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THE Definition of a Rivalry (Academy version)

Air Force-Navy-Army

What is necessary for a college football matchup to be called a true rivalry? I hope most of you will agree:

  1. Both teams fan bases want a win over the other team even above any kind of championship trophy.
  2. Game day against the other team is consistently a sell out.
  3. The week before the game is marked by rallies, pranks, general tomfoolery, pre-game pageantry, and silly clothing items.
  4. The two teams meet every year, and have done so for a long time.

The most outstanding of these rivalries include Ohio State-Michigan, Auburn-Alabama, Harvard-Yale, Texas-Oklahoma, USC-Notre Dame, and the nation’s premier rivalry, Army-Navy. Army and Navy played their first game against each other in 1890 and started playing annually in Philadelphia in 1899. In the series, Navy has won 61 times, Army has won 52 times, and there have been 7 ties.

The Air Force Academy was started in July of 1955 at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado. The football team formed that year and quickly became successful, going 9-0-2 in 1958, and tying TCU 0-0 in the Cotton Bowl, finishing number 6 in the country. The next year was the first meeting between the Falcons and Army, which ended in a 13-13 tie. The next year was the first meeting between the Falcons and Navy, and Navy won that game 35-3. The three teams first started their annual battle for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 1972 (which happens to be my first year at the Academy). Army and Navy passed The Trophy back and forth until 1982, when the Falcons broke through under Coach Ken Hatfield and utilizing OC Fisher DeBerry’s triple option offense. From 1982 until 2002, the Falcons dominated The Trophy, winning or retaining the title 16 times. Finally Navy, who only won The Trophy once in that period (and being slow learners) adopted the triple option offense under Coach Paul Johnson in 2002 and turned the table on the Falcons, winning The Trophy in 2003 and for the next seven years. This was such a serious turn of events for the Falcons that Coach DeBerry left the head coach position at Air Force in 2006 after 23 years, and Troy Calhoun took over as head coach.

Army, being even slower learners than Navy, did not embrace the option until the arrival of Jeff Monken in 2014. The Black Knights finally ended a 21 year drought in 2017 and retained The Trophy in 2018.

Now, as a Falcon fan, it pains me to admit that the Falcon-Black Knight and Falcon-Midshipmen rivalries do not quite reach the level of the Black Knight-Midshipmen rivalry. There is just too much history and national interest in that showdown. The NCAA has provided that matchup with it’s own day and it is held in an NFL stadium to a sold out crowd. But when it comes to game day, I think the best of the three games is usually Air Force-Navy. Both Navy and Air Force have more explosive offenses than Army, who really tends to grind out long, slow drives. Under Calhoun and Ken Niumatalolo, Navy holds a slight 7-5 advantage in wins, and over the last seven games, the home team has won every time.

Although Air Force and Navy run the same triple option from the same formations, there are some key differences on offense. Navy has had some very outstanding running quarterbacks in Keenan Reynolds, Ricky Dobbs, and last year Malcolm Perry, and they lean on the quarterback keeper for a major portion of their yardage. Air Force quarterbacks tend to the distribute the ball to other players more often, including through the passing game. DJ Hammond, Tim Jefferson, Karson Roberts, Kale Pearson, and Shaun Carney were all able to hurt opposing teams with their arms as well as their legs. In my opinion, Navy has held the slight edge over Air Force recently by exhibiting much better late game determination and coaching decisions. Air Force has won the games in which they can establish a good 3rd quarter lead, and not be in a close battle at the end of the game.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Army can maintain their momentum after a down year last year. Both Navy and Army lose their starting quarterbacks from 2019 this year, and DJ Hammond should provide a slight edge for the Falcons. But this series has become so competitive and balanced that it is very hard to win The Trophy outright with 2 wins. Please tune in later in the year, when I will provide my pregame analysis for each game.