Oh, I see. Maybe that's precisely the point--Navy's expected to be really good this season, even better than before under a wildly successful head coach.
Well, then, it's true that I didn't consult Coach Johnson before pounding out this season preview, but I might as well say anyway that the Midshipmen, at this point in time, need to hear how UN-accomplished they are, not how talented they're shaping up to be. The history of the Johnson era in Annapolis proves as much.
It's been a fact of life for Navy football that--under Paul Johnson's focused and strong leadership--Annapolis teams play their best when they're good and humble. When the egos get inflated and the heads read some praise-filled press clippings, performance noticeably suffers.
Last season was particularly special in Navy's recent football history because the team--while sloppy throughout the first half of the season--never got too big for its britches. Tough losses to Maryland and Stanford galvanized the team instead of pulling it apart. This made Navy a better, bigger football force at the end of the season, all the way through a Poinsettia Bowl victory over Colorado State, the program's second consecutive bowl win.
But in 2004 and especially 2003, egos and premature satisfaction got the best of the Johnson Boys. The 2004 campaign witnessed the sagging of shoulders against Notre Dame in a contest heralded by many as the time when the Midshipmen would end the biblically long losing streak to the Fighting Irish. Hopes were so high entering the game that the Mids never devoted sufficient attention to detail against Notre Dame. Johnson's team--so excited and sky-high before kickoff--played tight and nervous football, digging itself a hole and then losing an emotional hold on the contest once the Irish cemented their advantage. That afternoon in the New Jersey Meadowlands served notice to the Navy program that discipline is a matter of controllin g emotions along with maintaining a given technique, routine or procedure. (In 2005, Navy truly became more disciplined from an emotional standpoint. A lesson learned, and learned well.)
But the 2004 setback against the Irish was preceded by the most infamous case of ego-inflation in the Johnson Era: the Delaware game of 2003.
Navy shrugged off a few tough losses to attain a 5-2 record in midseason. The program--in Coach Johnson's second season--was one win away from becoming bowl eligible, and securing that bowl bid should have been priority number one for the Johnson Boys. But oh, you should have heard the hosannahs coming from the media before the Delaware game. All anyone could talk about was how the team might become ranked and enter the Notre Dame game (there we go again hyping that contest!) with a 7-2 mark and a great chance to finally prevail in South Bend against an Irish team that was struggling. Navy football was beginning to cause a sensation around the Annapolis campus at that point in the 2003 season. The brigade was getting giddy, and a community that had been starving for football success began to gorge itself with complimentary articles from around the United States.
Well, that whole hoo-hah subsided when, on the afternoon of October 25, 2003, the Delaware Blue Hens strode into Navy's backyard and stunned the home folks, 21-17. That game remains the monument to overconfidence in the Johnson era, the time when a no-sweat victory turned into a no-excuses defeat, all because Navy didn't put in the requisite focus or play with the necessary level of humility needed to prevail.
Let's now bring the focus back to 2006 and this rougher, meaner college football world talked about above. Yes, this is a tougher college football universe... at least as far as Navy is concerned. A few years ago, the schedule on Navy's plate would have been far more negotiable. It wasn't very long ago that Tulsa, Conn ecticut and Rutgers were Ws. Two years ago, in fact, Navy beat Tulsa 29-0 on the road, and then hammered Rutgers at home, 54-21.
But last season, Tulsa came from nowhere to win Conference USA, while Rutgers had television tough guy (and RU alum) James Gandolfini appearing on its sideline for a bowl game in which the Scarlet Knights put a major-league scare into a loaded (yes, LOADED) Arizona State team in Phoenix. Suddenly, Tulsa and Rutgers are scary, talented and confident opponents. Connecticut is a middle-tier Big East program with a fair amount of bulk on the front lines, the kind of opponent Navy has to outflank and outthink in order to win. In 2004, a 9-3 prediction would have been entirely reasonable for Navy against this schedule. In 2006, the seas of the college football world figure to be a lot more choppy for the Johnson Boys. As is the case every year, Navy--quick enough to confuse opponents but small enough to be at a physical disadvantage--will find itself in a lot of punch-and-counterpunch games that will go down to the wire and be decided by one possession. Every game, Navy will have to fight ferociously to maintain its place in the college football pecking order and secure yet another bowl bid. The trendy pick might be 9-3, but from where I'm sitting, 7-5 would be a sensational accomplishment.
Paul Johnson didn't have any input on this article--he has bigger and more important things to do, such as coaching up Brian Hampton. But just in case you think this columnist is trying to artificially downplay expectations as a motivational tactic that will keep the team humble, think again. That's a nice try, but the fact of the matter is that the improvements of the programs in towns named Tulsa, Storrs (Connecticut) and Piscataway (Rutgers) will force Navy to bring its hard hat--and discard overconfidence--in 2006. A genuinely challenging schedule, not the lack of one, is the real reason why humility--more than anything else--will determine if this season ends with another bowl victory, and the reaffirmation of Navy's elevated place in a rougher and tougher college football cosmos.