New Year’s Day 1964. A little over a month after President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, his favorite team, the #2-ranked Navy Midshipmen, went to the very city the former Naval veteran was slain in to play #1 Texas for the national title.
Navy would lose that game 28-6, and begin a period where the college football has been largely devoid of nationally prominent service-academy teams. While there have been great academy teams since then, Army has a chance to play in a game more significant than any game an Academy has played in the past 50 years.
When people argue the best Academy teams since that 1963 Navy team, a few teams enter the discussion.
Navy fans will bring up 2004, 2015, and 2016
The 2004 Navy teams also ended 10-2 and ranked in the AP Poll, but lacked a signature win. They defeated zero teams with winning records and could not beat a 6-6 Notre Dame team to end the streak.
Navy’s recent national showdowns can compare, but either the teams they played do not match up to the stature of Michigan, or they were traditional powers in the midst of a down year.
The 2015 games against #15 Memphis and #21 Houston, with the Houston game being for the right to go to the AAC title, fit the first characteristic, while the 2016 win over 4-8 qualifies under the latter.
The 2016 American title game is probably the game with the most comparable scope to this year’s Michigan game, as a New Year’s Six bowl was still in the cards. However, with #17 Western Michigan beating Ohio the previous night, and 9-2 Navy two spots behind them at #19, their destiny was in the hands of the committee.
Not to mention they lost to Army the following week, squashing any chances for a bid if they beat Temple. And as argued with Memphis and Houston before, Temple does not have the reputation that Michigan has.
Air Force fans will counter with 1970, 1985, or 1998
1985 and 1998 were two excellent one-loss teams, but playing on the west coast and playing WAC and Mountain West schedules limited the opportunities for nationally significant games.
The 1985 team – led by Chad Hennings – peaked at #4 in the AP Poll and beat Notre Dame, but the Irish went 5-6 under Gerry Faust that year, and despite losing to the defending champs, #16 BYU, they were likely destined to remain on the bubble of the national title race.
Even if they did stay undefeated and in the top five, they probably would have played in the Holiday Bowl against a middling Power conference team, like 11-0 BYU the prior year, who won the National title with a win over 6-5 Michigan team, or remained in the Bluebonnet Bowl where they beat Texas.
The Sugar Bowl-bound 1970 Air Force team had wins of great magnitude against a top-ten Missouri team and Rose Bowl-bound #6 Stanford, led by Heisman winner Jim Plunkett, but the lack of widespread television prevented those wins from having a large scope.
For Army fans, it may be 1967, 1996, or 2018
The 1967 Army team had a chance to go to the Sugar Bowl, but the Secretary of the Army of all people halted Army’s bid. In addition to this, that Army team lost to 4-6 Duke and 5-4-1 Navy, and lacked a win over a team with a winning record.
The 1996 Army team ended the season 10-2 and ranked #25 in the AP Poll, but lacked a signature win due to a weak independent schedule. Army only played four teams with winning records and lost to #19 Syracuse, their only ranked opponent, #19 Syracuse.
However, none of those teams played a game of the magnitude that next season’s Army-Michigan game could have.
The current Army team is in the midst of their best run in ages, and people are starting to notice. They have cracked the top 25 in a couple of “way-too-early” top 25 polls and are even a sleeper pick at a New Year’s Six bid according to ESPN.
Army not only won their first Lambert-Meadowlands trophy since 1958, but they also beat out nine-win Penn State, ten-win Syracuse, and ACC Coastal champion Pittsburgh for it.
People are taking Army seriously for the first time in a while after all of this. With last year’s overtime game vs Oklahoma fresh on many people’s minds, prognosticators are being careful not to count out Army. It is very unlikely that Army enters as a 31-point underdog like they did last year vs Oklahoma.
Furthermore, Army needs this game for any chance at the New Year’s Six bid that ESPN is suggesting for them. Aside from Michigan, the strength in Army’s schedule this year lacks, with their next strongest game coming against either Tulane, Hawaii, or their fellow service academies. Needless to say, there is little room for error.
Army and Michigan have had their share of memorable clashes at either Yankee Stadium or the Big House that were key games in the national title picture in the 1940s and 1950s.
This year’s game provides nostalgia and a chance for Army to confirm that they are indeed a team to watch on the national stage, a feat that has been elusive to the academies since that 1964 Cotton Bowl.