Spring Football practices start today, so today’s the day we turn the page and take our first look at the 2019 season. We’ll go a little deeper once summer starts, but it helps to have some idea where teams are starting before we talk about offseasons, roster and coaching changes, and various spring camp developments.
At first glance, the 2019 Army Football schedule doesn’t feature a super-abundance of tough, bowl-ready opponents. However, the new schedule features a significantly better overall design than the 2018 schedule had. That’s a substantial improvement. Army’s toughest games wound up front-loaded in 2018, so that the Black Knights needed to start the season playing their best football. This was not ideal, and it arguably cost the team a chance to be truly competitive against Duke.
This year will not be like that. Granted, it’s never easy to win in Division I college football, but starting at home against Rice is a much easier ask than was starting on the road against the Blue Devils, a team with arguably the best triple-option rushing defense in all of college football. Army then travels to Michigan in Week 2, and after that, the Black Knights settle into a nice mix of winnable and occasionally challenging games against a slate of opponents from across the FBS. For an independent up-and-comer, this is exactly what you’d like to see, though I think it’s fair to wish a few more winning records amongst the 2019 opponents, especially on the home slate at Michie Stadium.
Week 1: Rice. Rice finished 2-11 in 2018, 1-7 in Conference USA-West. That put them dead last in their division based on a last-place tie-breaking loss to UTEP. ESPN ranked the Owls 128th of 130 FBS teams, while P(Wins) gave them just 2.1 wins-expected in a 12-game season. They struggled even to get that. The Owls nearly dropped their home opener against FCS Prairie View before embarking on an epic losing streak, though they somehow finished with a win over Old Dominion team to end the season. Still, last year was a Hell of a tough slog.
Recent editions of the Rice football team have been decent against the run but mostly dreadful elsewhere, and any potential turnaround is hampered by the school’s strict academic requirements. Among other issues, the school has tough transfer requirements, and it generally asks its students to graduate in exactly four years.
Still, the Owls have not been a perennial doormat. They’re traditionally more of a C-USA mid-carder who occasionally qualifies for a bowl game. Alas, they’ve not been nearly that good since Hurricane Harvey laid waste to the school’s hometown of Houston. The Owls ought to improve eventually, but as of 2018, they had a very long way to go.
Week 2: at Michigan. Michigan finished 10-3 in 2018, 8-1 in the Big 10-East. That put them second in their division and 14th nationally. P(Wins) had them at about that same finish on points differential, predicting 9.6 wins in a 12-game season. That’s not bad, but Big Blue looked like a potential CFB Playoff contender through about the middle of the season. Then they got curb-stomped by Ohio State on Rivalry Weekend. Florida kicked their ass in the bowl game too, and now, well, it’s a little hard to know what to expect. Notably, FPI ranked Michigan 6th overall at the end of the season, so the computers believed in them even when they failed the eye-test.
Michigan was excellent on defense last year right up until the end of the season. However, they struggled two years ago against a middling Air Force team that ultimately finished just 7-5, and they didn’t look too good against Florida’s misdirection running game in the postseason, either. They’ll certainly be favored in next year’s matchup against Army, but everyone I know has already circled this game on their calendar. For better or worse, this will be an important litmus test for both teams.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) March 1, 2019
Week 3: at UTSA. UT-San Antonio finished 3-9 last season and just 2-6 in C-USA-West. That was good for 5th place out of seven teams but was still just marginally better than UTEP or Rice, arguably the two worst teams in all of college football. And yet, even 3-9 might have been an over-achievement. P(Wins) pegged the Roadrunners for just 1.6 victories on a whopping 374 points-allowed against just 170 points scored. Those numbers are God-awful. FPI concurred, putting the Roadrunners 125th of 130 FBS teams.
UTSA was a lot better than that two years ago, and if their new offensive coordinator can make use of some of the considerable talent at his disposal, they might be again. However, they decided to schedule the Army game at the Alamodome, a would-be neutral site. A curious decision. The Roadrunners’ Athletic Department is no doubt hoping to make a little money off the game, and that’s fine, but they’ve basically given up home field advantage to do it. That’s not what we’d expect from a team that thought it had a legitimate chance to be competitive. Truth is, Army needs UTSA to bounce back sooner rather than later for strength-of-schedule purposes.
Week 4: Morgan State. FCS Morgan State finished 4-7 last year, 3-4 in the MEAC. That put them 7th out of ten in their conference. They’ve been a perennial Army opponent for a good long while now, but nobody’s arguing that they’re on an FCS or HBCU powerhouse, and indeed, Army beat them badly last time out. That’s about what I’m expecting in 2019 as well.
