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Army-Navy preview, ATS picks

Saturday, December 8, 2018


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*All stats below refer to S&P+ unless otherwise noted

 

Navy +7 vs. Army (in Philadelphia)
Total: 41 (under)


Army-Navy is always one of the most compelling games of the season, no matter the teams’ records heading in. But as for the handicap, it’s always straightforward: Take the under, and take the underdog. Six of the last seven games in this series have been decided by a touchdown or less, and 10 straight have gone under the total. Ten straight unders!

My adjusted line on this game is exactly Army -7. This number is spot-on. The best bet to make was only available on Sunday — and only for the briefest of moments — when the total predictably opened too high. I caught it at 47 along its quick descent down. Some of that total value has evaporated in the interim, but the play remains under or pass.

As for the side, if forced to play, I lean Navy. And boy does that feel strange to type after I’ve picked Army three straight seasons. But the roles have reversed, and this time, Army comes in as the hunted, laying a touchdown in a game where points will be at a heavy premium.

The ‘dog has covered the last four meetings of this series. You usually don’t have to sweat much for it, either. A combined nine points decided the past three games. Army won the last two after losing 14 straight prior to that. Army has not only caught Navy in recent years, they’ve now objectively passed them.

Navy has lost eight of nine. It’s been a lost season, to be sure. But the Mids promisingly have shown fight in the past three games, covers all, staying within 11 of a full-strength UCF as 23.5-point underdogs, beating Tulsa by eight as five-point favorites and falling just short in a one-point road loss as five-point dogs to Tulane, a triple-option outfit headed to the postseason, much like Army.

The Black Knights ride in on a seven-game winning streak. Their next win will cinch the third 10-win season in school history. Army will be returning to the field after three consecutive bye weeks. Their previous two games were both against FCS teams. Navy is the first FBS team Army has faced since Nov. 3, when the Black Knights edged Air Force by a field goal. Air Force had a better team than Navy this year, but not by much.

One surprising element of this handicap. While Army is 9-2 and Navy is 3-9, it is the Mids who have the better rushing attack. Navy’s run game ranks No. 60 S&P+, while Army ranks No. 89 (if you prefer conventional stats, Army averaged 14.1 more rushing yards per game but needed 7.4 more carries per game to do it). The difference between the two all comes down to the fact that Navy rips off more long runs, ranking No. 45 in rushing explosion to Army’s No. 113.

Fortunately for Army, its defense is No. 11 against rushing explosion. So in terms of that facet of the game, Army does match up well. But Army’s inability to generate explosive runs wouldn’t seem to position them well to take advantage of Navy’s biggest defensive weakness outside of its putrid pass defense, its propensity to allow home run plays on the ground. Army’s own superior pass defense is going to be wasted here in a game that easily could involve less than 10 attempted forward passes.

Army is the superior team, no doubt. But option-on-option handicaps amplify certain areas of the game while rendering others mute. Navy happens to be better in several of the categories being amplified, while Army happens to be clearly superior in a few facets of the game being taken off the table. You bet Navy in this spot not only because of the underdog trend, but because the matchup plays them up a bit while playing down Army.

Run defense takes on extreme importance, of course. In the three-most important advanced run defense categories for slowing the option — marginal efficiency against, opportunity rate and stuff rate — Army ranks Nos. 118, 124 and 83, respectively. Navy ranks No. 80, 73 and 109, respectively, in the same three categories. (Army averages 108.3, while Navy averages 87.3).

Again, Army is far superior at defending explosive runs. And that will come into play in terms of forcing Navy to have longer drives in order to score (another datapoint that supports an under play). But in terms of the raw mechanics of defending the option, in terms of the ability to force the third-and-longs each defense will be gunning for, Navy appears to be a tick better heading in by the numbers.

Navy is also strong situationally in this spot, even on top of the underdog trend. The Midshipmen are 7-2-1 ATS in their last 10 games as an underdog of seven-plus points. And for all Army’s improvement, they remain a team that will drag superior teams down to their level (*cough* Oklahoma *cough*) and allow inferior teams to hang around. Army is 3-9 ATS in their last 12 against teams with losing records. They aren't a team you want to lay a touchdown with, in general.

Expect patriotism. Expect to pretend not to be emotionally moved if you’re watching with your buddies. Expect to hear the word “pageantry” on the broadcast eight billion times. And expect the underdog to cover while the number goes under the total. That’s just what happens in the Army-Navy series.

 

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2018: 82-85 (49.1%) ATS


2014-2017: 397-345-16 (53.5%) ATS



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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