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Summer Vacation: Proven Recipes, Old Powers And The Army Cadets

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

When putting together all the profiles for last summer's (hopefully enjoyable) Top 100 College Football Teams of the Last 100 Years countdown (which I considered a success despite the fact that I'm pretty sure somebody called my numbers racist because of the No. 1 pick), I realized something I had sort of realized a long time ago -- damn, was Army good once.  Like, Notre Dame good.  Better, actually, for a number of years.  Like, "three in the all-time Top 10, five in the Top 100" good.  Of course, that was a long time ago.  Fordham was great once, too, and that doesn't have much impact on the present day.

Still, it was enjoyable seeing Army playing well last season.  I'm not a big subscriber to the "College Football is more enjoyable when (Random Old Power) is good again" theory (as a Mizzou fan, I've revolted against that line of thought regarding Nebraska for years and years), but I do enjoy redemption tales, and I do enjoy when teams prove that you can win with different styles of football.  Under Rich Ellerson, Army has thrown themselves into the "flexbone, 3-4 defense, underdog strategies galore" approach that Navy and Air Force have successfully utilized for a while now, and ... well, it worked in 2010.  The Cadets made their first bowl since 1996 and only their second since 1988.  They overcame a lack of athleticism with efficiency and execution, they whipped Duke, they almost upset Rutgers, they knocked of SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl ... what more is there to say?  They had a really good season.  To have another one in 2011, they'll have to work out the kinks with quite a bit of key, new personnel.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 74
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Eastern Michigan 31-27 W 23.4 - 37.3 L
11-Sep Hawaii 28-31 L 31.8 - 29.9 W
18-Sep North Texas 24-0 W 26.2 - 16.5 W
25-Sep at Duke 35-21 W 23.2 - 36.6 L
2-Oct Temple 35-42 L 40.4 - 41.7 L
9-Oct at Tulane 41-23 W 33.1 - 29.0 W
16-Oct vs Rutgers 20-23 L 26.4 - 26.1 W
30-Oct VMI 29-7 W 14.6 - 34.7 L
6-Nov Air Force 22-42 L 22.3 - 35.4 L
13-Nov at Kent State 45-28 W 46.2 - 38.2 W
20-Nov vs Notre Dame 3-27 L 8.2 - 29.3 L
11-Dec vs Navy 17-31 L 22.7 - 16.7 W
30-Dec vs SMU 16-14 W 17.5 - 28.6 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.6 60 24.3 54
Adj. Points Per Game 25.8 72 30.8 89

Army played like an "underdog tactics" team in 2010, that's for sure.  Sometimes the tactics worked (on offense, they posted 40.4 Adj. Pts against Temple, 46.2 against Kent State; on defense, they allowed 16.5 Adj. Pts against North Texas, 16.7 against Navy), and sometimes it didn't (on offense, they managed just 8.2 Adj. Pts against Notre Dame, 14.6 against mighty VMI; on defense, they allowed 41.7 Adj. Pts to Temple, 38.2 to Kent State).  As a whole, the offense was a little more consistent than the defense, but both had extreme ups and downs.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Army's 2010 season is that it could have been much better.  With iffy overall ratings and the underdog approach, it's easy to assume they must have won quite a few two-point games to get to 7-6.  Actually, the Cadets went only 2-3 in one-possession games; with a little luck, they could have ended up around 9-4 or so.  (Of course, an incredibly easy schedule obviously helps in this regard.)


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 83 63 88
RUSHING 62 50 72 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 94 94 91 46
Standard Downs 80 50 87 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 104 109 102 78
Redzone 74 37 87
Q1 Rk 72 1st Down Rk 83
Q2 Rk 66 2nd Down Rk 80
Q3 Rk 92 3rd Down Rk 87
Q4 Rk 89

No team was more married to the run than Army in 2010.  Punishing, 235-pound fullback Jared Hassin (1,013 yards, 5.3 per carry, -1.6 Adj. POE, 9 touchdowns; 154 receiving yards) was efficient and exhausting up the middle, a number of slotbacks got their moment in the sun (the best of the bunch: Brian Cobbs and Malcolm Brown combined for 645 yards and +8.8 Adj. POE), and quarterback Trent Steelman proved himself capable of executing Rich Ellerson's triple-option flexbone with precision.  He isn't an amazing runner (721 yards, -8.6 Adj. POE), but his decision-making is a strength.

So if Army's identity ("run, then run some more") was so strong, how was their variability that high?  Because sometimes they ran a lot, and sometimes they always ran.  The "Variability" measure is a work in progress, but Army's run-pass ratios varied from 80%/66% (80% on standard downs, 66% on passing downs) in one category, to 69%/43%, to 81%/48%, to 93%/83%.  That is strong variety for run-pass ratios, even if it's somewhat beside the point for "Variability."

