3 Reasons Army-Navy Owns Intrigue

The Navy Midshipmen have controlled The Brave Old Army Team for the past seven seasons, accumulating a 53-49-7 edge in college football's most treasured rivalry. Yet, a long run of imbalance in the clash between the Black Knights and the Billy Goat doesn't mean that 2009 will offer more of the same. Buckle up, everyone: This Army-Navy game really could be special.

Sure, the Men of Ken will be favored against Rich Ellerson's athletes on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, but heading into the 110th rendition of this American sports centerpiece, a Navy win is hardly the sure bet it has been for some time. Army definitely bears the burden of having to prove itself against the Mids, but with that having been acknowledged, one doesn't have to be a breathless, shameless hype-meister to crank up the excitement for this year's West Point-Annapolis encounter.

There are three reasons (among others) why Army-Navy could create an extra-delicious drama on a day when the game will have the national television stage all to itself, removed from the conference championship games that used to swallow up the event.

The first reason? 51.

Okay, you're wondering, what the heck is that all about? You're probably inclined to think that since Navy's stud linebacker, Ross Pospisil – the heart of coordinator Buddy Green's defense – wears the big "5-1" on his back, the number 51 refers to the man who could be the single biggest difference maker on the field. But no, we're going with a subtler but more original approach.

51 refers to the number of points Wisconsin poured on the hapless, helpless Hawaii Warriors late Saturday night (or early Sunday morning) in Honolulu. Yes, folks, that's the same Hawaii team that looked dynamite in knocking back Navy, 24-17, on Nov. 28. Navy began the season by playing Ohio State close, but after Wisconsin – a 31-13 loser to the Buckeyes – threw down a 41-point popping of Hawaii, it's hard to gauge just where Navy stands.

Is this the team that plays its best against formidable opponents, or a team that lets down its guard against less-credentialed foes? Is Ken Niumatalolo's club 8-4 because Notre Dame and Wake Forest produced seasons far below expectations this year, or are the Men of Ken 8-4 because they're still pulling close games out of the fire and displaying the resourcefulness that has defined Navy football throughout a decade of success, a decade that has kept the Commander-In-Chief Trophy in Annapolis for yet another season?

Wisconsin's 51-point outing against Hawaii raises alarm bells – or at least, it should – in the Navy camp. A team that did win each of its overtime games this season must face up to the possibility that playing games close to the edge can burn the Midshipmen this Saturday. Hawaii played faster than Navy on Thanksgiving weekend, so when Army comes calling at "The Linc" on Dec. 12, the Mids need to bring speed, urgency and sharpness to the stadium. Anything less could very easily put them in trouble.

The second reason? Auburn.

Speaking of the same Thanksgiving weekend that saw Navy get whipped near Waikiki, there was another game during that period which should be considered when contemplating this contest.

Auburn didn't beat Alabama in an emotionally-charged rivalry game, but the Tigers came very close to toppling the Crimson Tide. Why? They treated the game as their bowl bash. Yes, Auburn's headed to a bowl game, but beating a hated archrival counted for more inside the AU locker room. As a result, the Tigers' coaching staff pulled out all the stops against Nick Saban's squad: Double-quarterback lateral passes, end-arounds, first-quarter onside kicks, wildcat formations, the works. No plays were left on the cutting room floor, no tricks were kept in the grab bag. No expense was spared, no piece of human imagination left unused. Auburn spilled the tank from every conceivable standpoint. In terms of physicality, emotions and tactics, the Tigers – making a full investment in everything they did – nearly took down a club that just throttled Florida for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

Rivalry games do this. Rivalry games create such chaos. And with Ellerson entering his first Army-Navy game as the head coach of the Black Knights of the Hudson, it stands to reason that this will be the hardest game-planning assignment for Niumatalolo and Co. They don't know what gadgets and wrinkles the former Cal Poly commander will cook up in Philadelphia. In future years, Army might acquire precision and polish that will make it harder for Navy to measure up physically (who knows?), but this year, there's a question mark hovering over the preparational aspects of this matchup, and that works to Army's advantage, much as Auburn – with a first-year head coach – was able to surprise Bama for three quarters before falling in the fourth.

The third reason? Added time.

Part of what makes Ellerson's preparation-based advantage even more real in this game is the fact that Army has had an extremely uncommon three-week break heading into Philly. A few years ago, UCLA had three weeks off before playing USC in early December, but that instance is conspicuous as an exception to normal patterns. Having two straight off weeks before a regular-season game is unheard of, making this contest – in essence if not in actual fact – a bowl game for Army. Navy's had one off week as well, so it's hard to view this event (rivalry passions aside) as "just another game on the schedule." It's different, and the pushed-back week is partly responsible for creating this unique dynamic. Will either team be particularly rusty, or will the break make one team particularly crisp in its execution? Will Father Time allow Army to recuperate and do things it wasn't able to do near the tail-end of the true regular season (which "ended" on Nov. 21 at North Texas), or will time merely force the Black Knights to re-learn some historically painful lessons against Navy?

The only honest answer to those questions is the same: "We don't really know." But ah, that's precisely the point: "Not knowing" is something that hasn't really applied to recent Army-Navy games during the Mids' seven-game winning streak. During Navy's run of dominance, the boys from Maryland have outscored Army by a cumulative score of 274-71, or an average per-game score of 39-10.

This year, Navy's still the favorite, but not with the certainty offered in past seasons.

51. Auburn. Added time. Maybe the Mids make it a great eight, but maybe the Black Knights spring an ambush in a wholesome example of a college football insurgency.

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