3 Headlines To Watch In College Football’s Opening Week

Since watching the conclusion of the LSU-Clemson national championship in January, I have watched parts of two college football games. And both have included FCS squad Central Arkansas. Tack that weird informational nugget onto what has been a year in sports like no other. The only FCS teams I watched growing up were my home-state Maine Black Bears, and occasionally the dynastic North Dakota State in the championship game. Yet I’ve watched Central Arkansas, a team that has never made it past the 2nd round of the FCS playoffs, twice in a span of five days.

The sports drought was real.

But, this weekend, we are kind of, almost all the way back. Although this season will lack some top teams and playoff contenders, my recent watching habits indicate that I would gladly watch just about any college football right now. And this Saturday, barring any late postponements, we have 6 full clashes occuring on the gridirion at the FBS level. Although there may be no national title contenders in action this weekend, it’s still a full day of college football. So, if you’re starved for college sports like myself, you’ll at minimum have these games on in the background of your primary Saturday quarantine activities. Might as well know what you’re watching.

A Primetime Quarterback Battle

While we may have to wait another week or two to see some of the popular Heisman candidates take the field, don’t assume there’s a lack of QB talent taking the field this weekend. One of Saturday’s primetime kick-offs slates Brady White and the Memphis Tigers against Layne Hatcher and the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Brady White is absolutely a top-10 quarterback in the country in my opinion, while Hatcher put up a very impressive season in his debut as a starter last year.

Brady White led an explosive Memphis offense last season that seemed to fly under the radar for most of the year. In the Cotton Bowl against Penn State, despite an eventual loss, White torched the Nittany Lions for 454 yards and led Memphis to 39 points, eleven more then Penn State had allowed all season in any one game. He’s back under center, and after a 4,000 yard, 33-touchdown season, I’d rank White inside my Top 10 quarterbacks, and likely as the best Group-of-5 signal-caller entering the 2020 season.

Meanwhile, Hatcher has been very impressive in his own right. After a year at Alabama, Hatcher transferred and started as a redshirt freshman with the Red Wolves. There he tossed 27 touchdowns and over 2900 yards in just ten games. Outside of his first start, a road loss to #3 Georgia, Hatcher threw at least two touchdowns in every game, notching at least four scoring passes in four different contests. He punctuated his season witha 393-yard, four-touchdown performance in the Camellia Bowl. If the Big 10 does not play this season, Hatcher will return as the #1 quarterback in passing efficiency (#3 behind Justin Fields and Tanner Morgan if the B1G season is played). He’s a special talent with likely another couple of college seasons ahead of him. There’s no Power-5 clash this weekend, but if there’s one game you want to watch, make it this one, because this is a pretty sweet QB duel to start off the season.

Can Army Rally Back Into Relevance?

Things were looking bright for Army – a two-season stretch saw the Black Knights go 21-5 with two bowl game victories, with one of those losses an overtime duel with the Oklahoma Sooners. Throw in their 8-5 season in 2016, and it was three straight years of 8+ wins for Army, a stretch they hadn’t matched since 1948-1950. They cracked the top 25, rising to #19, which was their first time in the poll since 1996. When their 2019 campaign started with a win and an overtime loss at Michigan, Army seemed in line for another big year. However, the Black Knights regressed in brutal fashion, fading to 5-8, ending their season with a blowout loss to Navy, ending a three-game winning streak over the Midshipmen.

There was some bad fortune involved in Army’s tailspin last season, as they lost five straight games, with three of the defeats by one possession, and none by more than nine points. When their offense was rolling, their defense couldn’t get a stop, such as in their 42-33 defeat to Tulane, or 34-29 loss to San Jose State. When the defense stiffened, the offense looked like a limp noodle, scorinng a combined 21 points in losses to Western Kentucky and Air Force.

My belief is that Jeff Monken is too good a head coach to let that type of season define what has ultimately been a successful tenure with the Black Knights. Jabari Laws is likely to take the reigns under center, and he looked good in his brief showings last year, going 16-20 for 311 yards. He also averaged 6.4 yards per carry on the ground as Army’s fourth-leading rusher. He’l be a key to Army having a resurgent year in the Covid-shortened season.

Army kicks off their season on Saturday against Middle Tennessee at 1:30. It’ll be the first clash of the day involving both FBS teams. The Blue Raiders saw a four-year bowl game streak come to an end last season, but they also haven’t put up 10 wins in a season since 2009. I like Army to come out and make as much of a statement as they can in their home opener.

