For much of the past four decades, Navy's football team hasn't had to worry about where it would play in a postseason bowl game. Before the Midshipmen lost to Texas Tech, 38-14, in the Houston Bowl last season, the Midshipmen had appeared in only five postseason games since 1964.
But now that Navy is more than competitive again, some college football officials believe the Midshipmen would be better off if they joined a conference, rather than remaining one of the last two independents in Division I-A, along with Notre Dame. A victory over Rice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium tomorrow would make the Midshipmen eligible for a bowl game for the second season in a row.
Navy has gone to bowl games in consecutive seasons only once -- the Midshipmen lost to Houston, 35-0, in the 1980 Garden State Bowl in New Jersey and lost to Ohio State, 31-28, in the 1981 Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
But even if Navy (5-1) wins its final five games and finishes 10-1, the Midshipmen aren't guaranteed an invitation to the postseason. Each of college football's 28 bowl games has ties to conferences, which guarantee those games invite teams from the sport's 11 conferences. Navy's only hope for a bowl invitation is that at least one of the conferences doesn't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its postseason spots. Last year, Conference USA didn't meet its quota of bowl-eligible teams, so the Houston Bowl invited the Midshipmen to play the Red Raiders.
"Do we run a risk when it comes to being shut out? Absolutely," Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said. "But we also believe if a conference doesn't fill its slots, the most logical choice nationally is the Naval Academy."
Gladchuk, in his fourth year as Navy's athletic director, said the benefits of remaining an independent outweigh the uncertainty of receiving a bowl invitation. Gladchuk had discussions with Big East, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA officials last year, after about 20 percent of the sport's 117 Division I-A schools changed conferences or announced plans to do so by next season.
Gladchuk said he even talked to Army officials about joining a conference together. Under that scenario, the Cadets and Midshipmen would have played only four conference games each, instead of the usual eight. Gladchuk said that plan would have left the academies enough flexibility to schedule games against each other and longtime rivals such as Air Force and Notre Dame.
"We still have the flexibility to schedule just about anyone we want," Gladchuk said. "We want to play Army, Air Force and Notre Dame, but we also want to play some Division I-AA teams to balance our schedule."
Said Navy Coach Paul Johnson: "If you were in a league, you wouldn't have that flexibility, and it would be difficult to find a conference that had the same kind of academic standards as us."
Gladchuk said Navy wouldn't gain much financially from joining a conference. The academy receives about $3 million from its game against Army every season, and about $4.5 million from its home games against Notre Dame, which are played at neutral sites every other season. All told, the academy generates about $10 million per season from football. The Southeastern Conference, perhaps the richest league in college football, distributed about $9.1 million to each of its members this year.
Navy will play three times on national television this year, against Air Force, Notre Dame and Army. Gladchuk said he has had discussions with ESPN about that network televising two or three more games in each of the next five seasons.
"You'd have to be Florida State to get four national games every year," Gladchuk said.
Army joined Conference USA as a football-only member in 1998 after playing as an independent since 1890. But the Cadets will return to being an independent after this season, after compiling a 9-38 record in Conference USA games during the last six seasons.
"We had a lot of good exposure by getting to play on ESPN and that helped with our recruiting," said Col. James Knowlton, interim athletics director at Army. "[But] we couldn't get the athletes like the other schools could because it's different at Army. Look at the summer, for example: Our kids are jumping out of airplanes and going through other military exercises, and that's not how athletes spend the summer at other schools."
The Air Force Academy has been a member of a conference since 1980, first in the Western Athletic Conference, and the Mountain West since 1999. The Falcons have played in 14 bowl games during that time.
"It absolutely makes sense for us for lots of reasons," Air Force AD Hans Mueh said. "The competition level gives us a chance to achieve one of our goals which is going to a bowl game, and playing as an independent is more of a crap shoot. One of the biggest benefits of being in the Mountain West is . . . our conference has ties with bowl games, so if we finish with a strong record, we can get into a bowl game."
Conference affiliation doesn't guarantee postseason play. Air Force was 7-5 last season but wasn't invited to play in a bowl game.
Staff writer Jon Gallo contributed to this report.