Nothing much should change in 2011.  The only skill position player who has departed West Point (at least, departed the football team in West Point) is Patrick Mealy, who was actually one of the less-effective slotbacks of the bunch (470 yards, 4.7 per carry, -8.7 Adj. POE).  This includes "leading" returning "receivers" Davyd Brooks (238 yards, 15.9/catch, 41% catch rate), Austin Barr (215 yards, 15.4/catch, 64% catch rate) and George Jordan (148 yards, 9.9/catch, 58% catch rate).

Other tidbits:

  • Though skill position players return en masse, an offense that relies considerably on its line and its run-blocking abilities has a lot to replace on the line.  Four starters, to be specific, with two extra lettermen to boot.  Like Navy, Army is virtually always going to be stocked with upper-classmen; their end-of-spring two-deep featured four seniors, five juniors and just one sophomore.  Still, left guard Frank Allen is virtually the only truly known quantity, which has to be a bit scary, especially considering Army's Adj. LY rankings were higher than just about any other category.
  • Like Navy, Army doesn't even pretend to compile great size up front.  Last year's starting line averaged 269 pounds per man; this year, with a mostly new starting five, the average is now 266.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 87 94 82
RUSHING 90 99 76 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 80 71 84 93
Standard Downs 92 101 78 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 98 95 102 56
Redzone 118 109 118
Q1 Rk 89 1st Down Rk 80
Q2 Rk 46 2nd Down Rk 97
Q3 Rk 99 3rd Down Rk 112
Q4 Rk 115

Army calls their defense the Double-Eagle Flex, which, well, is pretty awesome.  What is that in English?  Basically a 3-4.  They have positions like QUICK (two-thirds DE, one-third OLB), BANDIT (we'll say one-third DE, two-thirds OLB), and Rover (half-OLB, half-safety), and as with most well-run 3-4 schemes, they attack from everywhere.  They didn't have enough athleticism to be a truly good defense, but they were certainly deceptive; they racked up 65 tackles for loss, and eight players had at least three each.

Unfortunately, quite a few of the higher achievers are gone.  Middle linebacker Stephen Anderson has as good a line as you could ask for from an inside linebacker: 88.0 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 4 FF, 2 FR, 5 PBU.  He's gone, as are strongside backers Donnie Dixon and Jordan Trimble, who combined for 66.0 tackles and 7.0 TFL/sacks.  Quick end Josh McNary (12.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 3 FR)?  Gone too.  Nose guard Mike Gann (9.0 TFL/sacks)?  Yep, gone.  The system creates a lot of these types of numbers, and as with the offensive line, basically all of these players are getting replaced by upper-classmen, but still ... you can't count on new guys to produce the same number of big plays as the old guys, and without the big plays and tackles for loss, Army turns into a sieve rather quickly.

Other tidbits:

  • There was a bit of slight position shifting to replace departed players.  Rover-turned-MLB Steve Erzinger (58.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 5 PBU) replaces Anderson, while BANDIT-turned-QUICK Jarett Mackey (37.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) replaces McNary.  Bandit Chad Littlejohn was decent in an injury-shortened season (20.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF) and could fill in at Mackey's old position; so could sophomore Brian Zaineraitis, who held off Littlejohn on the post-spring depth chart.
  • With a solid pass rush and strong safety play, Army's secondary was relatively strong last season; they'll have to replace components of the pass rush, but two decent corners return in Josh Jackson (29.5 tackles, 1 INT) and Richard King (19.5 tackles, 4 INT).

Army's 2010 Season Set to Music

Pick your favorite "Welcome Back" song.  Mase?  Fine.  Starlite Singers?  Sure.  Young Jeezy?  Whatever.  Me, I'm going with this one.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

The run is making a comeback, at least with the service academies and Georgia Tech.

Highest Passing Downs Run% (2005-10)
1. 2009 Air Force (76.8%)
2. 2010 Army (76.6%)
3. 2008 Navy (75.4%)
4. 2009 Navy (73.4%)
5. 2006 Navy (70.8%)
6. 2010 Air Force (70.4%)
7. 2009 Georgia Tech (64.8%)
8. 2009 Army (64.4%)
9. 2007 Navy (63.7%)
10. 2008 Georgia Tech (63.2%)

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 105
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 117
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +16 / +12.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 10 (6, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.5

Four returning starters on defense ... a discouraging YPP margin ... a likely unsustainable turnover margin ... I enjoy when the service academies do well (most of the time, at least), but I'll be rather surprised if Army is able to put together six wins again.  The schedule isn't murderous, but it's potentially harder than last year's -- only four true home games (their "home game" against Rutgers is at Yankee Stadium), trips to Northern Illinois, Vanderbilt, Air Force and Temple, and a "never bet against a streak" loss against Navy..

In all, however, the recipe Ellerson is following is a proven winner at service academies, and he certainly put a smart product on the field last season.  If the offensive line gels, the offense could have enough pieces to win despite a holes-plagued defense, but it looks as if Army might be taking a step backwards this season despite a solid overall trajectory.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.