Is SMU a NY6 Contender?

SMU, led by quarterback Shane Buechele, may have one of the most lethal offenses in the country. The Mustangs soared to a 10-3 record last season, their first 10-win campaign since 1984. They start their 2020 season with a battle against Texas State. The Bobcats haven’t had a winning season since 2014, and they finished 3-9 last season, but Saturday’s game isn’t just about the result for the Mustangs. SMU is a darkhorse contender for the Group of 5’s guaranteed berth in a New Year’s 6 bowl game, and this game, albeit not against the stiffest of competition, could give us an idea of how legitimate those lofty hopes may be.

SMU averaged 41.8 points per game last year, ranking 7th in the country, but their defense struggled, allowing over 33 points per contest. Buechele threw for nearly 4000 yards and 34 touchdowns, and he returns to lead the Mustangs into battle this season. He will need to help SMU navigate a tricky AAC, which boasts UCF, Memphis, and Cincinnati – all dangerous programs with New Year’s 6 aspirations. The Mustangs will need to be firing on all cylinders to escape that conference with one loss or less, so it’s important for them to get off to the right start on Saturday.

Rivalry Classic: We Simulated A Series Between the Best Possible Army and Navy Rosters (1996-Present)

Last week, we kicked off our rivalry classic series with the Ohio State vs. Michigan series – this week we’re celebrating Memorial Day by checking out the Army-Navy match-up. “The only game where every player on the field would be willing to die for every person in the stands”. The Army-Navy game is one of the greatest sporting events of the year, and Navy snapped a three-game losing streak last season after dominating much of this century. Will Navy’s dominance over much of the last 20 years hold up, or can Army’s best players come together to pull the upset? 

Roster Comparison

Quarterback
Navy
2019 Malcolm Perry
2016 Will Worth
2015 Keenan Reynolds
1997 Chris McCoy
Army
2018 Kelvin Hopkins Jr.
1996 Ronnie McAda
2017 Ahmad Bradshaw
Analysis
Advantage: Navy. It’s not close – I’d probably take any of Navy’s four options here over Army’s best offering. Part of that is due to their system – Army’s approach utilizes their fullbacks and running backs more, while, especially recently, the quarterback has been the focal point of the Naval Academy offense, which is why you see three QBs from the past five seasons on this list. 

Wide Receivers
Navy
2017 Zach Abey
2019 C.J. Williams
2019 Keoni-Kordell Makekau
2010 Greg Jones
2015 Jamir Tillman
2001 Jeff Gaddy
Army
1999 Omari Thompson
1998 Roderick Richardson
2009 Jameson Carter
2007 Jeremy Trimble
2003 Aaron Alexander
2019 Camden Harrison
Analysis
Advantage: Navy. Abey’s inclusion is a bit of a weird one, as he was more of a quarterback with Navy, but he’s counted as a wide receiver in the simulator, and we’re not going to deny Navy a star talent. Even without Abey, their wide receivers are generally more involved than Army’s and they’re simply a deeper group. Not as much of a gaping hole between the two teams as under center, but still an edge to the Midshipmen. 

Running Back
Navy
2008 Shun White
2004 Kyle Eckel
2012 Gee Gee Greene
1996 Omar Nelson
2019 Jamale Carothers
Army
2004 Carlton Jones
2000 Michael Wallace
2013 Terry Baggett
2011 Raymond Maples
1996 Joseph Hewitt
2012 Larry Dixon
Analysis
Advantage: Army. Even without their extra running back (Navy had an extra QB), Army simply has brought in and developed more backfield talent than Navy. It’s a little bit due to the difference in systems once more, as Army delegates more of the offensive responsibility to their backs then Navy does. I think Army’s top-4 running backs here are the best four on the gridiron in this series, so this position is a big advantage for the Black Knights. 

Tight End
Navy
1997 Mark Mill
Army
1999 Alton McCallum
2004 Jared Ulekowski
2001 Clinton Dodson
Analysis
Full Disclosure, we had to bend the rules a little bit. Navy simply doesn’t use tight ends in their offense, and Mill is the only player in the last 25 years considered to primarily play the position for the Midshipmen. We had to fill out the position in order to complete the roster, we used two tight ends from different teams that had the minimum value and designated them to no playing time. So advantage to Army here, as they have McCallum, who can factor into the run game, and Ulekowski and Dodson, who both were solid contributors in the passing game during their time on campus. 

