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The hidden rule of Army and Navy football seasons

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One team will almost always be good. As for the other?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

Army started its 2020 season on September 5th by tidily dismantling Middle Tennessee State 42-0. It was the kind of victory that convinces fans (and Power Five athletic directors) to avoid playing the Black Knights, including touchdown drives of 9:13 and 12:26 and a plus-four turnover margin. Why sign up for three hours of being slowly and thoroughly processed through the wood chipper we call the triple option?

Two days later, Navy faced off against BYU, with many observers prepared for a repeat of Army’s success. After all, this was another service academy playing at home against a non-P5 school wearing blue and white! But then the Midshipmen found themselves kicking a field goal down 48-0 in the third quarter just to avoid getting shut out by the Cougars. What happened?

Looking at just one weekend, Army might have been better prepared than Navy was. But more broadly, these results fit within a peculiar pattern: Army and Navy are rarely both good at the same time.

I looked at the last 50 seasons for both programs and called any season where a school finished over. 500 a good year and any season where they went .500 or worse a bad one.

Is 7-5 universally a good season? Does this account for differences in schedule difficulty from one year to another? Was the author capable of a more complicated statistical analysis? The answer to all of those questions: No, and don’t worry about it.

Here’s what I found:

Three of the four seasons where the Midshipmen and Black Knights both finished above .500 are fairly recent (2017, 2016, 2010), and we’ve only seen one year in the last 17 where both teams finished at or below .500.

We’re here to focus on the big yellow chunk of that pie, though. Before we get into the possible reasons why Army and Navy rarely both enjoy success in the same year, let’s discuss two details that chart doesn’t display.

Since 1970, when either Army or Navy has a good year and the other school doesn’t, the gap between the two is fairly wide. In those seasons, the good team wins an average of 4.7 more games than the bad team. We have usually established what both teams are long before the end of the year; there are only a handful of years where the Army-Navy game itself is pushing one team over .500 and the other below that mark.

Second, you might be thinking that Navy’s usually the good team and Army’s usually the bad team. That’s mostly correct, but it’s not entirely lopsided. Of those 30 good-bad seasons, the Midshipmen were above .500 for 19 of them. Since 2003, Navy’s mostly had successful years while the Black Knights have struggled, but Army was above .500 more often in the ‘80s, and the ‘90s weren’t particularly great for either program.

Why do we usually see either a good Midshipmen team or a good Black Knights squad but not both? The simplest answer is that recruiting’s more challenging at the service academies than pretty much any other FBS program. But I have two additional theories.

Theory one: Army and Navy take longer to bail on bad coaches

Both schools tend to give new coaches lots of time and patience. In the fifty-year span I looked at, every Navy coach and all but one Army coach got at least three full seasons before they were replaced, and most got more than that, even if their tenures started slowly. Sometimes that patience is worthwhile; Jeff Monken, Army’s current head coach, went 4-8 and 2-10 in his first two years at West Point, and then led the Black Knights to three straight seasons where they won at least eight games.

But it can also prolong situations that aren’t working. Navy hired George Chaump away from Marshall in 1990, and after going 5-6 in his first year, the Midshipmen finished 1-10 in 1991 and 1992. Chaump still got two more seasons at Navy … and finished below .500 in both of them.

There’s another downside to patience: anyone that turns things around at Army or Navy immediately starts popping up on hiring lists whenever the coaching carousel starts turning. Monken’s in year seven with Army, while Ken Niumatalolo’s been at Navy since 2007, and both are regularly connected to open jobs.

Theory two: Life as an independent is a little more work

Navy and Army have spent most of their modern college football lives as independents. Army had a brief and disastrous run as a Conference USA member from 1998-2004 before going back out on its own, and Navy joined the American in 2015 after 134 years outside of a conference. Why does that matter?

Independent schools face slightly more variety, opponent-wise, than those in conferences do. Army, for example, played 27 different programs from 2012-2015. Indiana played 23 in that same span. That’s only one extra unique opponent a year on average (and Indiana’s strength of schedule was significantly harder than Army’s) but it means less familiarity and more preparation required for an independent.

Combine all of those factors – recruiting limitations, coaches with longer leashes, less opponent familiarity – and you can see why getting a year where Army and Navy are both good proves to be pretty challenging. My advice: if you’re going to schedule one, go ahead and play the other. No sense accidentally playing the good team that year when you can get one win and one loss instead.