USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Navy's blueprint for success includes heaping handfuls of Keenan Reynolds, once and again and once again, with Reynolds standing as the do-everything linchpin of an offense with deep and unshakeable roots in the time-honored tradition of the triple option.
His running style is the child of a gazelle and a bowling ball, with the speed and elusiveness of the former and the devastating, sniff-the-end-zone destructiveness of the latter. Thirty-one touchdowns, a number so beyond the norm it boggles even the firmest and most well-informed of minds – 31 touchdowns, for goodness sake, the most by a quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
Reynolds will pass and break your heart, doubly so if you're Army. Remember the drive: Navy went 80 yards in seven plays back in 2012, highlighted by the junior's 49-yard connection with Brandon Turner that placed the Midshipmen on the doorstep of another Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.
Reynolds scored the winning touchdown on the ground, of course.
Sacrilege, maybe, but let's put it out there: Reynolds is Navy's best quarterback since Roger Staubach. This isn't heresy, nor a slight to the rest of the Midshipmen's near-legends – Ricky Dobbs, Chris McCoy and Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, to name a few.
It's simply clear, plain as day, and also fitting, given how Reynolds has quietly taken on an assault of the school and national record books. His is a career in such promising bloom it raises a simple question: How did Navy get this guy?
Like Staubach before him, Reynolds gives Navy a shot at the Heisman Trophy. It's been 41 years since Staubach took him the hardware; Reynolds will make a run at the title in 2014 – and again in 2015.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Navy will lose three of five from Air Force through Notre Dame, and likely drop another from the group of Indiana, Western Kentucky and San Jose State. Everything else is winnable; you could even make the case that every other game on this schedule should end in a victory, which would again leave Navy at 8-4 heading into the postseason. Most of all: I project Navy to retain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for another year.
In a nutshell: It went entirely as expected. This is a good thing, mind you: Navy was expected to win eight games during the regular season … and won eight games during the regular season, one each against Air Force and Army, and capped the year with a 24-6 bowl victory against Middle Tennessee State. It was the Reynolds show, once and again and once again, with the then-sophomore accounting for one of the finest running seasons by a player in college football history – no, not just by a quarterback, but by any player with two legs. It was Reynolds that led this offense to heights not seen under Ken Niumatalolo; Navy scored 436 points, the program's most since Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech.
High point: Beating Army.
Low point: A double-overtime loss to Toledo. If the season went entirely as expected, this loss was entirely avoidable. The Midshipmen would win six of their next seven, however, perhaps learning a lesson from the sloppy, error-prone play that allowed the Rockets to storm ahead in the first three quarters.
Tidbit: Navy owns Army, as you may have heard, but Navy also owns the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. The Midshipmen are 21-2 against Army and Air Force since 2003, with a 12-0 mark against the Cadets joined by a 9-2 mark against the Falcons. Overall, Navy is 92-49 during the last 11 years; Air Force is 70-66, with Army a woeful 35-97. Think of it like this: Navy has outscored Army 400-132 during the last dozen meetings in the series.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Navy quarterbacks since 1960
1. Roger Staubach
2. Keenan Reynolds
3. Ricky Dobbs
4. Chris McCoy
5. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Let's sit back and watch Reynolds do his thing. You know the drill: Reynolds is perhaps the most important individual to his team's success in all of college football, a statement buttressed by his wall-to-wall production in Navy's offensive system. It's not about what he does well; it's about where he can improve an already impressive skill set. The answer – and you knew this was coming: Reynolds needs to continue to tune his production in the passing game. It's not like he's a negative by any stretch when in passing situations; Reynolds can stretch the field and convert on third down, as evidenced during his first two years, and he certainly has a flair for the dramatic in the clutch. Put simply, Reynolds must blend his eye-popping rushing totals with a touch more consistency and reliability on early downs, a development that, if achieved, would make Navy's offense even more unpredictable – and more dangerous. There's a reason he's a Heisman contender: Reynolds is the real deal.
The running game is going to dominate. It's not just about Reynolds, let alone the strong supporting cast back in the fold; it's about a very solid offensive line, one that returns completely intact while forming the backbone of this entire attack. From left to right: Bradyn Heap will start on the blind side and E.K. Binns at left guard, while senior Tanner Fleming and junior Blaze Ryder continue to duke it out in the middle – and Fleming's size gives him the edge; junior Joey Gaston will handle right tackle, with senior Jake Zuzek, a really nice interior lineman, handling the load at right guard. Very quietly, this line is a team strength.
But they'll get lost in the shuffle behind a strong rotation of backfield options. The Midshipmen do lose Darius Staten, and his big-play potential will be somewhat hard to replace. But there is certainly strength in numbers: Navy brings back fullbacks Chris Swan (420 yards), Noah Copeland (339 yards) and Quinton Singleton, with this trio again shuffling touches, while Geoffrey Whiteside (363 yards), DeBrandon Sanders (340 yards) and Demond Brown (220 yards) carry water in more traditional roles. Sanders, who doubles as Navy's most electric receiver, might be the most irreplaceable cog in the entire scheme – outside of Reynolds, of course.