OTHER

Defense
2019 Navy Defense
1996 Army Defense
Advantage: Navy

Special Teams (Kick and Punt Returns)
2007 Navy Special Teams
2006 Army Special Teams
Advantage: Army

Kicker
Navy: 2001 David Hills
Army: 1996 Joseph Parker
Advantage: Navy
Punter
Navy: 2012 Pablo Beltran
Army: 2019 Zach Harding
Advantage: Army

This rivalry series, as it is many times, should be a clash of heavy run games with different play styles. Navy will likely lean on Malcolm Perry to do damage, as he did in the most recent edition of the Army-Navy game, when he accumulated over 300 rushing yards. Army will use a bevy of backs, largely from the late 90s and early 2000s to counter Perry. Navy is going with their defense from last season, while Army, like other pieces of their roster, heads back to 1996 and their 10-2 team to grab their defense, in hopes of defeating the Midshipmen in the ultimate rivalry clash. All three games, like the Army-Navy game, will be played on a neutral field, and both teams will employ a favor-run style, to try to emulate the ground-and-pound system of the military academies. Let’s get it. Credit to the WhatIf Sports Simulator for helping us run this series. 

Game 1
Navy 23 Army 6

Malcolm Perry didn’t run for 304 yards, but he was quietly efficient, rushing for 71 and passing for 90 on a 5-7 effort, while Zach Abey ran for 60 yards. Perry ran one touchdown from ten yards out with nine seconds to go in the first half to take command with a 13-3 lead at the break. C.J. Williams iced the game with a 21-yard touchdown run in the final five minutes. David Hills drilled three field goals in three attempts to account for the rest of the offense. For Army, Kelvin Hopkins ran for 68 yards, but he had to go to the air to engineer a comeback, and the Black Knights aren’t built for that. Hopkins was 8-15 for 106 yards and a pick, and as a whole, the Army rushing attack averaged just 2.7 yards per carry. Joseph Parker knocked a pair of field goals, but that was the only offense mustered by the Black Knights. Dominant effort by the Midshipmen to kick off the rivalry classic. 

Game 2
Army 20 Navy 13
We’ve got ourselves a series! Army engineered a stunning late-game comeback to force Game 3. For three quarters, it looked like Navy would simply finish off a series sweep with dominating defense, as they led 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter, on the strength of a pair of field goals from Hills and a 24-yard run by Perry, who totaled 249 all-purpose yards, 129 of which came with his legs. However, the fourth quarter belonged to Army. Hopkins flipped a short pass to Carlton Jones, who raced 86 yards for a 1st & Goal, and, despite needing all four plays, the Black Knights punched it in behind a 2-yard run from tight end Alton McCallum. Army would get the ball back with 4:50 to play. Feeling the need to pass the ball a little bit, Army brought in 1996 quarterback Ronnie McCada, who did his job by going 2-2 for 21 yards. With 1:40 to go, Jones ran it the final 33 yards for a 17-13 lead. Navy couldn’t gain a first down, and Army took a few knees, kicking a field goal in the final five seconds to solidify the result. 

Game 3
Army 16 Navy 13
4th quarter magic baby – it’s what the Black Knights were made of in this series. Once again, Army failed to score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, but their defense kept it close, and a final surge brought them to a Game 3 victory. Hopkins was solid all day, going 10-14 for 119 yards, while Perry finally looked rattled under center, going just 2-6 with a pick. The Navy rushing offense was solid, with Perry going for 72 yards, Abey churning out 41, and Kyle Eckel picking his way for 38, but it wasn’t enough for the Midshipmen. Army got 167 yards on the ground from Jones, and McCallum and Michael Wallace combined for 110 yards. Navy had a 13-6 lead at halftime, courtesy of Eckel’s 5-yard touchdown run, and a pair of field goals from Hills, including a 56-yarder as the first half clock expired.
McCallum’s 41-yard run on a reverse set the Black Knights up for a 33-yard field goal with a touch under eight minutes to go. Navy ticked two-and-a-half minutes off the clock, but Army needed 43 seconds to score, as Wallace broke off a 14-yard run, and Jones burst 62 yards for a 16-13 Army lead. Navy faced a 4th and 5, and they elected to trust their defense and punt. Army grinded out two first downs, including a third down conversion, to ice the game. 

Navy may have dominated the individual results over the past 20 years or so (sans Army’s recent 3-year winning streak), but Army gets the bragging rights in a thrilling three-game rivalry classic. Cue the Alma Mater  – Army sings second. 

The singing of the alma maters is a timeless tradition to end the Army-Navy game