Jabari Laws’ final journey as an Army quarterback concluded with an eight-play, 51-yard drive. This set up Cole Talley’s game-winning 41-yard field goal, putting Army over SEC Missouri in the 2021 Armed Forces Bowl. Fans and players alike celebrated as if the game were a New Year’s Six bowl. Competing on a national scale and overcoming a Power Five team in a bowl game solidified Army’s position nationally and seemed to validate the hard work and gritty determination of the Monken Era.
Alas, these kinds of match-ups are now in jeopardy.
The Independence Bowl’s agreement with Army provides an exciting opportunity to punctuate bowl seasons. Army should — theoretically — face a PAC-12 school in Shreveport, assuming they achieve bowl eligibility in Independence Bowl tie-in years. These games present a rare opportunity. The Black Knights have faced PAC-12 foes just they three times since 1988.
Alas, it doesn’t always work out that way. In 2020, Army did everything within its power to secure a bowl bid, finishing 9-2. However, a lack of interest — or perhaps reluctance — from the PAC-12 to participate in the Independence Bowl initially left Army out of the bowl picture. Three years later, additional factors beyond their control are likely to again prevent Army from encountering a PAC-12 school — in the Independence Bowl or anywhere else.
The PAC-12 is shrinking. The conference lost USC and UCLA to the Big 10 for the coming season, and then the ten remaining schools dropped to four just this past week. When Colorado bolted for the Big 12, it igniting a mass exodus. The future of the PAC-12 is now in serious doubt with, as of this writing, just four members remaining. Unsurprisingly, the conference’s bowl partners are now looking for new tie-ins as well. This includes the Independence Bowl, which would have matched a PAC-12 team against Army in 2024, assuming the stars had aligned according to all of their primary tie-ins.
If the PAC-12 dissolves, the Independence Bowl tie-in will go to the Sun Belt. That seems likely. The PAC-12 will lose the majority of its membership before the 2024 season even begins, but any additions to the conference will likely take place after 2024. Why? Because the Mountain West charges $34 million for exits from the conference with less than a year’s notice. This is double what it would cost were schools to leave with more than a year’s notice.
This setback could be significant for Army. Power Five bowl games attract substantial TV viewership — and the revenue that comes with it. In 2020, Army’s appearance in the Liberty Bowl was the third-most-watched non-New Year’s Six bowl of the entire postseason and the most-viewed non-NY6 bowl on ESPN overall. The game garnered a 2.2 rating and 3.74 million viewers! The following year, the Black Knights’ Armed Forces Bowl appearance against Missouri drew a 1.5 rating and 2.569 million viewers. Friends, Army is a draw. We knew that. The underdog narrative of the Black Knights competing against a mighty Power Five foe appeals to both casual fans and dedicated college football enthusiasts alike.
These games also play a crucial role in recruiting. Participating in the 2024 Independence Bowl would have given Army a third Power Five opponent for the year, alongside Wake Forest and Syracuse. Playing against multiple Power Five opponents provides a recruiting advantage over Navy, who faces only Notre Dame each year and gains a second opponent only if they play one in the Military or Fenway Bowl. As we know from this week’s As For Football Army Football Show, recruits come to West Point oftentimes because they want real academics coupled to major college football. All other factors aside, this combination is rare. Although Army competes primarily against Group of Five opponents, matchups against the Power Five hold a strong appeal for potential recruits.
While the Sun Belt serves as a backup tie for the Independence Bowl, an Army fan’s excitement is likely higher for games against Washington State, California, or Utah as compared to Louisiana, Arkansas State, or Texas State. Those are fine programs, but Power Five bowl games are just bigger. They’re bigger match-ups against bigger fanbases with seemingly bigger stakes. Everyone in America wants to see these kinds of games to close the college football season.
It’s the preseason right now, so bowl games maybe aren’t at the forefront of college football fans’ minds. That’s fine. However, these games hold immense significance for an independent service academy like Army. Unfortunately, the PAC-12’s disintegration potentially takes away from the anticipation of next year’s Independence Bowl bid. Black Knight fans will undoubtedly celebrate if Army reaches Shreveport, but will they also contemplate the question, “What if?”
As For Football’s Preseason Series
— Army Football Preview: 2023 Season Preview (First Quarter)
— Army Football Preview: 2023 Season Preview (Second Quarter)
— Army Football Preview: 2023 Season Preview (Third Quarter)
— Army Football Preview: 2023 Season Preview (Fourth Quarter)
— Analyzing Army’s Appearance on NFL Network
— A Few Favorite Pics from the 2022 Season
— Army Football Preview: Defense & Special Teams
— Army’s New Offense: Why the Switch?
Competing 😤 pic.twitter.com/jAh3kJEeC3— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) August 6, 2023
Go Army! Beat ULM!!!
Cover image via @TheGBCoach on Twitter.