For what it’s worth, I like that Army schedules the occasional HBCU, but I’d prefer to see a team like Alcorn State or Grambling on the docket one of these years. I’m hardly an expert on HBCU football, but my sense is that there are some more-historic programs that might make for better headlines in the sports pages.
Week 6: Tulane. This is the best game on the 2019 home slate by far. The Green Wave finished 7-6 in 2018, 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference-West. They beat Navy, earned a share of the AAC-West title, and then won their bowl game against Louisiana easily. P(Wins) put the Green wave at just 5.8 wins expected in a 12-game season in 2018, but this is a team with a lot of talent. ESPN’s FPI put them 85th overall.
Tulane was ridiculously explosive in 2018 but also maddeningly inconsistent. They added a new offensive coordinator early in the offseason to try to get more consistent production, and assuming they can actually play up to their potential, I expect them to again compete for the AAC-West crown. With Houston liable to take a step back, I expect Tulane to surprise some folks.
Still, it’s a tough ask to come into Michie Stadium and knock off the Black Knights. If you can only make it to one home game next season, get to this one.
Week 7: at Western Kentucky. The once-proud Hilltoppers finished last season 3-9, 2-6 in Conference USA-East. That put them dead last in their division. It’s amazing because Army’s been playing WKU for as long as I’ve been watching the Black Knights, and this will be one of the first meetings in recent memory in which Army ought to be favored.
However, the Hilltoppers just haven’t been the same since Coach Jeff Brohm left for Purdue two years ago. I don’t expect WKU to stay down forever, but first year Head Coach Tyson Helton has a good amount of work to do in order to return his team to prominence. The good news is that Helton was the Offensive Coordinator under Brohm, so he at least comes in with some experience with the program. The better news is that this is a team that returns a Hell of a lot of starters off of last year’s squad as well.
WKU has to improve in 2019. P(Wins) predicted 4.1 wins in 2018 while ESPN ranked them 115th in FPI, but the team underachieved even for those exceptionally modest expectations. Their defense wasn’t terrible with 334 points-allowed, but they’ll need to find a way to score more than 253 total points in 2019. Multiple returning quarterbacks, running backs, and assorted skill position players ought to help them do that, but their conference has some rising powers as well. This will be an interesting team to watch.
❗ #NSD19 isn't done yet!
Welcome to the family, @tystorey4!
— WKU Football (@WKUFootball) March 1, 2019
Week 8: at Georgia State. Georgia State went 2-10 in 2018, 1-7 in the Sun Belt-Group A. I’ve never seen the Panthers play, so I don’t know what to expect. As of this writing, though, the game itself strikes me as a comedown from the good-to-decent MAC teams Army had been scheduling in these mid-season spots. Georgia State had a P(Wins) expectation of just 3.1 victories in a 12-game season, and even then they disappointed. ESPN had them as the 121st best team in FBS college football in 2018.
I don’t love it, honestly, but who knows? Maybe these guys will turn it around. Army recruits a lot in Georgia, so this game may well be as much recruiting opportunity as it is football contest. Certainly, I would expect the Black Knights to bring it hard on the road.
Week 9: San Jose State. The Spartans finished a miserable 2018 campaign 1-11, 1-7 in the Mountain West-West. Though they flashed an explosive offense at times and took a rising Hawaii team to overtime, they were neither consistent on offense nor stout on defense. 255 points-scored isn’t terrible, for example, but it’s not great either, especially when nearly all of those points are coming off explosive chunk plays rather than through sustained offensive drives. With no offensive rhythm to speak of, the Spartans’ defense was repeatedly exposed, giving up a God-awful 439 points on the season. That won’t beat anybody, and indeed, SJSU’s lone win came late in the year against also-struggling UNLV.
Army beat the living Hell out of SJSU on the road last year, and now the Spartans are coming to Michie Stadium. I’ll quote Mr. T and say, “My prediction–PAIN!”
Week 10: at Air Force. The Zoomies finished just 5-7 in 2018, missing a bowl game for the second straight year. They went 3-5 against a tough Mountain-West schedule, putting them 4th in the division. Considering their—total lack of—preseason expectations, however, it’s hard to call their 2018 campaign a true disappointment. They developed a defensive identity, especially against the run, found some playmakers on the outside on offense, and found a legit starting quarterback in rising junior Donald Hammond III. They also signed a bunch of good-looking recruits late in this latest recruiting cycle.
That’s not nothing.
