Davis' mentor and former boss (Paul Johnson), it remains to be seen whether or not Army will be able to out-scheme a talented Keydet offense. Likewise, VMI's defense won't be completely in the dark against Army's offense, and should be much improved after a woeful 2008. If this game provides nothing else for the Cadets, it will give us an early indicator of how the Double Eagle Flex defense might work against a triple option offense before the showdown with Navy in December.
Final Verdict: Coming off of the Air Force game, this could be a classic "trap" game for the Black Knights. VMI should be much better in 2009 than their 2008 record indicates, and could very well find themselves in the FCS playoffs this year.
2008 Record: 1-11
2009 Returning Starters: 16 (7, 9)
Reason to get excited: Let's not sugarcoat this: your local high school's JV squad could probably hang three touchdowns on the Mean Green defense, which gave up an appalling 47.6 points per game a season ago. Offensively, North Texas regressed by some four points per game from year one to year two in Todd Dodge's spread system, and now must rebuild without former Sun Belt Freshman of the Year quarterback Giovanni Vizza (transfer) and All-Conference wideout Casey Fitzgerald (graduation). The Mean Green, who were -17 in turnovers a season ago, are perhaps the one team in the country more inept at holding onto the ball than Army.
Reason to lose sleep: Offense, offense, offense. North Texas may end up as one of the worst teams in the nation (again) on the defensive side of the ball, but if former prep phenom quarterback Riley Dodge can gel in his father's offense then look out. A former University of Texas commit out of high school, the younger Dodge will have plenty of help on both sides of the football, as the Mean Green return 17 total starters, including eight on an offense which (theoretically, anyway) should finally have taken to the former Southlake Caroll coach's system.
Bottom Line: Todd Dodge hasn't exactly worked miracles since coming to Denton, but entering the critical third year he still has a chance to rebuild what was the Sun Belt's flagship program. Riley Dodge may not have much college experience, but he's a veteran when it comes to running his father's offense and should have plenty of offensive skill players to assist his progression. Remember, even a 2-10 North Texas team hung 62 points on Navy in a home loss in 2006…
Final Verdict: North Texas will be better in 2009 than their 2008 record indicates.
2008 Record: 8-5
2009 Returning Starters: 12 (4, 8)
Reason to get excited: Ken Niumatalolo may have kept Navy's bowl and CIC trophy streak alive in 2008, but there might be something to be said for the idea that he did it largely on the heels of a star-studded offensive cast which now moves on. Gone are QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada, SB Shun White, and FB Eric Kettani, and in enters junior QB Ricky Dobbs and a veritable "who's who" of offensive skill players. Not only does Navy lose their top two rushers and their signal caller, but the Mids return only 49.1% of their lettermen, making them one of the most inexperienced teams in the entire country. According to college football analyst Phil Steele, this statistic gives Navy an 82% chance of having a weaker (or the same record) in 2009 as the Mids had in 2008.
Reason to lose sleep: Really, like you needed a reminder? The Cadets have dropped seven straight to the Midshipmen, losing by an average of 29 points per game during that time. Last season's drudging at the hands of Navy may have been the worst to date, with the Midshipmen shutting out the Cadets 34-0. Navy, despite losing several key components on offense, returns most of their defense from a season ago, and continues to show advantages in terms of personnel and scheme that Army has yet to match.
Bottom Line: The only way the Black Knights beat the Midshipmen this year is if Navy gets complacent and plays a mistake-prone game. Considering Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been adamant about not getting complacent against service academy rivals, that scenario isn't likely to happen. Still, the Mids do have questions on offense, and with the right gameplan and right mentality the Black Knights should have a chance to make this one interesting.
Final Verdict: It may not show in the final record, but Navy should be about as good in 2009 as they were in 2008.
Conclusion: Ok, so nobody will be confusing Army's 2009 schedule with the schedules of USC or Florida, but to discount Army's 2009 opponents based only on their 2008 records would be to overlook the very real possibility for on-field improvement from these teams. While the Black Knights may face one of the easiest schedules in the country by the NCAA's standard, the relative strength of the competition alone won't be enough to assure Army a winning campaign this season. Perhaps coach Ellerson said it best during a recent interview when he made mention to the fact that "nobody knows how difficult that schedule is." And while Army's 2009 opponents should be better as a group than they were in 2008, only the tangible improvement of the Black Knight football team will lead Army back to a bowl game for the first time since 1996.