As we noted last week, Army Football’s schedule for the coming year appears to be the toughest of the Monken Era. In addition to their perennial rivals at Navy and Air Force, the Black Knights will face two tough Power 5 teams, the defending MAC champion, two up-and-coming mid-majors in Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio), and arguably the hottest independent in the nation, the ACC-killing Liberty Flame.
We hear a lot of smack-talk about Army’s schedule from fans of the other service academies, but here’s the reality — of the teams on Army’s schedule that actually played in 2020, the only ones that finished with losing records were Navy and Air Force. So sure, there are some teams on the schedule that Army ought to beat, but there are also a bunch of potentially tough, exciting contests scheduled throughout the coming fall. How this schedule will ultimately be perceived after the season might come down to the success of Army’s chief rivals.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 18, 2021
Note: Preseason SP+ rankings are given below in parentheses, along with adjusted points away from the mean. These are used to set betting lines. SP+ has Army at #72 (-0.6), meaning that they’d be a half-point underdog to an “average” college football team on a neutral site. With 130 teams in FBS college football, the “average” in this case is a purely mathematical construct, but the rankings are still an occasionally useful metric as part of a discussion of preseason expectations.
September 4th – at Georgia State Panthers (SP+ #76, -1.9)
The Georgia State Panthers finished last season 6-4 (4-4 in the Sun Belt-Group B), with wins over East Carolina, Troy, arch-rival Georgia Southern, and Western Kentucky in the Lending Tree Bowl. They did this out of one of the toughest conferences in the country last year, the Sun Belt. State’s division includes App. State and Coastal Carolina; their conference includes Louisiana. Indeed, the Sun Belt opened their season by winning multiple games against the Big XII. This is the same Big XII that then went undefeated in bowl season.
With all eleven starters returning on offense and nine returning on defense, Coach Shawn Elliott’s team is feeling it this spring1. QB Cornelius “Quad” Brown remains the starter2, but competition behind him is intense, as are the position battles on the outside at wide receiver. The team is also working to integrate its transfer students, many of whom will provide depth or even upgrades on the defense. With that, this defense should be very good, especially since they finished 2020 with 35 sacks, good for 7th in FBS college football.3
The Panthers held their spring game this past Friday, April 16. All the quarterbacks played well, with local media declaring that Brown “definitely looked ready”.4 The Panthers focused their game plan on seeing what they had in their offense, especially at backup quarterback. What that means for the summer is open to question, but at a minimum, we know that Army faces a confident, experienced offensive unit in its opener this season.
— GSU Football (@GeorgiaStateFB) April 17, 2021
Sep. 11th – WKU Hilltoppers (SP+ #98, -8.1)
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers finished last season 5-7 overall but 4-3 in Conference USA-East. That was good for 3rd in their division behind Marshall and Florida Atlantic. As noted above, WKU’s season culminated in a loss to Georgia State in the Lending Tree Bowl.
Third-year Head Coach Tyson Helton returned to Western Kentucky with the promise to restore the team’s offense, but to date, it’s been the defense that’s been the strength of this team. Indeed, last year’s team was 12th offensively out of the 13 teams that competed in C-USA, leading Helton to bring in a new Offensive Coordinator in Zach Kittley from Houston Baptist.5 Kittley then brought his quarterback with him, along with several of his top receivers, which means that the Hilltoppers now have a Hell of a lot of offensive position battles heading into summer camp.6
The Hilltoppers spring game was a battle of big plays.7 Top RB Jakairi Moses ran for a long touchdown early, and each of the team’s top wide receivers caught a pass for a touchdown as well. However, WKU’s defense also made 4 interceptions, two of which went for defensive touchdowns.
What all of that portends for the regular season is anyone’s guess.
Though the outcome of the Army game will likely come down to the Black Knights’ ability to manage the Hilltoppers’ D-Line, WKU itself will ultimately succeed or fail based on how well the team integrates its transfer students into its offensive system. Helton likes to throw deep, but his quarterbacks and wide receivers have to get on the same page if they’re going to make that work. Even in 2019, when the team went 9-4, they weren’t always good at that.
⚪️𝐒𝐏𝐑𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐒𝐇𝐎𝐖𝐂𝐀𝐒𝐄🔴 pic.twitter.com/6hNpCRjIHt
— WKU Football Recruiting (@WKURecruiting) April 17, 2021
Sep. 18 – UConn Huskies (SP+ 127, -22.3)
The University of Connecticut Huskies have struggled for a good, long time now. They floundered for years in the American Conference, to the point that the administration actually pulled the plug, moving back to the Big East to support the school’s basketball teams while leaving the football team to more or less fend for itself. The good news is that UConn Football has done an admirable job filling out its schedule for the next few years. The bad news is that everyone wants to play the Huskies because they are actively terrible. COVID gave the program a shot at a reboot, but in 2021 the Huskies will face Fresno State, Purdue, Army, Wyoming, Vanderbilt, UMass, Middle Tennessee State, Clemson, Central Florida, and Houston. Save UMass, every one of those teams is looking at this matchup as an easy FBS win to count towards bowl eligibility. Even for Clemson, that’s an opportunity that’s too good to pass up.
Alas, the hits keep coming. UConn recently cancelled their remaining spring football practices due to positive COVID tests among the football staff.8 They put in 12 of 15 scheduled practices, so the staff got to install at least some of the playbook, but UConn sports 91 mostly new players on its roster with 10 freshmen headed to campus this fall. Those guys will have a lot of work to do to be ready for legitimate FBS football this year.
— Randy Edsall (@RandyEdsall) March 25, 2021
First Quarter Expectations
This early part of the season sees the Black Knights open with a pick-’em game at Georgia State, a home opener against Western Kentucky in which Army ought to be about a touchdown favorite, and a get-right game at home against UConn in case the wheels come off in the early going.
Granted, we’d probably rather see UConn first, then WKU, then Georgia State, but doing it this way will put an early spotlight on the Black Knights given that their season opener ought to be one of college football’s most compelling Week 1 match-ups. That’s never a bad thing, but it’s especially helpful when you’re playing in one of your most important recruiting states. Moreover, so long as the Black Knights take care of business, this opening stretch ought to set them up nicely for the tough middle-of-the-season stretch.
🗣️ MIC'D UP!
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 15, 2021
1. Stan Awtrey, “Spring enthusiasm high at Georgia State,” AJC.com, March 30, 2021.
2. Jason Richburg, “Georgia State’s spring game is ten days away, and there are many questions left to answer,” GeorgiaStateSignal.Com, April 6, 2021.
3. “Spring Practice Opens March 9; Spring Game Set for April 16,” GeorgiaStateSports.Com, February 11, 2021.
4. Ben Moore, “Notes and Quotes from the Spring Game,” 247Sports.Com, April 17, 2021.
5. Jared MacDonald, “Hilltoppers excited to start spring football season,” BGDailyNews.Com, March 15, 2021.
6. “Spring Ball Day 1: Huskies-Turned-Hilltoppers Meshing, Adjusting Seamlessly,” WKUSports.Com, March 18, 2021.
7. “WKU Football Defense, Offense Trade Big Plays in Exciting 2021 Spring Game,” WKUSports.Com, April 17, 2021.
8. Shawn MacFarland, “Randy Edsall says UConn football’s spring season still productive despite an early end due to COVID-19,” Hartford Courant, April 1, 2021.
— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) April 13, 2021
Go Army! Beat Georgia State!!!