Defense: I don't have tremendous faith in this defense, which must lean on an experienced secondary while undergoing a slight state of transition along the front seven. The line is a good example: Navy brings back Bernard Sarra on the nose, for example, but the junior must prove he can handle the every-down load after splitting snaps last fall with former starter Travis Bridges – and if he struggles, Navy would be forced to hand the middle to sophomores Cam Henson and Patrick Forrestal. On the outside, the Midshipmen return senior Paul Quessenberry (25 tackles) but must replace Evan Palelei, with the latter's former role falling to junior Will Anthony, senior Aaron Davis or junior A.K. Apunku.
Basically, the middle of the defense – from nose tackle to inside linebacker, from inside linebacker to safety – seems like a bit of a concern. There's the changing cast on the nose; on the second level, Navy will transition senior Jordan Drake (43 tackles) inside in an effort to replace two lost starters. This comes with its positives, but there's a drawback: Drake was able to get to the quarterback on the outside, so Navy does lose some explosiveness. But Drake could eventually slide back outside should the staff feel comfortable with senior James Britton, last year's backup – perhaps pushing senior Obi Ozuma into a reserve role. As of now, however, it looks as if Drake and junior Don Pearson will start in the middle of this 3-4 set, flanked by Ozuma and senior Chris Johnson (84 tackles, 3 interceptions). To me, getting Drake and Johnson on the field – and perhaps finding a role for promising sophomore Will Tuider – are the only necessities. Outside of this group, unfortunately, Navy has issues.
The secondary is ready for a degree of improvement as a result of increased experience. Last year's cast is now a year wiser: Brendon Clements (49 tackles, 3 interceptions) is now a sophomore cornerback, for example, not a freshman, and it's safe to be excited about his potential. Likewise on the opposite side, where Navy can pick from a quartet of juniors for the starting job: Kwazel Bertrand and Quincy Adams, but there could be roles for Shelley White and Myer Krah. The void comes at safety, where Navy shouldn't feel overly comfortable in either of Wave Ryder's potential replacements, senior Lonnie Richardson and junior Lorentez Barbour. What's clear is that senior free safety Parrish Gaines (65 tackles, 3 interceptions) must add more nose-near-the-football production to his handling of the back end.
Special teams: It's the same group, a fact that could lead to an uptick in production from the kicking game. Junior Nick Sloan is fine on field goals, as is senior Pablo Beltran on punts, but junior Austin Grebe's work on kickoffs demand improvement. Navy's defense needs the help on field position; Grebe needs to put more kicks into the end zone, if not directed into position to assist the Midshipmen's coverage teams.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receivers: Navy needs to locate a new cast at receiver after losing last year's top three to graduation. This isn't as small a deal as one might think: Navy's receivers block first, of course, but this offense needs a field-stretcher, a steady third-down target and a complementary target with the ability to fill roles out wide and in the running game. We know Sanders is going to contribute a heavy amount as Reynolds' favorite target, but the junior needs some help. It's a fairly unknown cast: Brendan Dudek has played a touch, but the same can't really be said of sophomore Jamir Tillman, junior Thomas Wilson, junior Marc Meier and sophomores Calvin Cass and Julian Turner. It's not a great situation, based on the inexperience – but it's not a terrible situation, not by a long shot, since this returning cast does bring to the table a firm knowledge of what is expected from the position. All it'll take is one of the unknowns – let's say Dudek and Tillman start – stepping forward in an increased role.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Army: It's always Army.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Get one thing out of the way off the jump: Navy's not just going to win another Commander-in-Chief's Trophy – the Midshipmen are going to blow Army and Air Force out of the water. This is a team that stands one significant leap ahead of its service-academy brethren in overall talent – this is obvious – but also in coaching, confidence and consistency, assets that should travel beyond this rivalry series and aid Navy's attempts at another seasons with eight or more wins. To me, this is a team that should set this year's baseline at eight wins and aim for more, perhaps putting fear into big-name opposition and challenging for Niumatalolo's second season with double-digit wins.
If everything clicks, Navy is winning at least nine games during the regular season. Whether the Midshipmen click entirely is up for debate, however. It's not about the offense, a group headlined by one of the nation's best under center, loaded with accompanying talent in the backfield and perhaps defined by a seasoned, veteran and productive front five. When on its game, this offense is going to be an absolute handful. In my mind, the concern is the defense: Navy shouldn't feel overly secure in any one unit, though it's possible to imagine a scenario where each grouping – even the front three – responds to the challenge and improves upon last year's up-and-down showing.
Again: If everything clicks, Navy's going to be dangerous. Perhaps not to Ohio State, perhaps not to Notre Dame; the Midshipmen will just be deadly against more teams than not, particularly when matched up against opponents of similar talent yet dissimilar cohesiveness. Whether Navy moves into the conversation for a national ranking hinges on games against OSU, Notre Dame and Rutgers, the three major-conference foes on the schedule. Even if they lose all three – and Rutgers is very, very winnable – Navy is an eight-win team with the possibility for nine victories during the regular season. This has become like clockwork.
Dream season: Navy goes 11-1, losing to Ohio State in the opener before running the table until the bowl play.
Nightmare season: The Midshipmen lose to Army.
Who's No. 47? The third director of this university's marching band shared his last name with a current NFL quarterback who attended a Big Ten school and started three games during the 2013 season.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014