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USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg previews the two upcoming College Football Playoff matchups and explains why Oklahoma was awarded the final spot.
USA TODAY Sports

Army players trudging off Owen Field following an overtime loss to Oklahoma on Sept. 23 were serenaded with cheers from the Sooners’ fan base, which recognized the efforts of an undersized service academy against a team that would go on to win the Big 12 Conference championship and reach the College Football Playoff.

The same response echoed across college football: Army was celebrated for its performance even in defeat, as a significant underdog running neck-and-neck against a national power with a blueprint unique across the Bowl Subdivision — an option-driven scheme predicated on ball control and time of possession at a time when spread and tempo concepts have trickled into every major conference.

Army didn’t share the same sentiment. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman thinks about the Oklahoma loss every morning, “about my first call in overtime and how bad it was,” he said.

“We didn’t play that well, to be honest,” said senior defensive back James Gibson. “I mean, they’re a good team, don’t get me wrong. But we made mistakes and they capitalized on them. That’s what ultimately lost us the game.”

The Black Knights are still upset, said head coach Jeff Monken.

“We had a chance to win the game. What’s unfortunate is we did some things that we could have controlled in terms of the execution of our assignment and fundamentals that could’ve changed the game.”

It’s easy to mark the program’s progress by the standings: Army is 27-10 in the past three seasons and 9-2 this fall, ranked 25th in the Amway Coaches Poll, heading into Saturday’s rivalry matchup with Navy. In terms of wins, this is the program’s most successful stretch since just after World War II, the final years of Army’s turn as an annual contender for the national championship.

But the most immediate example of how far this program has come can be found in its response to this year’s loss to Oklahoma. The Knights weren’t happy for giving the Sooners a game; they were upset, ticked off, angry for losing in overtime to a team set to battle top-ranked Alabama in the Orange Bowl. The days of Army accepting a moral victory are over. The Knights now expect to win every Saturday.

“I think we’re all kind of tired of being patted on the head,” said athletics director Boo Corrigan.

It’s a development rooted in Monken’s first two seasons, in 2014 and 2015, when Army won just six games against eight losses by fewer than seven points. After that 2015 season, players wore shirts bearing the phrase “seven stops” to recognize the slim difference between a losing season and one ending in bowl eligibility. 

“We were in the learn-how-to-compete phase,” said offensive coordinator Brent Davis. “As frustrating as it was, people outside the program probably didn’t see the turn. Probably only the people inside the building understood what was going on.”

Behind a vastly improved defense — Bateman was a finalist this fall for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach — and an offensive style based on controlling the line of scrimmage, Army has steadily developed into one of the most successful programs across the Group of Five. With a win against Navy or against Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Knights would join Central Florida, Boise State and Fresno State as the only teams from a non-major conference with double-digit wins in each of the past two seasons.

The option attack has become Army’s calling card and the program’s greatest asset. Opponents getting ready for the unorthodox style typically have less than a week to prepare for the system, and “it’s tough to get those guys to read the option in three or four days.” Earlier this decade, the spread may have caught defenses flatfooted or off-balance; now, it’s the Army option that catches teams by surprise.

“I mean, you can say whatever you want,” senior center Bryce Holland said. “You can have fun saying, ‘Well, the spread is where it’s at,’ but if you put guys in the box and can’t stop us, I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

The scheme has come to embody the ethos of the entire program. On a team board inside Army’s football facility are various slogans, one that reads: Make our opponent quit.

“That’s what we try to do every game,” Gibson said. “Winning is not enough. At the end of the day, you want to win, but it’s the way you win. You don’t want to win on a bad performance. You want to win because you dominated your opponent. Making your opponent quit is the ultimate satisfaction in a game. Because you know they just want to go home.”

This mindset has lifted Army into an elite level among the Group of Five, placing Monken into contention for national coach of the year and consistently raising expectations for a program that hadn’t reached similar heights in decades. It has altered the Knights’ trajectory, setting up a scenario where next year’s team might begin on the outskirts of the Top 25 and battle for the New Year’s Six bowl bid given to the best team outside the Power Five.

And it has led to a fundamental shift in how Army views its own potential. There’s no greater marker of Army’s progress than the team’s belief that every game — including those against Oklahoma or another team from the Power Five leagues — is not only a game the Knights could win but should.

“We know we’re supposed to win the game,” Monken said, “and it’s not a surprise to anybody. Not around here, not in our program. It doesn’t matter who we play. It could be the Green Bay Packers. If we don’t win, we’re going to be disappointed because we believe that if we play the best we can play we’re supposed to win.”