Thor Nystrom

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Army-Navy Preview

Thursday, December 7, 2017


 

Navy -3 vs. Army (at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia)

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

The wrong team is favored. And boy does that feel strange to type.

 

Army has been thoroughly dominated in this series recently. Last season, the Black Knights snapped a 14-game losing streak in the series by beating Navy 21-17. Over the last 20 Army-Navy games, Army is 3-17.

 

But after years of playing little brother, Army has finally caught up. The distance has been closing ever since Army hired Jeff Monken. Now in his fourth year, Monken is 3-0 ATS against Navy. Going back a few years before that, Army is actually 5-1 ATS versus Navy over the last six years, despite the grisly straight-up record.

 

The 2017 season started promisingly for Navy. The Midshipmen annihilated FAU in the opener (before anyone knew the Owls were good) and raced out to a 5-0 start. Since mid-October, however, things have hit the skids. There were understandable losses to AAC powers Memphis and UCF, but Navy followed those up by no-showing a Thursday night game at Temple on Nov. 2 in what became their third-straight loss.

 

The Mids got back on track by outgunning SMU 43-40 nine days later, but then suffered a seven-point loss to Notre Dame and a 10-point loss to Houston. In all, that makes Navy losers of five-of-six heading in.

 

How you handicap this game probably comes down to how you view that stretch. On the one hand, four of the five losses were to teams in the S&P+ top-30, and Navy kept all four within 10 points (two within a single possession). On the other hand, S&P+ has graded Navy with a Win Expectancy of 40% or more just one time (out of seven games) since the start of October.

 

In other words: You can’t give Navy credit for losing by three to Memphis or seven to Notre Dame if you’re not also willing to subtract credit for the three-point win over Air Force in late September (a game the Mids probably shouldn’t have won, both according to S&P+ and to the eye test). Army is a rich man's Air Force.

 

In addition to all that, earlier in September, the Mids beat lowly Tulane by two and 2-10 Tulsa by 10. To take it further still: S&P+’s Adjusted Scoring Margin says that the losses to UCF and Notre Dame were both far closer on the scoreboards than they probably should have been.

 

So do you think the 6-5 Midshipmen are more like an 8-3 team that has been snakebitten? Or do you think that Navy has more or less been luck-neutral over the course of the season? If you ask S&P+, it’d trend decidedly towards the latter: If the Adjusted Scoring Margin model decided games—and not the scoreboard—Navy would be 5-6 right now.

 

Army’s evaluation is, fortunately, far more straightforward. They’d won six-straight before narrowly falling to 9-4 North Texas 52-49 last time out. Outside of that, Army has only lost to Ohio State (which makes sense) and Tulane (which makes less sense).

 

As a program, Army has closed ground on Navy by more or less copying them, doubling-down on triple-option football. Army boasts the nation’s No. 1 running offense, while Navy is close behind at No. 2. As you’d expect, each team’s leading rusher (by far) is their quarterback. Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw has 1,472 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 7.8 YPC while Navy's Zach Abey has rushed for 1,382 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5.1 YPC.

 

Something to keep an eye on: Abey has turned the ball over 11 times (eight fumbles, four lost, seven interceptions), while Bradshaw has only three turnovers (two fumbles, one lost, two interceptions). Abey has struggled with consistency at times this year, and he suffered a concussion early last month. He missed the SMU game, which you’ll recall is the only contest Navy has won since October 8.

 

There are no motivational angles to bake into your handicap here. This is one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports, and it amounts to the Super Bowl for each team. And with postseason trips already awarded, no side has any extra incentive to win (not that it would matter if they did). Army will square off against San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl on December 23, while Navy draws Virginia in the Military Bowl on Dec. 28.

 

We don’t pick over/unders in this space, but this is worth noting: 11 consecutive Army-Navy games have gone under the total. Eleven in a row! This year’s opened at 51 but has been bet all the way down to 46 (only two games over that 11-year stretch went over 46; 48 points total were scored in each instance).

 

In what should be another low-scoring game, we want the points with the team we see as ever-so-slightly better in a vacuum. The offenses are eerily similar—both in terms of results and playing style—but Army has the better defense and makes fewer mistakes when they have the ball. The Knights have lost only nine turnovers all year—which ranks No. 3 in the nation behind LSU and Alabama—while Navy has lost 19 (No. 74). In turnover margin, Army ranks No. 37 and Navy is a lowly No. 106.

 

****

 

2017 Record: Straight-Up: 114-56 (67.1%); Against the Spread: 89-77-4 (53.6%)
 
2014-2016:
Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)



Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom



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