There is a certain buzz and excitement permeating the Naval Academy grounds this week.
Today is Induction Day (I-Day for short) for the incoming class of freshmen (aka Plebes) as they begin their journey as Midshipmen with a six-week long period of indoctrination known as Plebe Summer. Later this afternoon, over 1200 candidates will stand in Tecumseh Court and take the Oath of Office before friends and family.
The wait is finally over. The "independence" that they knew so well as civilian high school students has come to an end as their new journey as Midshipmen begins.
They won’t be the only ones giving up their independence today.
The Navy Football program has its own Induction Day taking place today as well, moving on from 134 years of football independence and officially becoming a member of the American Athletic Conference.
While the actual date of July 1st seems more like a formality than anything at this point, it should not be lost on the Navy Football fan the significance of what this move represents and what Navy stands to gain from making it.
I would like to point out a few reasons why the casual Navy fan should care that Navy has a conference affiliation for the first time in its gridiron history.
The footprint of the American Athletic Conference will have a huge impact on Navy’s ability to recruit successfully. While Navy has always relied on recruiting across a broad landscape throughout the country, moving to the AAC will allow it to further solidify itself in several key states. Coach Niumatololo and his staff will be able to walk into the living rooms of families in football rich states such as Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma and tell parents of recruits that their son will be playing away games in those states at the very least every other year. The way the schedule currently stacks up, they will be playing in Texas every year for the foreseeable future (alternating at Houston and at SMU). This is critical to Navy’s recruiting efforts in these states.
It is not only the footprint across the AAC West Division that Navy is a part of that is favorable. Navy's cross-division games within conference will rotate through other vital recruiting states such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, and this will provide significant recruiting advantages as well.
Simply tying itself to a conference for the first time in history and having a conference championship as a goal to strive for each and every season is a recruiting boost in and of itself.
Let’s face it, as an independent Navy has always had to go the extra mile to get national exposure. While games against Notre Dame and Army have always been national broadcasts, the rest of Navy’s season often gets lost in the shuffle of the overall college football landscape. Having a conference affiliation to hitch its wagon to will help Navy in this regard.
This is due in part to the TV contracts that come with being a part of an FBS conference these days. The AAC has a contract with ESPN that runs through the 2019-2020 season. For Navy this year, this means that their home games will continue to be broadcasted by CBS Sports Network, they will almost certainly have a few key games that could be picked up by one of the ESPN networks through the AAC contract (Memphis, Houston?), they will be on NBC for Notre Dame, CBS for Army, and potentially either ABC or ESPN for the inaugural AAC Championship Game if they have a successful first season in the conference.
Continuing to broaden the exposure of Navy Football on a national scale is important to the future success of the program, and joining the American Athletic Conference will allow Navy to do just that. While there are always twelve other teams concerned with Navy each season, most of them are only worried about Navy for one week a year and then they move on. Being in a conference requires that other programs pay much closer attention to Navy football throughout the entire season and that will naturally lend itself to more exposure.
In today’s college football landscape, it has become increasingly more difficult for independence to remain an option for a program that seeks relevance. Joining the AAC while keeping historic rivalries with Air Force, Notre Dame, and Army will allow Navy to have some predictability and stability with their schedule. As a member of a "Group of 5" conference, they put themselves in a much better position to try and earn a berth at some point in a New Years Six Bowl Game. As the ever-changing world of college football moves past conference realignment (for now…Big 12…cough cough) and further into the College Football Playoff era, joining the AAC ensures that Navy will not be left on the outside looking in, at least for the time being.
There is of course no telling what the American Athletic Conference will look like five years down the road. There is also no telling how successful Navy will be as a member of the conference. (By my count, Navy is 14-3 against current AAC teams over the last ten years) There is certainly risk involved in changing the way you have done business for 134 years.
Will it work out for Navy?
Swing by Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium September 19th for the first conference game in Navy history and let’s find out.