Could a military academy win the college football title this season?

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

With the fate of the 2020 college football season in flux, the only certainty about the season remains the constant uncertainty. With big decisions by Power Five commissioners looming about the sport’s immediate future, the most prepared schools to play football this season remain the three military academies who play FBS football.

Army, Navy and Air Force all essentially operate in a bubble, which affords them what the other 127 FBS schools lack – a controlled environment to prepare for the season.

Each year, Army, Navy and Air Force compete for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, which includes a White House invitation. The athletic leadership at those schools expressed to Yahoo Sports this week that they’re confident the three schools will play each other in some form this year as long as they can do it safely, regardless of the larger decisions made around the sport.

“The winner of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, if football does not prevail, will be the national champion,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk told Yahoo Sports. He added: “It could be a two-game season [for the three schools]. And we couldn’t be playing for a greater sense of pride and honor. If Army and Navy and Air Force have to carry the day for college football this year, so be it. Tune in.”

While there are likely weeks – and perhaps months – before any decisions on the college football season are finalized, the ambiguity around the season has highlighted just how prepared the military academies are to play this season.

All three are guarded military bases with gates, which eliminates some of the issues of parties and nightlife that their FBS peers are worried about. They have intricate testing polices and are inherently disciplined, as the stakes are higher on the bases than any other campus in America.

“We have three entrances guarded by military police,” Army athletic director Mike Buddie told Yahoo Sports. “We certainly can control our bubble.”

Army Black Knights face off with the Navy Midshipmen during the Army-Navy game on Dec. 14, 2019 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia PA.(Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Army Black Knights face off with the Navy Midshipmen during the Army-Navy game on Dec. 14, 2019 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. (Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s far too early to project what the games between the military academies could look like, other than to say that they’re going to exhaust every option to find a way to play. Complications abound, as both Navy (AAC) and Air Force (Mountain West) may have to navigate some sort of impending conference rules and an NCAA waiver may be required if the season is called off. (AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has blessed Navy playing Army, telling Yahoo: “That’s one that has to be played.”)

With Army, Navy and Air Force, there has always been a higher calling, and that’s why there’s an underlying belief the games will end up happening. Air Force athletic director Nate Pine told Yahoo Sports that he wants to be sure to express that the Air Force Academy doesn’t think it has all the answers. But if an extra spotlight arrived this season, it’d be well deserved. “These young men are special,” Pine said. “If those are the games being tuned into because they’re the only ones being played, I think that’d be special.”

Both Navy (11-2) and Air Force (11-2) finished ranked last season, at No. 20 and No. 22, respectively. That marked the first time since 1958 that two military academies finished the season ranked. Army slipped to 5-8 last season but has reached generational heights recently under Jeff Monken, as it finished with back-to-back 10-win seasons and three bowl wins in the past four years.

The coaches recognize a bigger spotlight could be upon them and embrace the responsibilities of the extra eyeballs on them during this time. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he quickly realized the task this season would be much different.

“I’ve had to come to grips as a football coach that this is more than football,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s about life and trying to keep people safe.”

Niumatalolo was in Hawaii on spring break when the COVID-19 crisis emerged in March. He began running team meetings and staff meetings on Zoom, something that he has continued now that he’s back in Annapolis, Maryland. He said that this will be a season of adjustment in order to build the safest environment, which means the staff will be watching film over Zoom when they return to the office instead of gathering in a confined room with poor ventilation. In practice, it may mean dividing into two groups to essentially conduct separate practices and tackle dummies instead of people.

“Those are the things we have been talking endlessly about,” he said. “If you can pull it off and everyone is safe, it would be good to build morale for the whole country. If we can keep people safe, and I think we can do that, it’ll help build the spirits of the country to do something unifying and positive.”

Monken lauded Army’s leadership, as he said the football players were brought back to West Point first to figure out how to prepare safely for the return of the rest of the cadets this year. “Really,” Monken said in a phone interview, “we were the test model.”

Monken credited his superintendent, Lieutenant Darryl A. Williams, for guiding West Point “back to the business of doing what we’re here to do – train Army officers.” Monken said that it was paramount for Army to press on while the rest of the nation stopped. “We couldn’t hit pause,” he said, “and as athletic programs it’s important to show the nation we’re not going to hit the pause button.”

Monken said that things have gone well enough that the entire campus will be returning soon. Army began walkthrough football practices on Thursday afternoon, returning to comforting challenges like breaking in a new defensive system. (Army and Navy had no spring practices while Air Force had 13.)

Regardless of how the season unfolds – be it a full slate this fall or a near-vacant one – all three academies plan on playing each other. The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is currently held by Navy, which went 2-0 against Air Force and Army last season. (Navy is scheduled at Air Force on Oct. 3, Air Force at Army on Nov. 7 and Army hosts Navy in Philadelphia for the traditional end of the regular season on Dec. 12.)

A lot more eyeballs could be on all the games this season, as they are the closest thing to a certainty college football has in 2020.

“We all feel confident at some point we should be able to play,” Gladchuk said in a phone interview. “If [Army and Navy] could figure it out in during World War II, we ought to figure out how to somehow find an open field, strap it up and go at it.”

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