Monday Musings: A Smooth Road Ahead?

The question is posed about this time every year. What are the expectations for Navy in the coming season, and just how many wins should fans expect? Is there a ‘ceiling' for Navy, or could the program actually make national waves should everything line up perfectly? With a seemingly manageable schedule this year, the answer may surprise you.

This, at least, according to some Navy fans, who have pointed to the 2010 schedule as a reason for increased expectations from the team. In 2009 Navy faced the 82nd toughest schedule in the country (according to Phil Steele magazine), playing six teams which would go on to bowl games, and another team (Notre Dame) which would qualify for a bowl berth (the Irish ultimately declined a chance at the postseason, however.)

On first inspection, the 2010 slate looks much more manageable than last year's schedule. Not only do the Mids trade an opener with a Top 10 ranked Ohio State team for a Maryland club coming off of a 2-10 year, but Navy will not face a Pitt team which went 10-3 a season ago, nor will Navy have to face a Temple team which finished 9-4 and beat Navy during the regular season.

Of course many Navy fans argue that the 2010 slate is by no means a walk in the park, and rightly so. Navy, so the argument goes, can still lose to any team in the country, and can never afford to overlook even the most sugar-coated of opponents. But before you remind me of the company line and start your preaching, there are a few valid points to the argument that the 2010 schedule provides the Mids with a unique opportunity.

For starters, Navy will catch two usually highly regarded non-BCS powers – East Carolina and Central Michigan – in rebuilding seasons. ECU and CMU have both gone to bowl games in each of the past four seasons, with the Pirates going 9-5 each of the past two seasons, while the Chippewas went 12-2 last season. But both schools take big hits after last year. Not only do both schools lose their head coaches (Skip Holtz and Butch Jones, respectively) but they face major personal questions heading into the fall.

East Carolina's defense (ranked second in CUSA last season) loses nine starters, including former all-league performer Nick Johnson, and last year's leading tackler, Van Eskridge. The Pirates will have to retool their entire defensive front seven, and will have no players on their depth chart who saw Navy's triple option when the two teams last met in 2006. On offense, the Pirates lose their two best players from a season ago, including running back Dominique Lindsay (1180 yards in 2009) and two-year starter Patrick Pinkney.

If East Carolina has some retooling to do, than first year headman Dan Enos faces an entire overhaul with the Central Michigan program he inherits. Central Michigan loses one of the best players in MAC history with the graduation of four-year starting QB Dan LeFevour, while two of the most explosive playmakers in the school's history – receivers Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson – also depart. The Chippewas are in the process of changing both their offensive and defensive schemes from a season ago, and will have to play Navy after 10 consecutive games.

Not exactly the optimal circumstances for a team which lost to Navy 63-34 in the two teams' last meeting.

The rest of the schedule appears a step down from last year as well. Maryland faces questions at quarterback and on the offensive line, and it wasn't as if the Terps manhandled Navy during the last meeting in 2005. Air Force is a promising team, but after being incredibly opportunistic with a +22 turnover margin in 2009, it's unlikely they'll find that the ball bounces their way so many times this year. Losing Tim DeRuyter as defensive coordinator hurts, but losing NG Ben Garland (arguably the most disruptive service academy lineman of the last decade) is a blow even a veteran defense won't likely overcome. Arkansas State? The Red Wolves hardly scare anyone coming off of a 4-8 year, while the loss of the school's all-time leader in total offense – quarterback Corey Leonard – coupled with the graduation of former SBC Defensive Player of the Year Alex Carrington, likely brings the Red Wolves down a notch. And don't forget Duke losing the big bodies on the defensive line up front, not to mention quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.

Then again, appearances can always be deceiving. For as good as Ohio State was in 2009, it was apparent that the Buckeyes were ill-prepared for the triple option from a schematic standpoint. Highly ranked coming into the year, Ohio State's players also became complacent during the game, including a stretch in the second half when it looked like the Buckeyes would run away from the Mids.

While Maryland is not anywhere close to Ohio State in terms of talent, the Terps present more of a test for Navy than their 2-10 record from a year ago might indicate. For starters, there is the issue of Maryland defensive coordinator Dan Brown. The former UMass head coach has a long history of coaching against triple options teams, and was instrumental in helping UMass nearly knock-off Navy during a 2006 trip to Annapolis. While the Terps have a lot of questions marks on offense (especially along the offensive line), Brown does get an extended period to prepare his defense for the option, and also gets back several key defensive standouts from last year's defense. Among them stands former 1st Team All-ACC MLB Alex Wujciak, whose 131 tackles ranked second in the conference last season. Given that Maryland has a lot to prove and that Ralph Friedgen's job could be on the line, there is no reason to expect the Terps to sleepwalk through this one.

If teams like CMU and ECU are clearly down, than schools like SMU and Notre Dame are clearly on the rebound. SMU took Navy down to the wire in a losing overtime effort last year, and returns a loaded offense and veteran defense. Notre Dame may lose Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, but the Irish gain a greater asset in new headman Brian Kelly. After losing to Navy at home in two of the last three seasons, you can bet Kelly will have the Irish both humbled and hungry when playing Navy this year. And there is always Army under Rich Ellerson, which took a 3-0 halftime lead in the Army-Navy game a year ago. Year two – under a now seasoned option quarterback and one of the best defenses in recent memory – can only bring continued improvement.

All that being said, some of Navy's opponents aren't the only teams that look stronger ‘on paper' next season. Lets not forget that Navy comes into the 2010 season facing considerably less questions than the team faced headed into 2009, with the veteran experience gained from last year's 10-4 finish figuring to play a key role in the mentality of the Mids. While the talent limitations of a service academy program will always make Navy vulnerable to losing to teams many peg as at or near the bottom of the country, the experience and coaching at Navy go a long way towards mitigating the possibility of "overlooking" opponents.

There's no question that the 2010 schedule looks easier compared to the 2009 schedule, but there is still no guarantee that the difference in schedule strength will translate into more wins this season. Unlike previous seasons, the Mids are no longer the hunters: they are the hunted. Teams like Maryland and Duke -- while not terribly strong ‘on paper' – won't be overlooking the Mids, while other non-BCS teams like Louisiana Tech, ECU and CMU will view the opportunity to defeat Navy as a chance to improve their national profile. Nevertheless, given Navy's own advances and experience – coupled with the rebuilding processes going on at several opponent schools -- the 2010 schedule presents a unique opportunity to push the ceiling of just how far this program can go. Top Stories