These are exciting times for Navy fans. The Midshipmen have won at least eight games for seven consecutive seasons and haven't lost to the other two service academies in that time.
After a 10-win season -- capped by a 35-13 rout of Missouri in the Texas Bowl -- Navy has realistic expectations to win at least 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. A big reason is senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, Navy's highest-profile player in some time.
The publicity and on-field success have come at a price, though. Slotback Marcus Curry remained on the team for several weeks despite failing a drug test. At Navy, such transgressions can be grounds for dismissal. Some in Navy's fan base weren't pleased with the decision to keep him on the team, and Curry eventually was dismissed for an accumulation of off-field issues.
Although Navy loses a key playmaker, the Midshipmen have enough talent returning to make a run at 10 wins once again.
Here's a closer look at the Midshipmen.
THE SCHEME: Under Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo, Navy has drawn the blueprint for the service academies to remain competitive with its triple option offense. The scheme presents challenges in preparation for opposing defenses, which need to be disciplined to stop the option and misdirection.
STAR POWER: If preparing for the offensive scheme itself isn't enough of a headache, defenses also need to plan for perhaps Navy's best quarterback since Roger Staubach. Ricky Dobbs set an NCAA record for quarterbacks with 27 rushing touchdowns last season to go with 1,192 rushing yards. Dobbs also is the best passer Navy has had in the Johnson/Niumatalolo era. Dobbs passed for 1,031 yards last season while completing 53.3 percent of his attempts.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: On a veteran-dominated team with no true redshirts, newcomers aren't all that common. Josh Cabral is a true sophomore who saw 15 plays in mop-up time against Rice, so he essentially qualifies as a redshirt. He takes over as the starting left guard. Blocking schemes in the triple option offense ask much of the guards, so Cabral will need to gain experience in a hurry.
STRONGEST AREA: Dobbs is the team MVP, but Navy has a capable backup in Kriss Proctor. He played in three games last season, rushing for 223 yards and five touchdowns. The Midshipmen's rushing attack is bolstered by FB Vince Murray, who rushed for 971 yards and six touchdowns. Navy senior Ts Jeff Battipaglia and Matt Molloy are undersized, but they are ideal fits for the offense.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Navy dismissed its best big-play threat in SB Marcus Curry, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry and 28.7 yards per catch. The Midshipmen need sophomore Gee Gee Greene to fill the void. Greene average 6.2 yards per carry in limited duty but caught only one pass as a freshman. The line must break in new starters in the interior.
THE SCHEME: Navy runs a 3-4 base set, but it can play multiple formations.
STAR POWER: Navy's defense returns a genuine playmaker in SS Wyatt Middleton, who will enter his fourth season as a starter. He's a big (6 feet 2/191 pounds), hard-hitting safety who finished last season with four interceptions and seven pass breakups. After Middleton, the biggest playmaker on Navy's defense is E Jabaree Tuani. He's been a key cog since his freshman season, recording 14.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles in the past two seasons.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: LB Vinnie Mauro is a three-star prospect at a position where Navy needs some help. Mauro turned down offers from Wisconsin and Vanderbilt and played at high school powerhouse Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.
STRONGEST AREA: Middleton is the leader of a secondary that returns three starters. Navy lacked a big-time ballhawk in the secondary but finished with 13 interceptions. In the bowl game, Navy stymied Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert; he completed less than half his passes and threw two picks.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Navy's four-linebacker set will have to function without stalwarts Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer and Ram Vela. Junior Tyler Simmons is the only one of the four projected starters with appreciable experience. He finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles last season; the other three projected first-stringers were special teams players in '09. Sophomore Collin Sturdivant could make an impact.
Navy returns K Joe Buckley and P Kyle Delahooke. Buckley was 10-of-13 on field goals and has a good leg. Delahooke ranked 12th nationally in net punting (38.3 yards). Greene and Mario Washington were the primary return men last season, but Navy will give John Howell and Alexander Teich the first shot to improve the return game this season. Kickoff coverage must improve, but the punt coverage was adequate last season.
Given its schedule, Navy should have high hopes for another gaudy win total. The Midshipmen play just four bowl teams from last season (Air Force, SMU, East Carolina and Central Michigan) and only one before mid-October. If Navy has a make-or-break stretch of the season, it comes in late September/early October, when the Midshipmen play consecutive road games against Louisiana Tech, Air Force and Wake Forest. After that, Navy will play only one true road game for the rest of the season. The Georgia Southern game on Sept. 11 will be watched closely by Paul Johnson, who will see two of his assistants-turned-head coaches (Niumatalolo and Jeff Monken) face each other.
Thanks to a manageable schedule and a lot of returning talent, Navy has a chance to win 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. After defeating Notre Dame twice in three seasons and routing Missouri in the Texas Bowl last season, this group is hungry for more. Navy has realistic expectations of finishing the season ranked for the first time since 2004.