The Air Force and Naval academies made a statement this New Year’s Eve: Don’t take service academy football lightly or you will get stomped.
Both teams obliterated their respective bowl opponents Dec. 31 in front of a national audience. And we’re not talking about the Mid-American Conference champions. Houston and Missouri might not be on the levels of Texas or Florida in the college football landscape, but they are two respectable football programs; Houston with its fringe Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, and Missouri, winners of the Big 12 North in 2007 and 2008.
So here is the question: How high is the ceiling for service academy football teams?
Ten years ago, Army and Navy alums didn’t talk about ceilings, they were talking about basements, and how low their football programs could fall. In 2000, the two had two wins between them and Navy’s one win came against Army. The Air Force Academy remained competitive, winning nine games and beating Fresno State in the Silicon Valley bowl game that year, but their success seemed unattainable to those in Annapolis and West Point.
Ten years later, Navy has resurrected their football program, and the service academies are experiencing success. The Midshipmen have gone to a bowl game seven straight years. Air Force has won 24 games over the past three years. And even Army, who hasn’t had a winning season since 1996, was one win from its own bowl berth this year.
Next year could prove even more successful for the service academies. Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ran for a college football record 27 touchdowns, returns next year for his senior season along with Navy’s three other leading rushers. Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson also comes back along with much of their eleventh-ranked scoring defense and sixth-ranked passing defense that picked off Houston quarterback Case Keenum six times in the Armed Forces Bowl. Army coach Rich Ellerson is also in the second year of his rebuilding project, which will see freshman quarterback Trent Steelman return after becoming the first Army quarterback to start 12 games as a freshman.
Of course, Army and Navy have Heisman Trophies and National Championships sitting in their trophy cases. In fact, Army and Navy were ranked no. 1 and no.2 in the nation when they played in 1944 and 1945. More recently, Air Force won 12 games in 1998, finishing the year ranked 13th in the final Associated Press poll. But they didn’t play in one of the premiere bowls, instead beating Washington in the O’auhu Bowl.
So is a Bowl Championship Series bowl game a reasonable goal? Navy came up four points short from upsetting Ohio State, which beat Oregon on New Year’s Day to win the Rose Bowl. And Air Force lost by only a field goal to TCU, which will play Boise State Monday night in the Fiesta Bowl and was one Texas missed field goal in the Big 12 Championship away from the National Championship game.
It will probably take an undefeated season, but I imagine a BCS bowl director would salivate over the chance to place a service academy in their respective BCS bowl. After all, the college football post season is only about money and what’s better for television ratings than the feel good story of a service academy squaring off against one of college football’s titans.
The difference between a Boise State, a team that seems to struggle to squeeze into a BCS Bowl despite a undefeated season, and Navy or Air Force is that they are a national brand. It’s just in a different way than a team like Notre Dame. A casual college football fan isn’t going to ask who Navy or Air Force is. They might be surprised the academies play football, but even the casual viewer will flick to the channel and recognize the name. Thus, an audience.
As for whether a service academy team could go undefeated in today’s college football game; remember when the thought of a service academy beating Notre Dame seemed unthinkable? Well, Navy has beaten Notre Dame two of the past three years and Air Force trounced the Fighting Irish by 17 points in 2007.
Why can’t a BCS bowl come next?