So just what will enable Navy to navigate the rough and choppy waters of the stormy seas of college football this autumn? What will enable year three of Paul Johnson's tenure to be not just a "good season," but a rather dominant march through 11 regular season tilts and a bowl game?
The coach himself--and the Rule of Three--will have more than a little to do with the answer.
College football is an emotional cocktail of the highest and most volatile order. Consider the Big Ten champion Michigan Wolverines. Even with two losses, a victory over USC combined with an Oklahoma win in the Sugar Bowl would have put the Maize and Blue in position to win a national title last year. Yet, that possibility (which never materialized) seemed to be dead and buried when Michigan, with a "2" already in the L column, entered the fourth quarter of an October game at Minnesota trailing the Gophers by a 28-7 score. Having come off a demoralizing loss at Iowa the week before, Michigan stunningly sleepwalked through this affair in Minneapolis, only to see its hopes of a Big Ten crown (let alone a national title) go right out the window. The naysayers--in the press and in Ann Arbor--were about to crucify Wolverine coaches and players for not cultivating a culture of high expectations, and more importantly, of the commitment and mental toughness that flow from an environment where winning is expected.
But then, something clicked. It's hard to put a finger on it, hard to determine exactly when or how it happened, but it did: Michigan awoke and scored 31 fourth-quarter points to win 38-35. The rest, as they say, is history. Something existed on that Michigan team--it took time for it to emerge, almost too much time, but it eventually did, and just when the team needed it, too. There was a resolve to capture a prize, a hunger to achieve and accomplish something that was long sought after. For a bunch of Michigan seniors, winning the Big Ten before graduating became absolutely necessary, something the players simply could not live without. They played like they desperately wanted the hardware.
For Navy football in this 2004 season, gone will be the experience of 2002, when a program took baby steps under Paul Johnson and nearly jolting Notre Dame. Gone will be the joyride of 2003, with a winning season, a second straight destruction of Army, a bowl bid, and a gallant performance in that bowl game against a great college quarterback in B.J. Symons of Texas Tech. Gone will be everything that has brought Navy to the beginning of this season, because this is the third year of Coach Johnson's tenure, the year in a football coach's stay at a place when everything--not just some things, but everything--comes together... at least, if the coach and his program are ready to consider themselves Big Boys.
After 2003, opponents will be looking to sink Navy's gridiron battleship--there's no question about it. The emotional tidal wave that almost sunk a prodigiously talented Michigan team last season will rock Navy's boat on a few occasions in 2004, you can take it to the bank. Upstart teams gunning for upsets, a Notre Dame team looking to get back on the beam, an Army group that will be jumping through the roof for its new five-star general, Bobby Ross--these and other emotion-charged foes await the Midshipmen, trying to knock back the progress of this Annapolis Adventure.
How will Navy climb even higher in the college football pecking order, even while having a big bullseye on its back? Sure, it will need to come from Aaron Polanco. Of course, the secondary will have to hold up. Yes, some key pass plays will need to supplement the triple option. But if you want the ultimate answer, look not to the Xs and Os, but to the Jimmies and Joes... and Johnson.
Somewhere along the line, at some point, Navy will face a moment similar to the one Michigan faced against Minnesota--hopefully not with the same 21-point deficit, but certainly a situation defined by more than a little adversity. When this moment occurs, everyone in college football--let alone the Navy football family--will be looking to see how Coach Johnson responds, and how his team responds both to him and the moment at hand.
Johnson pushed the right buttons last year, even while having a few hard learning experiences, against Delaware (a mental lesson on the importance of avoiding letdowns) and Notre Dame (the tactical lesson of having just enough balance on offense, plus a physical lesson involving the need to have enough beef up front on defense). But now, he encounters the Rule of Three, the final year of a three-year plan, that magic standard by which so many coaches are judged at the D-I college level and in the NFL. Dick Vermeil has made the three-year plan work for the St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Steve Spurrier knew that year three wouldn't work out for him, so he left Washington, DC. And before he won a national title with LSU this past season, Nick Saban won his first SEC title in Baton Rouge in 2001.
Yes, it was Saban's third year at the school. After that season, it was easy for LSU administrators to keep him around for a few more years. Presto! A national crown.
Paul Johnson will face a lot of scrutiny this year--no, not the withering, job-in-the-balance scrutiny that will face a guy like Tommy Tuberville at Auburn or Ron Zook at Florida (talk about a third year with pressure...)--but scrutiny nevertheless. People all around the sport, not just Annapolis, will be very curious to see if Johnson will be able to complement his brilliance as a tactician with the ability to motivate his troops in a season where Navy will be a target throughout college football. After growing pains in '02 and a mix of joys and hard falls in '03, we'll see if the Johnson Boys, directed by their leader, find that even better mix of strength and guile, execution and poise, that will fulfill the program's goals for this 2004 season.
We know he can do the Xs and Os. This season, we'll see just how well--in the crucible of college football life as a favorite, not an underdog--Coach Paul Johnson handles the Jimmies and Joes, getting them to exceed 2003's already-considerable accomplishments and bag bigger victories in 2004.