- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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They are fierce rivals, yes, but everybody who coaches at and plays for a service academy understands the difficulty of making a bowl game. So it should come as little shock that they applauded what happened last season -- when Army, Navy and Air Force all made bowl games for the first time in college football history.
"All three are phenomenal places. Each one has their own niche that our country badly needs," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "We’re fortunate to have each one of these academies. When they all have winning seasons, that’s pretty cool stuff."
Now the big question -- can they do it again and again?
"There are no guarantees in this, but I think that’s a realistic outcome when you look at who we are and our schedules and how well we’re playing," Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "It’s not hard to visualize that."
Navy and Air Force have been playing at high levels in recent years. The Midshipmen have been to eight straight bowl games; Air Force to four straight. It had been Army that lagged behind. But Ellerson has changed the culture at West Point, taking his Black Knights to a bowl game for the first time since 1996.
Is that enough to get the momentum going for Army? On paper, it appears that Army has the longest shot of the three service academies to make it back to a bowl game.
The defense lost six starters, including all-important nose guard Mike Gann and defensive end Josh McNary, who holds the school record for tackles for loss and sacks. The defensive line is more undersized than usual for a service academic, so the team is hoping its quickness and athleticism can make up for that. The Black Knights also lose leading tackler Stephen Anderson, who had 108 stops last season, and both starting safeties.
If you take a look at the Army schedule, you will find very few gimmes. Six of the 12 games feature bowl teams; only four of their FBS teams had losing records last season. The opening stretch is tough, starting with a game at Northern Illinois (11-3 last season), then home to San Diego State (9-4) and Northwestern (7-6). Army plays six straight games before getting a bye.
But if there is a bright spot for Army, it has to be on offense. Quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Jared Hassin return, and they should given opposing defenses fits. Hassin ran for 1,013 yards last season and Steelman added 721 on the ground and 995 yards passing. Army does have to replace four starters on the offensive line, but Ellerson has been pleased with their progress.
Navy faces a rebuilding year as well, but the Midshipmen are a team that knows how to win and win consistently. They only return 10 starters -- and just three on defense. Navy lost its top four tacklers from a year ago -- Wyatt Middleton, Tyler Simmons, Aaron McCauley and Jerry Hauburger.
There are some bright spots returning, though. Defensive end Jabaree Tuani, their best defensive lineman, returns. Cornerback Kewsi Mitchell will anchor the defensive backfield, though just exactly where he will play remains up in the air. On the latest depth chart, he is listed as a possibility at rover, right and left cornerback.
Offensively, Ricky Dobbs is gone, but there isn't much concern about Kriss Proctor coming in to run the triple-option. Proctor has had extensive experience running the offense as a backup the past two seasons. Plus, he has fullback Alexander Teich to help him out. Teich had a breakout year in 2010, running for 863 yards and is in line to be a 1,000-yard rusher this season. Four of five starters on the offensive line return as well.
As for Air Force, the Falcons are the defending Commander-In-Chief Trophy winners after breaking the seven-year Navy streak. Air Force has to be the favorite to repeat as CIC champions because of everybody it has returning. In fact, the Falcons were picked to finish third in the Mountain West in the preseason media poll, and some have called them a darkhorse candidate to win the conference.
Air Force has the best quarterback of the service academies in Tim Jefferson, and the best return specalist in Jonathan Warzeka. The Falcons also have the most solid defense. Eight starters return on defense, including the team's top three tacklers from a year ago -- Jordan Waiwaiole, Jon Davis and Brady Amack.
All three programs need to get to six wins to be bowl eligible. If that happens again, Navy would head to the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman on Dec. 28 in Washington against a team from the ACC. Army would head to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco against a Pac-12 team on Dec. 31. Air Force would go to a Mountain West tie-in.
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
5dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney