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Usually, if that team is playing the Naval Academy, you'll find a comment something along the lines of "don't sleep on the Midshipmen, they have a talented offense" or "those kids play hard." Like clockwork, this response is almost always met by a comment on the Naval Academy's schedule, usually by a member of the forum who feels that the twenty seconds he spent to look up the applicable information makes him some kind of expert. Bringing the oft-quoted commentary that Navy's schedule is akin to that of their high school JV team's, this fan is typically successful in changing the perceptions of all those reading, thereby convincing the entire fan community to pencil in a win against the vastly overrated Midshipmen.
I tell this little story because opposing fans have long chastised Navy's weak schedule and for all intents and purposes purposes will do so once again in the months to come. Filled with traditional bottom-feeders such as Temple, Duke, and Army, Navy's independent schedule has been the target of fans looking to dispute the success of Paul Johnson's teams between 2003-2007 and to relegate the Midshipmen's accomplishments to a few close wins over mediocre opponents. And while I would certainly argue that the winning percentages of Navy opponents between 2003-2007 does not at all detract from the rejuvenated attitude of winning at the Academy, even the most die-hard of Navy fans will be the first to acknowledge that the schedule has been instrumental in defining Navy's recent run at success. And you know what the crazy thing about it is? We're more than O.K. with that, and in fact most of us embrace it as essential to the continued success of the program, especially now that Paul Johnson has departed for Georgia Tech.
After all nobody in Annapolis is expecting a smooth and error free transition from Johnson to Niumatalolo, with many fans and commentators already predicting a drop in Navy's eight win total from a year ago. The consensus clearly seems to indicate a drop-off based on the loss of Johnson, a point which while fair, doesn't bother to account for the return of much of the coaching staff or the players who made Navy's offense so good in 2007. Throw in the fact that Navy's defense could not possibly play any worse in 2008, and it would seem as though the more likely culprit for any rough patches the Midshipmen may encounter over the course of the 2008 season could ironically come from the schedule which has so often helped the Midshipmen achieve bowl eligibility. It may sound strange, but despite a 2008 schedule which features twelve teams which combined for a 37.4% winning percentage in 2007 (lowest in the country) Navy could be looking at a decidedly more difficult slate this upcoming season, thanks largely in part to a schedule filled with teams that have nowhere to go but up. The numbers, not to mention to pundits, speak for themselves on the issue.
While Navy shouldn't have too much difficulty opening with an FCS Towson team which went 3-8 last season, the Mids will have to travel to Muncie, Indiana in week two to face a Ball State team which returns its entire starting offense from a team which put up 539 total yards on Navy's defense last year. The Cardinals, led by Second Team All-MAC quarterback Nate Davis, should be much improved on defense with seven starters back in 2008, including a veteran linebacker corps which will have had the benefit of facing the triple option last season. Translation? Ball State could be one of the most explosive and surprising of the non-BCS conference teams in the country this year, and will present even more of a challenge to a Navy team which lost in overtime to the Cardinals last year.
Meanwhile, Navy will be facing four teams which have been counted among the Top 25 in numerous preseason publications so far this summer, including a finally healthy Pittsburgh team and a Notre Dame club which Phil Steele has proclaimed his "Most Improved Team" going into the season. Pittsburgh, which capped off a lackluster 5-7 season with a 13-9 stunner of then second ranked West Virginia to finish the season a year ago, figures to be much improved offensively with eight starters returning from a unit which averaged only 22.8 points per game in 2007. The return of QB Bill Stull (injured against Navy last season) should greatly contribute to the establishment of a stronger Pitt passing attack, something the Panthers were sorely missing with freshmen Pat Bostick in 2007. While Navy could very well have a repeat of offensive success against the Panthers, even a slightly improved Pitt team may be too much to handle for Navy, which bested Pittsburgh on a fourth-and-goal in two overtimes to win 48-45 a year ago. Then of course there are the Irish, who suffered through the worst season in program history in 2007, finishing the year at 3-9 while also surrendering a 43 year win streak against the Naval Academy. While the 2008 version of Notre Dame probably won't be confused for the National Championship team of 1988, the Irish have no where to go but up with QB Jimmy Clausen healthy and ready to go for his sophomore season. He'll be joined by eight other returning offensive starters from an offense which averaged a pathetic 16.4 points per game in 2007, including a talented set of skill position players to include running back Robert Hughes and wide receiver Duval Kamara. The Irish should also be better on defense in 2008, with famed coaching mind John Tenuta coming over from Georgia Tech to team up with defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. If improved Pitt and Notre Dame teams (both of which Navy beat last season) weren't enough, Wake Forest and Rutgers (two teams Navy lost to last season) both return fourteen or more starters in 2008, including veteran defenses which each held Navy to 24 points in their respective games in 2007 (Navy's lowest scoring outputs of the season.)
Yet for as improved as teams like Notre Dame and Pittsburgh may be in 2008, the biggest difference in the strength of Navy's schedule may come from the teams which posted a combined 8-40 record last season. It's no secret that Duke, Temple, Northern Illinois, and SMU were among the worst teams in the country last season, but things could be drastically different in 2008. Take the Blue Devils for example, who as it were nearly (and many would argue should have) beat the Midshipmen in Annapolis last season before Navy backup quarterback Jarod Bryant led an inspired fourth quarter comeback. Duke will not only have the benefit of experience in 2008 (17 total returning starters, including ten on defense) but will also have a new mindset under Head Coach David Cutcliffe, who proved highly successful at perennial SEC bottom feeder Mississippi. Likewise SMU will be brining in a new and proven head coach in 2008, as June Jones and his run-and-shoot system come over from Hawaii. While SMU did finish 1-11 last season the Mustangs lost three games in overtime and another two by five points or less, a stat which has many commentators expecting big things in 2008. Throw in the obvious struggles Navy has had in pass efficiency defense (ranked dead last in the country last year) and the Mustangs could give Navy fits.
Northern Illinois and Temple, two of Navy's November opponents, also figure to be much improved in 2008. Navy survived late comebacks by both of these teams to knock them off in 2008, but with Northern Illinois returning 21 total starters in 2008 and Temple returning an amazing 22 starters, the Midshipmen won't have the benefit of catching a young team off-guard. Temple is no longer the cupcake they used to be, upgrading their talent considerably under Al Golden while playing much more competitively in the Mid American Conference. Northern Illinois had an unusually poor season in 2007, thanks in large part to losing a combined 38 starts to injury during the season (sixth highest in the FBS.) The Huskies, who will be coached by former Southern Illinois headman Jerry Kill in 2008, were also -17 in the turnover department last year, and lost three games by three points or less. Considering the experience back on both sides of the ball this year and the bad karma experienced last year it's not difficult to see a much more composed NIU team in 2008, one which will not only benefit from homefield advantage against Navy, but also from seeing the triple option offense in the past. While they may not challenge for the MAC title both Temple and Northern Illinois figure to be much improved in 2008, and could both finish with records of .500 or better.
It's been said by many in the national media that Navy fans should expect a difficult season without the benefit of Paul Johnson on the sideline. Even while it's is hard to dispute Johnson's obvious genius, I do have faith in head coach Ken Niumatalolo to get the most out of a fairly veteran and talented Navy football team in 2008. Yet with this in mind there is only so much a program can control in college football, with the progression of the opposition not among them. I think it's more than safe to expect another competitive year out of the Midshipmen, but with a 2008 schedule which could include more winning teams than any other during the past five seasons, wins (and with them bowl eligibility) could be harder to come by.