Navy 2010 Preview – Staying Hungry

In a season when many college football pundits are talking about BCS busters Boise State and TCU, the Navy Midshipmen must feel as though they've been excluded from the conversation. Hmmmm… I think we've found our source of motivation for the coming football season.

co-written by Reginald Eller

Really: If you want to have a roundtable discussion of the best non-automatic-qualifying teams in college football, the best of the schools from non-BCS conferences, Navy has to be part of the mix. No, the Midshipmen have not played in a BCS bowl game, but by golly, they've done just about everything else over the past seven seasons.

Bowl appearances? Check. Bowl wins? Check. Ten-win seasons including bowl victories? Check. Commander-in-Chief's Trophies? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. And CHECK! Seven-for-seven since 2003.

Ending the not-since-JFK losing streak to Notre Dame? Check. Winning two straight games in South Bend (and under different head coaches, too)? Check.

Beating Army? Get out your check-book and your check-marks again. Not since 2001 have the Black Knights of the Hudson raised their helmets in exultation after a Philadelphia (or East Rutherford, or Baltimore) football throwdown.

With all this sustained success, the realm of BCS Bowlville is the one enchanted land Navy has yet to visit. Do the Midshipmen have the heft of schedule needed to be in the BCS conversation should they manage to go 12-0 in 2010? Probably not.

Does this mean that Ken Niumatalolo's team shouldn't try to thread the needle and run the table? Oh, no – it's time to stay hungry and eat well for the Men of Ken. This team needs to continue to play with passion, and not think that a 9-3 Commander-in-Chief-winning, Army-defeating, bowl-bearing regular season is a ho-hum achievement which shouldn't be celebrated. That kind of season – pretty much what Navy has been cranking out over the past several years – is always worth toasting in Annapolis. Let's make that point clear.

Yet, while not becoming blasé about legitimately sparkling accomplishments, the Midshipmen do need to try to explore new frontiers in 2010, and they have the ability to raise the bar.

Following a 10-4 season in 2009, where possibly could the Midshipmen go from here? Forward – that's where. Offensively everyone, basically, is back. We all know that the success or failure of Navy begins and ends with quarterback Ricky Dobbs. The sensational signal caller accounted for 2,200 yards of total offense last year, and no, that is not a typo. Andrea Adelson of ESPN noted this about Dobbs a few days ago: "Dobbs played the last five games of the season, games in which he averaged 29 carries for 122 yards and two rushing touchdowns, with a cracked kneecap." It's no wonder that Navy's fun-to-watch triple-option offense was a machine last season, including a rollicking season-opener that became immensely entertaining in the fourth quarter at Ohio State.

When one appreciates the enormity of Dobbs's excellence despite a cracked kneecap, you begin to understand why his leadership qualities are so constantly mentioned, and why the name "Ricky Dobbs" is often mentioned in the same sentence with the words, "future President of the United States." Yet, a leader – especially on a team with Navy's offensive style and football identity – cannot be a crutch on which others lean. Triple-option football – the bread this team butters every year – is assignment football, in which everyone has to do his part. It's only because 11 offensive players work in harmony that Dobbs is able to flourish. Similarly, it's only because of its interconnected brilliance that "The Buddy (Green) System" gang of 11 on defense is able to mesh in such fine fashion.

Indeed, the story of Navy football in this golden age for the program is a story of balance and teamwork.

On the offensive side of the line of scrimmage, Navy has much more than Mr. Dobbs returning to a very potent offense. Most of the top rushers are back, including senior Vince Murray (971 yards in 2009). Navy lost Marcus Curry to suspension, though Gee Gee Greene (who needs initials and periods, anyway?) looks poised to replace him quite nicely. The very robust rushing attack will be running behind a very strong and veteran offensive line. Three official starters are back, and that is if you don't count Eric Douglass, who started most of last year's games at the center position. Offensively, you should not expect anything to change from a production standpoint other than some more "trick plays," aka, forward passes from Dobbs himself, dialed up by Niumatalolo when an opposing defense least expects them.

The story of the Navy season will ultimately be told on the defensive side of the ball. Navy graduated a ton of production on the defensive side of the ball and upfront there are some noticeable concerns with the Mids' ability to stop what their own offense does best: run. The better news on the defensive side is that an elite secondary should be a year better, especially with Wyatt Middleton and Tyler Simmons back.

As the Maryland season opener approaches on Labor Day afternoon – in what will be the first of two massive games played in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor (and the two active NFL stadiums in those cities) – the goal for Navy in 2010 is this: Win 10 games in the regular season.

Navy has won 10 games on two occasions in the Paul Johnson-Ken Niumatalolo years, but each of those campaigns delivered the tenth victory in the bowl game. It's time for a Navy team to – in accordance with its inexhaustible hunger for even more achievement – to post a 10-2 campaign. Yes, if the team fails to reach that mark but still wins the C-in-C Trophy and dusts off Army, it's a season to savor in Annapolis. Yet, for a team that's already done so much, one should always be looking to climb new mountains and scale new heights of excellence.

If Navy can pull through the opener on Monday night versus Maryland, it has a very strong chance at being 3-0 traveling to Colorado Springs to face Air Force, in a clash that will seriously challenge Navy's hold on the one trophy it holds dear. From there, the next big games on the schedule for the Midshipmen are SMU – the battle for the Gansz Trophy – followed by the encounter with Brian Kelly's Notre Dame outfit. At the end of the (Long Gray) line in 2010 comes the best game in all of college football, the clash with the Black Knights in the City of Brotherly Love.

Paul Dashiell, Paul Johnson, and Ken Niumatalolo all have one thing in common, other than being coaches at the Naval Academy: They are the only coaches in school history to produce a 10-win season. Can Navy repeat this feat? This seems doubtful considering the rough, tough, more-than-enough schedule in October, when the Midshipmen have to face Air Force and Wake Forest on the road, SMU at home, and then Notre Dame at a neutral site. Navy should be able to clean up in September and November – but only if the team focuses on the game in front of its face (no look-aheads allowed!). It's October that will tell us just how much this team will achieve in 2010.

One thing to consider in all this is that there isn't one game Navy cannot win on the schedule. Can Navy again defeat Notre Dame in this year of transition for the Irish? There's no reason why that can't happen again.

The bottom line is this: Another season filled with the conquests of the past seven seasons (the C-in-C Trophy, a win over Army, and a bowl win) would be entirely embraced and universally cheered. That said, let's see if the Men of Ken can reach double-digit victories before their bowl game.

Stay hungry, gentlemen, and eat well: It's time for the Men of Ken to feast at the college football banquet table, and become the regular-season Men of Ten. It's the right year to bear such a label, isn't it?

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