Monday Musings: Navy's Win-Win for 2011

"You've got to be kidding me" were the first words out of my mouth when I saw the title of William Gunter's column by the same name. Was this really happening? Was a reputable college football writer really calling out Navy, lamenting his own team's scheduling of the ‘lowly' Midshipmen?

Not again, I thought. Not after seven straight bowl trips. Not after beating Notre Dame before a national TV audience two of the past four years. Not after throttling Missouri in the Texas Bowl and finishing 10-4 last season. Surely this Gunter guy couldn't be lumping Navy into the proverbial ‘cupcake' role, could he?

Like many readers, I was pleasantly surprised once I actually took the time to get past the title of Gunter's take on the South Carolina fansite The Big Spur last week. Turns out Gunter wasn't buying the old company line, and his column reveals a new and growing level of respect for the Midshipmen by those same pundits who have long dismissed Navy's success as nothing more than a ‘good story' with little implication on the rest of the college football universe. Writing in regards to the recent news that South Carolina has added the Midshipmen to their 2011 schedule, Gunter intelligently points out that the Gamecocks may have just set up the ultimate no-win situation for a BCS conference team when it comes to scheduling.

"Scheduling a team like Navy is a no win situation for the Gamecocks," Gunter concluded. "You have to wonder what somebody was thinking when they made that decision."

Calling Navy "scrappy" while throwing in caveats about how the Mids are "by no means a goliath in the world of college football," Gunter's article isn't immune from some of the trite stereotypes many BCS conference writers have long attached to Navy, but his conclusion is well-thought out and backed up. Not only does he point out that South Carolina struggled against another triple option team – Wofford – in 2006 and 2008, but he reminds the Gamecock faithful of recent Navy upsets, as well as South Carolina's schedule for the 2011 season. The game against Navy, which will be played on Sept. 17th, will come in-between two SEC conference games for South Carolina. Can you say ‘trap game'? I sure can.

As for my thoughts on the game, I can say definitively that I'm all for it. True, the Midshipmen will have a tough 2011 schedule, and yes, the team could find itself in rebuilding mode sans Ricky Dobbs, Wyatt Middleton and a host of other veterans, but the exposure of playing a winning SEC program presents a unique opportunity for Navy. The Carolinas are a talent rich area that continue to expand in terms of their prep football base, and given the availability of only so many SEC scholarships, the Mids could find it fertile recruiting ground for the future. Likewise, playing a game against a team like South Carolina gives coach Ken Niumatalolo's program another chance to make a statement before what will likely be a national audience, and helps in terms of local and national exposure. Heck, that's not even taking into account the cool $950,000 dollar payday the team is getting to head down to Columbia.

The ultimate losing proposition for the Gamecocks? Perhaps, but for Navy it could end up being the ultimate winning proposition.

Expansion, Recruiting, and Air Force

Raise your hand if you've had enough of all this talk about conference realignment and expansion? Hey, you're not alone. After a three week media circus in which some were predicting the formation of mega-conferences and openly speculating about the future demise of the NCAA, it was a pleasant surprise to get back to some actual football news this past week.

Not to bog you down in speculation, but the prospect of further Mountain West expansion – which commissioner Craig Thompson apparently has ruled out for the time being – would not have been good for Navy. Why? Because, very simply, a large part of the Air Force Academy's entire recruiting strategy is predicated on convincing high school players that the Mountain West is headed for automatic qualifying status, and that the Falcons will be in play for a BCS bowl appearance within the next 4-5 years.

At least that was the impression I got when I spoke to a number of high school players being recruited by the Air Force Academy this past season. One Air Force commit – defensive back Frederick Blow – told me that the Air Force coaches had told him that it was only a matter of time until the MWC would reach automatic qualifying status, with a possible BCS bowl berth for the Academy not far behind.

