In 2018, the Army Black Knights dominated the service academy rivalries by posting an incredible, 11-2 record. They capped off the year with a monster win over Houston, 70-14, in the Armed Forces Bowl. Navy and Air Force, on the other hand, did not have such an impressive year. The Midshipmen had one of their worst seasons in the last two decades and finished 3-10. The Falcons also failed to qualify for a bowl game by going 5-7 on the year.
The Army Black Knights are the favorites to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 2019. However, those of us with a more critical eye are here to tell you why this isn’t going to happen.
First of all, let’s clear the air a little bit. It would be shocking if Army finished the season any worse than 8-5. Their schedule is designed to ensure a winning season, but they were able to temper the weak slate of games by having Michigan on the schedule. They play two FCS teams with Morgan State and VMI on the schedule, then Army seemingly cherry picked the worst teams from the Mountain West, C-USA, and Sun Belt conferences. In theory, this should allow Army to focus on Michigan, Air Force, and Navy, but self-doubt could become a huge problem if the overly simple system they have used for the last two season fails against one of these weak teams, turning each matchup into a trap game that could de-rail the season.
Kelvin Hopkins Jr. has been named to an overwhelming six preseason watch lists to include: Maxwell, Davey O’brien, Manning, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm, Walter Camp, and the CFPA National Performer of the Year Award. Frankly, this is outrageous. Not only is Hopkins Jr. incredibly overrated, but this undue hype will only lead to arrogance. His statistics are painfully average. He completed a mere 51 of his 93 attempts last season for a total of 1026 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. As expected, he had a large workload, with 208 carries for an average of 84.75 yards per game, but an impressive 17 touchdowns. He had the fourth most rushing yards of all FBS quarterbacks in 2018, 70 yards less than Navy’s Malcolm Perry.
Kelvin Hopkins Jr. being an overrated player is no fault of his own. He’s a great quarterback for Army’s system and he has clearly earned the job, but putting him on the watchlist for the Davey O’Brien award, given to the top returning college quarterback, competing with players like Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, and Jake Fromm, is an act of charity that will ultimately prove pointless.
This over-confidence isn’t limited just to the Army quarterback. A 70-point win over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl is also gravely misleading. The Cougars’ two best players were not even suited up. D’Eriq King, Houston’s starting quarterback, was not playing, nor was defensive end, Ed Oliver. Oliver was the number nine pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and was the most dominant defensive player in college football. The Armed Forces Bowl also explains Kelvin Hopkins placement on the Manning award watchlist, which is given to the quarterback with the best performance in a bowl game. To think that Army has a chance at a repeat performance against a team with a reputation similar to Houston’s would be a terrible gamble.
Yes, Army won a lot of games last season. Yes, their schedule was pretty easy. But, they also won a lot of games because they had a stellar defensive coordinator, Jay Bateman. He was so good, he left and took a better job. I don’t blame him. Not only did Army lose their defensive coordinator, but they also graduated four of their top seven defensive players. Without Bateman and their best players, the Army defense is questionable.
The purpose of this article isn’t to completely undress Army, but with the foundation being laid that the Black Knights are not this bulletproof powerhouse that media outlets are overvaluing, we can see that Air Force or Navy dethroning Army’s hopes of three years in a row with the Commander in Chief’s trophy may not be such a tall order. While Army is riding high on returning players and continuing to run the schemes which prioritize mitigating turnovers, controlling the clock, and converting on fourth downs, Air Force and Navy have actually made sweeping improvements over the last year.
Army seems to forget that their home game against Air Force last year ended with a final score of 17-14. Air Force didn’t get hot until the second half and there were some distinct differences in where both teams found success. Air Force’s quarterbacks passed for 197 yards total, but Army only completed 3 of 5 passes for 44 yards. Air Force was unable to stop Army’s run and let up 242 yards, led by the now graduated Darnell Woolfolk with 117 yards and a touchdown. Air Force, on the other hand, was held to 125 yards. Despite the statistical differences, Army executed their plan well and converted all three of their 4th down attempts, they did not turn the football over, and they possessed the ball for 37 minutes to Air Force’s 22.
In the past year, Air Force’s defense has gotten much stronger with improvements from defensive lineman like Jordan Jackson and Mo Fifita, and quarterbacks Donald Hammond III and Isaiah Sanders are both returning with the understanding that at least one of them will have the starting job, as opposed to last season, when they started the season with Aarion Worthman as the starter. It seems that Army has not felt the need to evolve in their schemes over the last season, and given that the Army vs Air Force game returns to the altitude of Colorado Springs, the game seems to lean heavily in favor of the Falcons. Air Force needs to shift those key Army stats in their own direction and slow down the offense, take advantage of turnover opportunities on special teams, and focus heavily on 4th and inches scenarios on defense leading up to the game. With a terribly weak schedule leading up to the game and a lot of hype, the Black Knight will be in for a big surprise against an Air Force team that will prove to be in the top 25 percent of difficult opponents on the schedule.
The game against Navy will expose the Army’s arrogance. Following a joke of a game against VMI, the Black Knights will travel to Hawaii. Just like Navy last year, Army will be unable to adjust to the time change and will lose their third or fourth game of the season (Michigan, Air Force, and possibly some other blunder). This loss will create a sense of doubt and let down from a season that began with such high expectations. There will be subtle blame and finger-pointing internal to the locker room, creating a lack of trust between teammates. This will come right before the Army-Navy Game. Where the Black Knights will come in with an appeared strong sense of confidence, the uncertainty will be present deep down in every player. The Midshipmen, however, will be hungry, angry, and tired of losing.
For the majority of the college football fan and mediascape, the Commander in Chief trophy race is hardly a pertinent topic. It’s easy to look at the Army’s dominance and write the whole thing off as a three-peat win. Once you dive into what is actually going on at West Point, it’s evident that Army is an inflated, overhyped team that schedules its way into a bowl game to appease fans after years of poor performance. They found a nice little niche in the last couple of years, but we are predicting that their time as the top service academy is coming to an end.