Navy junior wide receiver Jason Tomlinson was excited when he looked at this season's schedule for the first time and saw a clear change.
Goodbye, Division I-AA teams Delaware and Northeastern; hello, Maryland and Stanford, two teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences.
"That's a big opportunity to prove we can play against the big boys," Tomlinson said. "I think it's a good step for us to be playing those teams, and it's one we needed to take to show that we are contenders."
Navy finished 10-2 last season, but none of the nine Division I-A opponents it faced during the regular season finished with a winning record, and only one -- Notre Dame -- played in a bowl game. So after posting its best season in 99 years last season, maintaining that level of success will be even tougher.
Next season, Navy has road games at Stanford and Big East school Connecticut. In 2007 and 2008, it will face Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Connecticut, as well as continuing long-standing rivalries with Notre Dame, Air Force and Army.
"When you see a big name on your schedule, then you pay attention," senior quarterback Lamar Owens said. "I don't want to knock the I-AA teams or say anything bad about those guys. But our schedule as far as opponents go is pretty tough compared to what we've played in the past."
Navy lost to Maryland last week, 23-20, and Stanford enters tomorrow's game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium holding the same significant size advantage over the Midshipmen as the Terrapins did. But the advantage is more than just size; it's talent.
"I'm sure we had guys who wanted to go to Stanford like Jason Tomlinson, but it's not like they got offered a scholarship," said Navy Coach Paul Johnson. "Maryland only offered [a scholarship] to one of our guys, and that was [safety] Greg Sudderth."
Said junior cornerback Jeremy McGown: "Maryland is an ACC school, and there was no way they would look twice at me."
For this Navy team, getting the six victories required to play in a bowl game would be an accomplishment on a par with last season's 10 wins.
"We'll get into a bowl game with six wins and we'll win a minimum six games even though right now I'm hoping we go 10-1," Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said. "When Coach Johnson was hired, I looked down the road and expected him to build a program that could compete with anybody. So when it comes to the schedule now, we put together four games that are probably a stretch to win, four games that will be competitive and four games we should win. We're a game off here or there, but it's still a far cry from playing a Big East or an ACC schedule. That won't happen."
Nor should it, Johnson said.
"For Navy to play teams like Maryland, Stanford or another team from a BCS conference every week is just not realistic," he said. "I think what you have to do is have a schedule you can be competitive with. I knew it would be brutal early playing Maryland and Stanford, I just wish they would have been more towards the end of the year than to have our schedule front-loaded."
However, Johnson said it's nearly impossible to gauge Navy's future schedule. When Navy agreed to play Maryland, the Terrapins had won 31 games between 2001 and '03, not a squad coming off a 5-6 season as it was this year. When Navy defeated Tulsa last year, 29-0, Johnson had envisioned a tougher game considering the Golden Hurricane had played in a bowl game the previous season.
"That's the thing with scheduling, you can't predict what teams are going to do from year to year," Johnson said. "Right now, one of our team's goals is to make it to a bowl game, and that's a lot easier to do if you start 1-1 instead of 0-2."