Armed and ready -- for bowl season

Updated: February 16, 2011, 4:26 PM ET
By Ryan McGee

Welcome back to Going Bowling, where we always salute the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces and Military presented by Northrop Grumman for defending our AutoZone Liberty.

Speaking of our uniformed heroes ...

By Air, Sea and ... Land?

The Army, Navy and Air Force have combined their talents to overwhelm mankind's most evil and impenetrable forces, marching in lockstep into the planet's most treacherous corners. We were reminded of that fact time and time again during Thursday's emotional nationwide celebration of Veterans Day.

For all of their combined glory, there is one territory they have yet to conquer as a team.

Bowl season.

For the first time, all three service academies have a legitimate shot at earning bowl berths in the same year. Now they are only one win -- more specifically one Army win -- away from adding another chapter to their already rich history. Navy and Air Force already know they will be bowling. Army has to win one of its next two to close the deal, a final reward that could ease the sting of a season punctuated by heartbreaking losses to Hawaii, Rutgers and, just last weekend, Air Force (and their sweet Thunderbird-themed uniforms).

"This football team sets high expectations for itself. We don't celebrate being close," second-year Army coach Rich Ellerson said earlier this week, still smarting from the 42-22 loss to the Falcons. "Yes, we want to be in a bowl game. But our goal is win every game that they let us play."

If the folks at Air Force and Navy are honest, they want Army to win every game, too. Well, every game but two. "I do think we probably root for each other when we're not playing," said third-year Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "Now I can't guarantee that my alums around the world share that sentiment ... "

Air Force began playing varsity football in 1956, while Army and Navy were still enjoying the last stanza of their football glory days. Over the next eight years the three schools posted winning records in the same season three times -- '56, '58 and '63, the year Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach led the Middies to nine wins and a trip to the Cotton Bowl, a de facto national title game versus Texas.

But since '63 the three academies have all had a winning record in the same season once. Once! In 1996 Navy won nine games and went to the Aloha Bowl while Army posted a 10-2 record and went to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl. But 6-5 Air Force stayed home over the holidays.

"It really is amazing," said Jim Grobe, former longtime Air Force assistant coach and now head coach at Wake Forest. "But when we really had things rolling at Air Force [the Falcons went to nine bowls in 11 years from 1982 to 1992] Army was also very good. Then when Navy started winning again Army was back down and then Air Force was. There's a real ebb and flow there. It's hard to explain."

Well, sort of.

Since '63 the three academies have all had a winning record in the same season once.

Over the past half-century all three academies have had great coaches at the helm, from Fisher DeBerry in Colorado Springs to Jim Young at West Point to Paul Johnson in Annapolis. But never did three really dynamic head men overlap. Two yes, but never three.

And there are factors that alter the state of service academy sports that simply don't have an effect at other schools. From 1965 to 1975, the 10 central years of the Vietnam War, the three academies combined for exactly one bowl berth, Air Force's 34-14 loss to Tennessee in the 1970 Sugar Bowl.

"Of course, there weren't the massive slate of bowl games then like we have now," said Paul Johnson, now head coach at Georgia Tech. He was at Navy from 2002 to 2007, starting a run of bowl appearances in '03 that will continue this year. "But still, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any three schools over 50 years not be able to find two years where they didn't all qualify for bowl games."

Navy knows where it's headed, having already accepted an invitation to play a team from the Mountain West in San Diego's Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23, clinched by Saturday's surprising 76-35 thumping of East Carolina.

Air Force clinched the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy with the win over Army and, like Navy, now sits at six wins. The one-time Top 25 team is now 6-4 and projected by my ESPN.com colleagues to play in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl on Dec. 27.

All of that means that the ball is squarely in Army's hands to tuck and run toward service academy football history. In a perfect football world that achievement (not to mention Army's first bowl bid and first winning season since '96) would come down the greatest game in college football, the Army-Navy Game, on Dec. 11. But that contest, pushed back a week to steer clear of the conference title games, is now too late to factor into bowl eligibility.

So the Black Knights must take care of business this weekend at 4-5 Kent State or the following weekend, when they take on Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium.

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