Head coach Ken Niumatalolo managed to push the Midshipmen to three wins in their final four games two seasons ago, so at least the squad was heading in the right direction with the 2012 schedule ready to kick off. Unfortunately, the opener for last season was played on the road, far away as in Ireland, against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, which meant culturally Navy was at a huge disadvantage.
On the field it was much the same story as the Midshipmen were dominated in a 50-10 final the first day of September. Luckily, the unit caught a break with an additional week to prepare for a trip to Penn State, but even that didn't seem to help as the visitors stumbled to a 34-7 setback.
Navy finally put a tally in the win column a week later with a commanding 41-3 triumph over VMI, but to put that victory in perspective, the Keydets won a total of just two games all season against Presbyterian and Chowan by a combined 17 points.
Not surprisingly, the Academy fell back into the loss column the following week at home, getting blanked by the San Jose State Spartans, 12-0. But as disappointing as that outcome may have been, Navy should have felt good about its performance because SJSU ended up winning 11 games and put up major points.
The first part of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series had Navy on the road at Air Force in early October and the visitors slipped by in overtime, 28-21. The victory began a five-game win streak for the Midshipmen as they conquered Central Michigan, Indiana, East Carolina and Florida Atlantic, before being dropped by Troy on the road, 41-31.
The Midshipmen rebounded with a 21-10 triumph versus Texas State and then, in the 113th meeting between the fabled programs, slipped by Army by a narrow 17-13 final in Philadelphia on Dec. 8.
"It means everything," Niumatalolo said of the win. "That's our No. 1 goal, to get the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. I'm just so happy for these guys."
The trophy headed back to Annapolis for the first time since 2009 and for the 13th time overall.
Long before Navy went up against the Black Knights, it was locked into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, eventually battling Arizona State near the end of December. However, even with a strong finish to the regular season, Navy was still overwhelmed by the Sun Devils, 62-28.
OFFENSE: Due to the obvious commitments that student-athletes at Navy must fulfill, above and beyond what someone in their position is responsible for at any school other than a service academy, maintaining stability on the football field is not as commonplace. However, what the Midshipmen do enjoy heading into the 2013 campaign is the same starting quarterback in Keenan Reynolds.
Still just a sophomore, Reynolds was a huge reason for the team's success a year ago as he actually provided a threat as a passer, something that has been rather rare for the Midshipmen. Reynolds did lead the group in rushing touchdowns with 10 and was third on the unit overall with 649 yards on the ground, but the fact that he actually completed 56.5 percent of is 108 pass attempts, leading to nine scores and just two interceptions, meant Navy was more than just one-dimensional.
Shawn Lynch, third on the team last season with 14 catches for 281 yards and a score, is the top returner on the outside for the Midshipmen. Casey Bolena (12 receptions, 141 yards, one TD) and Noah Copeland (12 catches for 91 yards), will again factor into the aerial attack for the unit, but make no mistake, this is a run-first team just like Air Force and Army.
In 2012, Navy was sixth in the country in rushing with 278.5 ypg, averaging better than five yards per attempt, yet the group scored only 28 touchdowns on a massive 700 carries. Copeland, who tied Reynolds for the team high with 162 rushing attempts, finished second with 738 yards, but he scored only five times on the ground.
Obviously, Copeland expects to be making his way into the end zone far more often this year and that success will depend greatly on the efforts of the three returning members of the offensive line -- Graham Vickers, Tanner Fleming and Jake Zuzek. Vickers is the only senior of the bunch, which means there is still some youth that can serve a major role on offense for the Midshipmen.
DEFENSE: A season ago, the Navy pass defense performed particularly well, giving up 215.2 ypg to rank 40th in the country. One would think that a run- heavy team like the Academies would have some trouble stopping opponents through the air because that is rarely a focus for them, but in this particular case the Midshipmen did themselves proud and expect similar results this time around as well.
The good news is that there are three returning starters in the secondary with Chris Ferguson taking care of one safety position while Kwazel Bertrand and Parrish Gaines handle the action at the cornerback spots. Of the team's eight interceptions a year ago, two were logged by Gaines, who also just happened to finish fifth in total tackles with 69.
Unfortunately, the only returning starter along the defensive line is Evan Palelei who, despite tying for the team lead with a pair of forced fumbles, was far down on the tackles list with only 29 stops in 13 games. The loss of Keegan Wetzel, the team's leader in tackles for loss (15.0) and sacks (7.0) at his linebacker position, will place even more pressure on Palelei and a new crop of starters on the line.
Needless to say, after placing 100th in the country in sacks per game (1.38) and 114th in TFL (4.15), the Midshipmen will need linebackers such as Cody Peterson and Jordan Drake to step up. Peterson, sixth in overall tackles with 67, didn't have a single sack in 2012 and logged just two stops behind the line of scrimmage.
"There's always good and bad," coach Niumatalolo said of the intensity exhibited by his team during practice in August. "We're just trying to teach guys the way we play around here, the tempo that we have to play at to have a chance. Some guys kinda grasp it ... there's a few guys like Cody that understand the tempo that we want to play at."
SPECIAL TEAMS: After starting last season at placekicker for the Midshipmen, sophomore Nick Sloan is back to reprise his role and hopefully improve upon his long-distance accuracy after getting his feet wet in 2012.
Sloan made 10-of-15 field goal attempts, but had considerable trouble with anything beyond 30 yards. He finished only 4-of-7 between 30-39 yards and made one of three tries from 40 yards or longer, that being a 41-yard conversion. Should the Navy offense need to turn to him in a crucial situation, Sloan is solid but just not the most reliable kicker to this point.
Handling the punting duties once more will be Pablo Beltran who took care of all 44 punts for the program a year ago. Considered one of the better punters on the list of Independent teams for this season, Beltran averaged 43.6 yards per kick and had a long of 63 yards which means he is capable of bailing the squad out of a hole from time to time.
OUTLOOK: The Midshipmen have a diverse schedule for 2013, although there are those two mainstays in fellow Academies Air Force (Oct. 5) and Army (Dec. 14) to focus on. The squad kicks off the campaign with a meeting at Indiana on Sept. 7, getting a later start than most FBS squads. The home opener comes a week later versus FCS foe Delaware.
Almost immediately, Navy catches a break in the schedule and does not head back to the field until late in September with a road trip to face Western Kentucky and its new head coach Bobby Petrino. Following the meeting with Air Force, Navy hits the road for back-to-back outings versus Duke and Toledo before hosting Pittsburgh.
As is always the case, one of the toughest tests on the slate is a date with Notre Dame in Indiana the first weekend of November, a clash that could set the tone for the program's remaining host gigs versus Hawaii and South Alabama shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the hometown fans won't see the Midshipmen after the middle of November because the final two regular-season outings are at San Jose State in California and then back in Philadelphia versus the Black Knights in the middle of December.
Chances are Navy will record the wins it needs in order to make it to the postseason yet again, but don't expect any wild upsets along the way.