"I see that (Air Force) only lost by three points in overtime (to Navy in 2009) and I feel that it is only a matter of time before they will win again," Blow told me when asked to describe Air Force's recruiting strategy last fall. "Also the fact that they play in the Mountain West, which will have an automatic BCS bowl berth in the next couple years. That was really intriguing to me."

That automatic BCS bowl berth looked like a forgone conclusion with the arrival of Boise State to the conference and the Big 12 on its deathbed, with the likely next step being the exodus of the remaining Big 12 schools to a rebuilt MWC that would take over as a BCS participant after the dissolution of the Big 12. But the subsequent scenario of college football's version of the Cuban Missle Crisis played out differently, with the Big 12 staying together as a 10-team conference and Utah jumping ship to the PAC-10. The Mountain West, for its part, remains in the same (if not a worse) position as where it began a month ago.

And while the move to ‘mega-conferences' may have been delayed, we may not have seen the last of the PAC-10's intentions to expand. Given the recruiting climate of the next few years it is foreseeable that many non-BCS schools will be selling prep players on the possibility of BCS bowl berths by way of college teams moving "up" in the conference latter. The more that pitch is used the less likely it will be that the Air Force coaches will have a monopoly on selling the MWC's impending status as the next automatic qualifying conference goes. So while Air Force may be able to snag a few recruits from Navy or Army by dangling the line of BCS bowl glory, it may not be long until the Falcons find that their selling point outlives its promise.

Air Force, Army Going Down?

Also overshadowed by the 24/7 soap opera of conference realignment was the official release of the Phil Steele college football preview magazine. Scratch that. Calling Phil Steele's colossal, 320+ page magazine a mere "preview" of the college football season is like calling the Bible a mere book "about" Christianity. As far as I'm concerned, Steele's encyclopedia of facts, stats and team previews is the end all, be all resource for the serious college football fan.

One of the reason I like Steele's magazine so much is his use of statistics. One statistic he has come up with over the years is his Turnover=Turnaround mark. According to Steele and his 14 years of research, current FBS teams which have run positive double-digit turnover rates in one year have had the same or worse record in 77% of the cases the next year. His thinking goes that while turnovers can be attributed to good coaching and heady play, sometimes they are caused more by dumb luck and that eventually, such luck runs out. With this in mind he predicts that Air Force, which led the nation with a +22 mark in turnovers last year, is possibly headed for a worse record in 2010 than 2009.

Army could be in for a worse season in 2010 as well. Another one of Steele's stats is the Starts Lost to Injury statistic. According to this theory, teams with the least amount of starts lost to injury in one season often aren't as fortunate the next and often have worse records. Steele has identified six starts as a "magic number," and has equated that within the past six seasons, just 17 of 47 teams which had fewer than six starts lost due to injury in one year had better seasons during the next year. In 2009 the Army Black Knights had only three starts lost because of injury, a telling mark which could put them in line for a fall-off in 2010.

Best Non-AQ Players: Where does Dobbs rank?

ESPN.com blogger Graham Watson has been hard at work countingdown her Top 25 players from non-automatic qualifying conferences in lead-up to the 2010 season. As of the end of last week Watson had gotten down to the 12th best player in her countdown, with the Top 10 slated to be unveiled this week. So far both Army and Navy have had players featured, with Army DE Josh McNary coming in at 15th and Anthony Wright coming in at 16th. Considering Navy QB Ricky Dobbs has already set the NCAA single season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, one has to think he'll be amongst the ten players Watson anoints as the best from Non-AQ conferences. The question I want to know is whether or not Dobbs will be the top rated quarterback among non-AQ conferences. Sure, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Houston's Case Keenum have NFL draft pick status written all over them, but I think an argument can be made that Dobbs has been just as instrumental in Navy's success as Moore or Keenum have been to their respective schools' success. Among the other unresolved issue in Ms. Watson's countdown? Will any other Navy players (Wyatt Middleton?) make the cut, and will Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson be ranked? Stay tuned.

Adam Nettina is a member of the Football Writers Association and the Sports Editor for the Utah Statesman.

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