College football is crazy. We all know this. We know the sport is going to surprise us in profound ways every year – not necessarily in every way (hello, Clemson, cruising to another College Football Playoff, or Ohio State trouncing Jim Harbaugh once again), but in a lot of ways.
One can very easily claim that no part of college football in 2019 has been more surprising than service academy football.
Go back 11 months. Go back to the time when Army had just beaten Houston by 56 points in the Armed Forces bowl after winning its third straight game against Navy. Go back to the time when Air Force was once again licking its wounds after a 5-7 season, its second straight 5-7 campaign and therefore a second consecutive year without a bowl appearance. Troy Calhoun had never previously gone consecutive seasons without a bowl bid.
Go back 11 months. Navy was 3-9 after getting pushed around in the trenches all season long. Go back 11 months to Army forging an 11-win season in 2018, which basically put the Black Knights where Navy had been three years earlier, in 2015. Go back 11 months. Jeff Monken had engineered a 180 in West Point while Ken Niumatalolo was wondering what the heck happened to his program, and Troy Calhoun was searching for answers which didn’t immediately emerge.
Army with 11 wins, Air Force and Navy without bowl bids. That was the reality 11 months ago in academy football.
Today, at the start of December in 2019, Air Force has 10 wins. Navy can get to 10 wins if it beats Army. As for Army: The Black Knights will not go to a bowl this year.
Everything you thought you knew about the evolving, changing world of the academies on the gridiron flipped 180 degrees yet again. Air Force doubled its 2018 win total in the regular season, and can get 11 wins if it triumphs in its bowl game. Navy has tripled its 2018 win total and can get to 11 wins if it beats Army and then wins its bowl game. Army won’t finish 5-7 because it is playing 13 games this year (the Hawaii rule, basically), but if measured by its first 12 games, Army is a 5-7 team… which Air Force had been the previous two seasons.
You simply cannot make this stuff up.
This century, academy football has generally been stable and predictable: Army struggled through 2015, while Navy and Air Force usually battled for the Commander In Chief’s Trophy and won the piece of hardware several times: Navy 10, Air Force 7. Navy beat Army 14 straight times. Army went over 20 years without touching the CIC Trophy.
In 2016, that all changed. Army beat Navy, transforming how the Black Knights thought of themselves and giving the program the momentum-changing thunderbolt it so desperately needed. Army won CIC Trophies in 2017 and 2018. Air Force stumbled, and the Air Force-Navy game was no longer the central CIC battle.
Yes, Navy was supposed to be better this year. Yes, the idea of Air Force failing to make a bowl for three straight years seemed implausible. Navy and Air Force being better in 2019 is not the surprise; Navy and Air Force being many orders of magnitude better is the surprise, or more chiefly, both being many orders of magnitude better AT THE SAME TIME is the ultimate surprise, all while Army has fallen from an 11-win height to a bowl-less bottom after its late-night loss to Hawaii.
This next week, there will be no academy football. Air Force will wait for its bowl assignment, while Army and Navy take the week off to study hard in the classroom and gather strength for the showdown on December 14. As we all pause before the Army-Navy Game and the bowl season which will follow, let us simply take stock of this academy football season and ask ourselves heading into a new decade: Will the 2020s be a time of volatility in academy football, based on the past three years of Army revival followed by this upside-down 2019 campaign, or were the Army years of 2016-2018 a brief interruption of a larger period of Navy and Air Force centrality which is currently resuming normal business?
Thank you for reading the Academy Football Roundup this year. Next up: Army-Navy coverage, followed by bowl coverage for the Midshipmen and the Air Force Academy.