Air Force still underperformed their overall talent, though. P(Wins) had them projected to win 7.1 games while ESPN ranked them 78th in overall FPI. The Zoomies could be explosive at times on offense, but they weren’t as consistent as they needed to be, and the rotation they ran amongst their starting quarterbacks didn’t do them any favors.
They will be much, much better in 2019. Head Coach Troy Calhoun might not be my favorite personality in service academy football, but he’s not some scrub, either. With a real defense and stability at quarterback, this is not a game that Army fans ought to take for granted. After last year’s finish, this one will be an absolute dog fight.
Week 11: UMass Minutemen. The Minutemen finished 4-8 in 2018 as independents. That probably counts as a disappointment on balance, but they’ve shown flashes at times, especially on offense. They scored a very respectable 394 points last year but gave up a mind-numbing 515 points on defense, good for a P(Wins) expectation of 4.2 games/season. ESPN’s FPI put them 106th. That’s not a disaster, but it leaves obvious room for improvement.
I don’t think UMass is necessarily a good team, but this could still be an exciting game. Really, the Minutemen just need to learn to play to their potential with consistency, and once they do, watch out! Granted, Army ought to win this one at home, but that UMass offense could easily make this a shootout. The best case scenario makes this one of those games where Army gives up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. We’ve seen that formula work in the past against teams with prolific offenses.
Week 12: VMI. This second FCS game is essentially a money-grab by the Army Athletic Association. Because the Black Knights play at Hawaii, they were allowed to schedule a 13th regular season game, and this is that game. I’ve no issue with the strategy, but it’s mostly about ticket sales. The Keydets certainly aren’t going to improve Army’s strength-of-schedule. Neither are they likely to leave the team struggling with injuries, either. Really, you’d hope that Army’s backups play most of this game, and all things considered, that’s about what I’m expecting.
How bad is this VMI team? They went just 1-10 overall in 2018 and 0-8 in the FCS Southern Conference. Moreover, they gave up an unconscionable 530 points on defense.
Holy Hell! We ought to see every quarterback on the roster take meaningful snaps in this one.
— VMI STRENGTH (@VMIStrength) March 1, 2019
Week 14: at Hawaii. Breaking tradition, Army travels to the Aloha State on Thanksgiving Weekend for round two against the Rainbow Warriors. In one sense, it sucks that the team can’t get home for Thanksgiving. But then again, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I personally would have loved to travel to Hawaii to compete over Thanksgiving as a cadet, and I expect the players won’t mind it much, either. This is a great piece of scheduling.
By the way, the Rainbows are good. They finished 8-6 last year, 5-3 in the Mountain West-West. That put them third in their division—well ahead of schedule with one of the youngest teams in all of college football. P(Wins) projected them to get 5.1 wins despite a supremely inexperienced defense, while ESPN’s FPI ranked them 107th. They were a good bit better than that, and with the talent they’re returning in 2019, I’ll be shocked if they’re not an absolute wrecking crew going forward.
It’s rare that Army schedules one of its tougher games right before Army-Navy, but at least they’re doing this one the right way. The super-long weekend gives the team a real chance to compete despite what will be an absurd time-zone change, and they’ll still have a bye week before the Navy game, too. The only bad bit is that kickoff will probably happen right around midnight Eastern time.
Week 16: Army-Navy. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I will say that the Mids are expected to start a plebe quarterback next year, and it’s probably gonna be a cousin of Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. If that’s not enough, they also have to reboot their defense from the ground up, having lost a plurality of their defensive starters to graduation and most of their defensive coaching staff, too. It’s hard to say how this will all play itself out, but there’s bound to be some struggles, especially in the early going.
Navy finished last season 3-10, 2-6 in the American Athletic Conference-West. They scored a respectable 325 points on offense but gave up an indefensible 436 points on defense. That gave them a P(Wins) expectation of 4 games, which they missed on account of various mistakes, injuries, and all-around inconsistent play. FPI put them 99th overall. That might be a little generous, to be honest.
And yet, if Navy doesn’t have six wins coming into this game, I’ll be truly surprised. Their staff is way too good, and I think their schedule won’t be quite as challenging. Moreover, Coach N and company know what they need to do to get better. Those guys aren’t scrubs, which is part of what makes this such a great rivalry.
Three in a row!
— Army-Navy Game (@ArmyNavyGame) December 8, 2018
High Confidence: Michigan, Hawaii, Air Force, Tulane
Medium Confidence: Western Kentucky, Navy
Low Confidence: UTSA
No Confidence: UMass, Rice, Georgia State, San Jose State
That’s all folks.