Navy can't cling to the past -- not just because a new season brings new demands with a new roster under new competitive circumstances, but because the first 11-win season in the history of the Naval Academy casts a large and glorious shadow which can't be matched.
Aspiration is a good and necessary source of human empowerment; aspiring to be great should always exist for any band of brothers in the arena of scholastic athletics. However, a supremely healthy culture -- while certainly full of belief and determination -- also possesses the clear-eyed realism needed to identify proper and reasonable goals.
Does it help the coach of Memphis or East Carolina to expect that he should beat Nick Saban? Believing he can? Sure. Expecting victory? That's another matter. In the eternal dance between belief and expectation, the wise competitor raises his expectations to the level of his abilities.
At the very least -- if there's any disagreement on previous points raised above -- the wise competitor, should he fail to meet internal expectations which were never truly reasonable, doesn't allow that deficit to affect his performance or mindset in the future.
If the Purdue Boilermakers really do expect to beat Urban Meyer and Ohio State (this is just a hypothetical), and then get kicked to the curb by 35 points, the act of expecting to win -- while foolish -- doesn't necessarily or automatically become harmful. That kind of unreasonable expectation only becomes harmful if Purdue plays without any heart or passion in the three weeks following the blowout at the hands of the Buckeyes.
If Navy wants to expect that it can win 11 games -- or even 10 -- this year, the Midshipmen are free to do so. The main concern is more a matter of ensuring that the Midshipmen don't allow negative results in a given week to hijack their performances in subsequent weeks. Navy can aspire to be as great in 2016 as it was in 2015, but attaching overly lofty expectations -- and putting too much stock in those expectations -- can set the stage for emotional exhaustion at a relatively early point in the season. If Navy doesn't get off to a crisp start, assigning too much weight to a high level of expectation could drag this team down in a hurry.
What, then, is a healthy model or framework for the coming season? Navy, though having won 11 games last year -- and possibly being a target for other AAC opponents as a result -- should view itself as an upstart. The neat thing about this idea is that it's rooted in truth; it's not fabricated or concocted. The absence of Keenan Reynolds introduces a fresh layer of mystery to Annapolis, and within that mystery lies the realization that Navy cannot count on a given standard of performance at quarterback or anywhere else on offense. Starting from scratch, and conceiving of this season as an underdog's bid to stake out fresh territory, is a positive way for the Midshipmen to proceed. Any gains will be cherished, and losses can cheerfully be seen as part of a new growing process in the post-Reynolds era.
One person, more than any other, offers Navy an example it can use to great effect in 2016. The plot twist? He has nothing to do with the offense, which is the natural point of focus for many observers with Keenan Reynolds now in the NFL.
Remember the sense of uncertainty which preceded the 2015 season? As much as Reynolds offered the promise (and likelihood) of stability on offense, Navy's defense endured waves of fresh questions when it became clear that Buddy Green would no longer be the team's defensive coordinator inside the stadium on gamedays. Green was so indispensable to the program in his decorated career; it was hardly illogical, hardly out of step with "reasonable expectations," to think that Navy's defense would suffer to some degree with Green no longer at the center of the action.
However, Dale Pehrson stepped into those stormy seas and quieted them from the get-go. For a first-year defensive coordinator, Pehrson could not have done a better job. The transition from Green was seamless. Navy defended the forward pass extremely well, shutting down Paxton Lynch in the second half against Memphis and putting the team within one game of a conference championship. Coaches often preach to players about the value of "next man up," but for the Midshipmen in 2015, "next man up" was a rallying cry the coaches themselves lived up to. Pehrson embodied that resourcefulness as much as any Navy player. Pehrson took a fragile situation fraught with peril and turned it into a soaring success.
That's what Tago Smith can do with Navy's offense this year, but on a broader level, forging prosperity from a larger context of frailty should give Navy the assurance of a team which has little to lose and a lot to gain.
Navy shouldn't carry itself this season as though it must "defend" or "protect" what it has gained -- that's a defensive posture, a mental attitude which can lead to panic as soon as something goes wrong. By confidently working from the ground up to establish something new -- as Pehrson did with his defense in 2015 -- Navy can establish the kind of mentality which is perfect for a mystery-soaked season such as this one.
We have very little idea how the 2016 season and the post-Reynolds era will unfold. Navy will give itself a better chance of succeeding if it mentally resets the dial and shows the kind of fearless aspiration which doesn't expect the world, but strives like hell to attain it.
That's what Dale Pehrson gave to Navy -- as much as wins and smart tactics -- in 2015. Let's see if the rest of the team can follow this Pehrson-able approach in 2016, and once again do better than many expected.