Army-Navy Game Could Be Impacted by the Advent of a 12-Team Playoff

by Braxton Taylor

For nearly 25 years, the Army-Navy Game was held on the first Saturday in December. For most of that time, it was the only major college football game played on that date.

Then came the advent of conference championship games, which suddenly overshadowed Army-Navy somewhat. By 2005, every conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision was playing its championship game on the first Saturday in December.

In order to put the spotlight back on America’s Game, the two service academies announced that beginning in 2009 the Army-Navy Game would be played on the second Saturday in December.

That strategy proved successful with the Army-Navy Game regaining its status as the only FBS contest held on that date. The 2009 edition was the most watched in a decade and television ratings have steadily increased ever since. Last year’s showdown between the archrivals, held at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, drew 7.2 million viewers.

However, the expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams has put the stand-alone status of Army-Navy in jeopardy again.

Beginning this year, three first-round playoff games are scheduled to be played on Saturday, Dec. 21 with a fourth being held on Friday, Dec. 20. That development has led organizers of the organization known as Bowl Season, which serves as the collective association of every college football bowl game, to consider abandoning the third Saturday in December so as not to conflict with the College Football Playoff games.

Nick Caparelli, executive director of Bowl Season, recently confirmed to Yahoo Sports that the organization is exploring moving some bowls up a week to expand television windows.

There were 43 bowl games held during the 2023-24 season, which began on Saturday, Dec. 16 with seven lower tier bowls.

If ESPN, which is the owner and rights holder for most postseason contests, decides to shift opening day to the second Saturday in December, it could mean Army-Navy loses its unencumbered window from 3 to 6 p.m.

Whether it would matter remains to be seen as Army-Navy would likely be going up against the likes of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl or the Isleta New Mexico Bowl.

“This is all speculation right now because no decisions have been made,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “It’s possible that a few bowl games could be moved to the second Saturday in December. I don’t foresee any of those games affecting viewership for the Army-Navy game.”

Nonetheless, Gladchuk has been proactive and already made contact with Caparelli to request that any bowl games played on Dec. not kickoff between 3 and 6 p.m.

” Nick Caparelli has been extremely supportive of the Army-Navy Game and would work with ESPN to make certain the Army-Navy window stays protected,” Gladchuk said. “Our contention is that any bowls moved to that Saturday do not intrude on America’s Game.”

Gladchuk and Army West Point counterpart Mike Buddie have an ally in American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, who has also begun lobbying on behalf of the two service academies. In an interview with The Capital, Aresco pointed out that Football Championship Subdivision playoff games are held the same day as Army-Navy and have not impacted television ratings.

“Ratings for the Army-Navy Game have been tremendous ever since it was moved back a week,” Aresco said. “Moving bowl games to the day of Army-Navy is not the end of the world. It’s going against Army-Navy in the same time window that is the bigger issue.”

Playoff access

While the prospect of FBS bowl games being held the same day as Army-Navy is worrisome, of even greater concern to the two service academies is access to the College Football Playoff.

The College Football Playoff selection committee announces the field the Sunday prior to the Army-Navy Game. It is unclear at this point whether the committee would consider the Black Knights or Midshipmen for a playoff berth without knowing the result of their season-ending showdown.

On Feb. 20, the College Football Playoff Board of Managers approved a 12-team event featuring the five highest-ranked conference champions. Rounding out the field are the next seven highest-ranked teams as determined by the CFP selection committee.

It is possible Army or Navy could be the American Athletic Conference champion and among the 12 highest-ranked teams. Such a scenario would put the CFP selection committee in the position of having to evaluate either team’s candidacy without knowing the result of the Army-Navy Game.

Buddie and Gladchuk contend the selection committee should wait one week to finalize the playoff schedule. That was the protocol in place throughout the most recent cycle with the selection committee agreeing to hold off finalizing a New Year’s Six bowl game or CFP playoff seeding involving Army or Navy.

That agreement was made with the recognition there was minimal chance of Army or Navy impacting a four-team playoff field or being the highest-rated Group of Five champion that received an automatic berth into a New Year’s Six bowl.

However, the creation of a 12-team playoff format that grants automatic berths to the five highest-ranked conference champions increases the possibility of Army or Navy being a factor. With the breakup of the Pac-12, there are now only four self-appointed “Power Five” conferences and the American Athletic Conference has routinely rated highest among the so-called ” Group of Five” conferences.

“Our position is to leave the current protocol in place and not preclude Army or Navy from contention for the College Football Playoff,” Gladchuk said. “I don’t imagine such a scenario would happen very often. It would be more of an exception. If either Army or Navy earns a berth it would be one of those extraordinary years.”

Gladchuk, a member of the CFP selection committee, said he and Buddie have discussed the issue extensively and are in total alignment. Buddie, in his fifth year at West Point, went so far as to write a letter to the College Football Playoff Board of Managers urging them to carry over the policy put in place on June 15, 2015.

Buddie expressed concern about the impact on Army and Navy if the “current language were to be changed or overturned without sufficient representation or discussion from key constituents.” Buddie further stated that college athletics decision-makers continue to make success more challenging for the military service academies.

“While the military academies are rarely in a position to be discussed as potential playoff contenders, we feel it would be unusually punitive and tone deaf to completely deny the academies consideration of this critical final game on such an important and impactful decision,” Buddie wrote.

As a concession, Army and Navy have mutually agreed to accept the 12th seed to allow the CFP selection committee to complete all other first-round pairings. In such a scenario, the No. 12 seed would go to the service academy in contention or the next highest-ranked Group of Five conference champ.

“So the big question is whether the fifth seed is willing to wait a week to know its opponent. Does doing so put the fifth seed at a competitive disadvantage?” Gladchuk said. “We are asking the selection committee not to eliminate Army or Navy from the conversation just because the fifth seed would be impatient.”

Gladchuk believes the fifth seed would not be put at a disadvantage. That team would still have two weeks to prepare for a first-round playoff game, while Army or Navy would only have a week if selected.

Additionally, the fifth seed could do advance scouting knowing it is playing either the AAC champion or the next highest-rated Group of Five champion.

“Throughout most of the season, with the exception of bye weeks, teams have no more than five or six days to prepare for an opponent. This scenario would be no different than the regular season,” Gladchuk said.

The two service academies are fortunate to have the full support of Aresco, who is a member of the College Football Playoff Board of Managers. Gladchuk said Aresco has been a tremendously supportive advocate for Army-Navy.

“Mike has been an absolute stalwart in presenting our case and insisting on consideration,” Gladchuk said.

Aresco pointed out there has been 10 years of protocol in which the CFP selection committee agreed to wait a week for the result of the Army-Navy Game in the rare instance the result would impact the playoff field.

“Obviously, I’m in complete agreement with the academies that we need to renew that protocol now with the advent of a 12-team playoff,” Aresco said. “With the expanded playoff format, Army and Navy have a much better chance to be in it.

“If Army or Navy is an undefeated conference champion, or even has one loss, there is a very good chance they would be in contention for a playoff berth,” Aresco continued. “If they would need that last data point, we would like them to wait on the Army-Navy game. Whatever team would potentially replace Army or Navy would be predetermined and waiting in the wings.”

Aresco said all he can do is “lobby and try to persuade” the other members of the CFB Board of Managers. He believes it would be a “special situation” and great for the country for one of the service academies to participate in the playoffs.

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