2013 Navy Preview: Improvement & Maintenance

It gets late early out there. It ain't over 'til it's over. You have to be better just to be the same. One of those three statements is not an actual Yogi Berra saying, but it applies to the Midshipmen on the gridiron this coming season.

Improvement and Maintenance: Navy's Reality In 2013

There's a lot of Yogi Berra in the following sentence, but don't worry – we'll be sure to unpack it and explain what it means: When a team overachieves in one season, the following season has to be a lot better in order to remain the same.

You remember Yogi, one of the most treasured people in American sports over the past 70 years. He had a way of saying things that threw listeners into a state of deep confusion, but if you were patient enough to grapple with his expressions, you gained an immense amount of wisdom from the sage of St. Louis. Is 90 percent of baseball really half-mental? What the heck does that mean? Yet, after pondering that "Yogi-ism" for a few minutes, you would realize that Mr. Berra was trying to get across the point that the mental game is such an important and pervasive part of baseball. Words that might have seemed clumsy on the surface gave way to the revelation of a rich and piercing emotional intelligence. Such was – and is – the world of the "Yogi-ism," of sports truths that demand a small extra pinch of careful thought and attention.

For the Navy football team in 2013, that Yogi-like statement above provides a helpful way to understand the coming autumn: "When a team overachieves in one season, the following season has to be a lot better in order to remain the same." It seems confusing at first, but it's precisely what the Midshipmen need to take to heart as kickoff nears on Sept. 7 against an improved Indiana Hoosier squad.

In college football, it has to be said that not all records or achievements are the same. If Team A goes 9-3 while playing the Little Sisters Of The Poor, that's not as big an accomplishment as it is for Team B to go 7-5 against Murderer's Row. A 10-2 record in the Sun Belt is not the same as 10-2 in the SEC West. A .500 season for Duke means a lot more than a .500 season for South Florida. Numbers tell stories, but the contexts surrounding those numbers apply limits to the validity and primacy of those numbers. Cutting to the chase, Navy's attempt to replicate the core successes of 2012 – winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, beating Army, delivering a winning season, and making a bowl game – will require not just the ability to avoid regressing. The Midshipmen will have to be legitimately and substantially better than they were a year ago.

Improvement as a team is what will generate maintenance of results. It's not the other way around, and can never be. That's not how team-sport performance works from season to season. The Miami Heat had to be better, tougher, and more resourceful to win the NBA championship in 2013, compared to their win in 2012. The Alabama Crimson Tide did play better in 2012 than they did in 2011, and that's why Nick Saban's crew remained in the same place at the end of the season: on a podium, celebrating a BCS title. The Tide will have to be better this season if Alabama wants to maintain its place in the college football world for another year.

It's no different for Navy.

In 2012, the Midshipmen turned the trick that is essential to success at a program that harbors no realistic aspirations of making a BCS game. Navy is just not a BCS bowl-caliber program; that's not the team's place in the FBS right now, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Winning CIC Trophies, Army games, and bowls are the constantly attain, and last season, Navy apportioned its wins and losses with care.

No, losses are never desirable in football, but the point being made here about the 2012 season is that if you are going to lose, lose big or in a way that provides a splash of cold water. Navy did that. The Midshipmen got thumped by Notre Dame and Penn State and then got shut out at home by San Jose State. All of those losses stung, but the key insight to glean from those tough Saturdays is that Navy grew from them. When the Mids played manageable opponents such as Texas State and beatable power conference sides such as Indiana, the Men of Ken Niumatalolo were ready to perform under pressure. That win over Indiana on Oct. 20, achieved in come-from-behind fashion on an afternoon when so many things went wrong at the start, manifested the perseverance that has marked Navy football under Niumatalolo. It also gave the season a substantial forward push, ensuring that the team wouldn't enter November without a winning record for the second year in a row.

This season, Navy has to be better just so that it can once again beat Indiana. The Hoosiers are a darkhorse pick in the Big Ten Leaders Division, expected by some pundits to finish at or near .500. However, that's just the beginning. When you go down the teams on the Midshipmen's slate, they're either better than they were a year ago or have made substantial improvements in recent seasons.

The Western Kentucky team Navy will face on Sept. 28 is coached by Bobby Petrino, a man who – say what you want about his level of character – can draw up ball plays like few other head coaches in the United States. The Duke team that Navy will play on Oct. 12 made a bowl game for the first time since 1994 last season. The Toledo team Navy will encounter on Oct. 19 is a contender in a league – the Mid-American Conference – that just put one of its member schools in a BCS game, the Orange Bowl. Navy once again plays San Jose State this season, and it's clear that last year's shutout loss to the Spartans – which looked so bad at the time – was really not a bad loss at all. San Jose State roughed up most of its opponents and won its bowl game as well.

It's really rather clear: Navy will have to do some heavy (or at least heavier) lifting just to win eight regular season games once again. Yes, quarterback Keenan Reynolds should be a lot better, giving the Men of Ken a great deal of confidence that they can repeat 2012's accomplishments against a more formidable 2013 slate. However, Navy's back seven – especially the secondary, but certainly the linebackers as well – is going to be severely tested in the coming months. Indiana, WKU, Duke, Toledo, Hawaii, and San Jose State love to throw the ball. If Navy's corners can't hold up under pressure on an island and safeties are late in making reads against spread formations, this season could take a wrong turn.

Ultimately, this program – under Niumatalolo – has shown that it deserves the benefit of the doubt in a larger analytical context. However, "the benefit of the doubt" doesn't really mean much once a college football season begins. Why? The answer is obvious: College football teams always have to re-prove themselves each season, anyway. Navy will indeed have to be a lot better than it was last year… just so that this season can be the same as last year.

Yogi Berra would readily understand that statement.

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