July 30, 2005

By Elliot Olshansky

At 12:30 p.m. on September 10, a new era in Army football will begin.

After seven years as a member of Conference USA, the Black Knights will resume playing an independent schedule in 2005, a move that Army fans hope will boost their team's success, which has been notably lacking over the past decade, much to the chagrin of those who recall the academy's glory years on the gridiron.

"The academies used to dominate football 30, 40 years ago, especially Army," said CSTV analyst Brian Curtis, "but this is a different landscape, where the top players that you need are not the kids that want to go into the army or navy."

Those recruiting issues were apparent throughout Army's C-USA tenure. The Black Knights posted a 9-40 record over seven years in the conference, never finishing better than 2-7 in league play. The bottom fell out in 2003, when the Cadets posted an 0-13 record, which led to the end of Todd Berry's tenure as head coach and the arrival of Bobby Ross, who came out of retirement in an attempt to revitalize Army's program.

While the Black Knights' 2-9 record in 2004 might not seem like an encouraging start to the Bobby Ross era of Army football, the season did contain a 48-29 Homecoming win over Cincinnati on October 9, the first Army win in Michie Stadium since October 27, 2001. The Corps of Cadets rejoiced following the game, uprooting goalposts and carrying Ross off the field. It is hoped that post-game celebrations will become more common at West Point as the Black Knights forge ahead as independents. How common they might become, though, is uncertain.

While the service academies are no longer the football powerhouses that they once were, the recent performance of rival Navy shows what a well-coached academy team can do against an independent schedule. The Midshipmen went 10-2 in 2004, finishing the season with a 34-19 win over New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl, the first bowl win for Navy since 1996. It's that kind of success that Army will look to emulate as the team embarks on its first independent schedule under Ross.

"I think the best you can hope for at one of the academies at this point is a season like Navy had last year," Curtis said. "I think it's unreasonable to expect any of the three service academies to run the table."

Replicating that success won't be easy against Army's 2005 opponents, though. Unlike the Midshipmen, who play the only 2004 bowl participant on their schedule when they visit Notre Dame on November 12, Army will play four teams that went to bowls last season: Boston College (Sept. 10), Iowa State (Sept. 24), Connecticut (Oct. 1), and of course, Navy.

"I would say Army is a four-win team this year," Curtis said. "I think that winning four games with the schedule they have and the players that they have returning is realistic."

Still, while a bowl appearance - Army's first since 1996 - might be hard to come by in 2005, there's a championship Army hopes to compete for immediately: the Commander in Chief's Trophy, presented annually to the team with the best record against its service academy brethren. The Trophy has not resided in New York since 1997 (following Army's 2-0 record against Navy and Air Force in 1996), and there's no doubt Ross and his men would love to bring it home. According to Curtis, that goal is somewhat more attainable.

"I think they could do it in the next two years," Curtis said of Army's CIC Trophy hopes. "Air Force was down last year. I'm assuming they're not going to be down for long, but they're not the dominating Air Force that you'd see years back. I don't think Navy can sustain it, especially because their schedule's going to get harder, and I think last year was a tremendous coaching job. I don't think it was necessarily about the players. With Air Force and Navy coming down a little bit, Army doesn't need to do leaps and bounds to be able to win the Trophy."

To attain its goals, Army will look early and often to senior tailback Carlton Jones, a plan that has both positives and negatives. The biggest positive is Jones himself: the Henderson, N.C., native has led the team in rushing in each of his first three seasons at West Point, rushed for an academy record of 17 touchdowns last season, and is coming off of a season in which posted the second-highest rushing total ever at West Point (1,269 yards). Behind Jones' heroics on the ground, Army went from last in the nation in rushing in 2003 to 37th in 2004.

The bad news is that a good running attack can only take you so far in today's college game. "I think that when people think of Army, they think of running the ball," Curtis said, "because that's how Army had so much success decades ago. But to compete, especially as an independent, you've got to be able to throw the ball. I can't think of any conference that's out there now, besides maybe the Big Ten, where you can really get away with just a really strong running game, and I think Army's got to have the passing game to go along with the running game."

Still Curtis expects the Cadets to continue their improvement under Ross in 2005. "I think they're going to be much better," Curtis said, "as any program would be under a second-year coach. The first year, the coach is getting used to the guys, the guys are getting used to the system they got in."

How much better is anyone's guess, but in the meantime, expect touchdown pushups and cannon blasts to become regular occurrences on Saturdays at West Point.

Elliot Olshansky is an editor for CSTV.com