Perception can be a funny thing.
When you watch a team like Boise State or Houston rise in the polls, you can almost feel the regret from voters who rank them highly. They don’t want to. In their eyes, teams like that aren’t supposed to be any good. It’s a slow climb up the mountain if you aren’t a name-brand program, and the moment you slip up, those voters are all too eager to drop you off a cliff. Anything short of perfection, and these programs get little to no respect. History shapes our perception, making it harder for upstarts to prove their worth in the eyes of the public. The missteps of more established programs don’t cost them as much.
It’s a similar dynamic in the smaller ecosystem of service academy football, where Air Force was the dominant program for the better part of two decades. After beating Navy the last two years and winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, fans and media alike were eager to hail the return of the old days. Don’t get me wrong; wins are wins, so if Air Force was called the better team those years, there isn’t much of an argument to be made against it. But because of that history and the perception that comes from it, people didn’t want to leave it at Air Force simply being the better team that year. No, this was a return to the old Air Force and the old Navy and the way things were in decades past. Navy beat Air Force for a record seven straight years, but like the Boises and Houstons in the polls, it took all of one game to tear down what those teams built. After two games, it was official: Air Force was superior once again. Troy Calhoun was the real deal. Navy was sliding back into mediocrity. Ken Niumatalolo couldn’t maintain what Paul Johnson had built. Everything was falling back into place.
Because of this, Navy’s problems this year were overblown while Air Force’s were overlooked. We all know the issues that the Mids have faced. There was the bad defense against Notre Dame, the turnovers, the penalties, and the lack of offensive production against San Jose State. We’ve heard about them non-stop, which is to be expected with a team that’s 1-3. But for some reason, Air Force got a free pass on their shortcomings. Navy was a disappointment last year, finishing 5-7. But Air Force underachieved too, going 7-6 with their most experienced team in a long time. They were only 2-2 going into Saturday, so they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire this year, either. While the teams that have defeated Navy are a combined 13-3 and include one program ranked in the top 10, Air Force lost to 1-5 UNLV. The Falcons have had every bit as much trouble fumbling the ball; until Saturday, they were just lucky enough to recover them. Air Force’s defense has had major issues, giving up 356 passing yards to Idaho State, and 292 passing yards in 3 quarters to Colorado State’s backup. Air Force was just as flawed as Navy going into Saturday. That Navy won shouldn’t be considered too much of an upset, but it was.
Nobody denies Navy’s problems from decades past. The record is there for all to see. Simply knowing the record, though, is not the same thing as understanding it. When talking about the reasons why Army failed in Conference USA, I mentioned that there was a struggle within the Army program over whether or not they were truly a legitimate Division I-A program. The truth is that the same could have been said about Navy to some extent after George Welsh left. The Mids were playing half of their schedule against James Madison, Lehigh, and Dartmouth, while playing South Carolina, Syracuse, and Pitt in the other half. Navy was trying to straddle two worlds, and the record reflected that. Air Force, on the other hand, was committed to playing top-level football. As a result, they got the lion’s share of top-level service academy players. They were a real I-A program. Navy was not. For all of his faults, this is the one thing that Charlie Weatherbie understood. His solution, unfortunately, was to remove all I-AA teams from the schedule and try to play as many BCS-caliber opponents as he could. Like most things under Weatherbie, that didn’t work either. But as the program moved on under a new coach and a new athletic director, it did so having learned from the mistakes of the past. Navy is now a committed Division I-A program, with the facilities, coaches, and recruiting that go along with it.
That’s why it’s wrong to base your expectations on the records of the past. The factors that led to those records have changed. Air Force built their reputation for service academy dominance against a Navy program that wasn’t dedicated to fielding a competitive Division I-A team. That is no longer the case, and the results reflect that. Since Navy jump-started its program in 2002, they have won 8 of 11 games against Air Force, and two of those losses were still close games. Troy Calhoun is 2-4 against Navy, and 2-3 against Ken Niumatalolo. Niumat has two wins over top 25 programs; Calhoun has none. Navy’s losing streak to Notre Dame is dead, and they’ve put together two 10-win seasons under two different head coaches in the last decade. While you can’t ignore last season’s losing record, you also shouldn’t be so quick to assume that it was anything more than an anomaly.
The point of all this is not to claim that Navy is superior. The point is that this Navy program is not the program of the past, and it’s time for perception to change. Service academy football is no longer made up of one program that knows what it’s doing while the other two are off finding themselves. Air Force should no longer be placed on a pedestal while everyone waits for Navy to fall off a cliff. It isn’t going to happen. It’s a new era of equality in service academy football, and we aren’t going back.