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Mission Improbable: Navy Is College Football's Best Underdog Story

As a service academy, Navy is one of the hardest college football coaching jobs in the country. That makes the No. 20 Midshipmen's success all the more exciting.
November 11, 2015, 3:57pm
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

If the college football season ended today, Navy would be in one of the major college football bowl games on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, and deservedly so. After obliterating Memphis last week, 45-20, the Midshipmen are 8-1, undefeated in their inaugural year in the American Athletic Conference, and No. 20 in the College Football Playoff committee's latest poll.

This would be an awesome story if Navy were just another upstart ACC team, a team like, say, Memphis, which was previously the college football media darling after beating the hell out of Ole Miss. The fact that this is Navy, a service academy, makes it that much more exciting—and, frankly, improbable.

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Under the direction of former coach Paul Johnson (now at Georgia Tech) and current coach Ken Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen have made a bowl game in every year but once since 2003. That's an impressive run any non-power conference team, but it's next to impossible for a team like Navy. Why? Because, as a service academy, Navy is one of the three hardest major college football coaching jobs in the country.

The next time someone tells you Kansas is a tough job, tell them what Navy has to deal with in recruiting:

● Strict academic requirements that limit the school's recruiting pool to the relatively small group of players sought by the Ivy League and academically-minded schools like Stanford, Northwestern, and Duke.

● A mandatory military service requirement that eliminates most recruits almost immediately.

● Height and weight requirements for both admission and graduation. While linemen will often have to lose tons of weight between the end of their senior season and graduation, Navy can't get big linemen in the first place. Opposing lines often outweigh them by 100 pounds per player.

● With a reported athletics budget of $41 million, Navy lacks the resources of most of its competitors but still must recruit nationally.

High school recruiting rankings are for sad, middle-aged men. —Photo by Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

As a result of these constraints, Navy ends up competing with Football Championship Subdivision schools for recruits. In other words, the Midshipmen take on their Football Bowl Subdivision competitors with a roster full of players said opponents didn't think were good enough to play the FBS level, much less excel. Occasionally, Navy will catch a break and beat a MAC school for a recruit, and that's about it.

The 247 Sports high school recruiting rankings for Navy over the past five seasons show how much the program has overachieved:

Despite a seeming talent disparity, Navy has regularly taken down power conference teams. Since 2007, the Midshipmen have three wins over Notre Dame, two over Indiana, two over Wake Forest, and single wins over Pittsburgh and Missouri.

This honestly shouldn't be possible, but it is because of Navy's anachronistic triple-option offense. The offense takes advantage of smart players' ability to read defenses, and its reliance on misdirection minimizes the importance of having a big offensive line. The Midshipmen hardly ever throw the ball—unheard of in the spread era—but they're still incredibly efficient and light up the scoreboard.

That part is key. The triple-option isn't just some gimmicky offense that has allowed Navy to get lucky this season. Even in a loss to No. 4 Notre Dame, Navy's attack was efficient. According to the F/+ advanced statistical ratings, Navy ranks 12th in the country, and it could end the season ranked No. 1.

Navy's overall stats—both raw and advanced—are just as impressive:

Sure, Memphis, Houston, Temple, and other non-Power Five programs shouldn't be as good as they are, either. But given all its built-in limitations, Navy really, really shouldn't be this good, and certainly not year after year.

And yet the Midshipmen are as good as their record indicates, and have a very good chance to finish the year on one of the biggest stages in college football. In a sport where the rich get richer and dominate the landscape, Navy is the best underdog story we've had in a long time.