With CFP expanding and bowl games possibly shifting, the future of Army-Navy is murky

Navy QB Xavier Arline scrambles during the first half of Army's win over Navy on Dec. 9. (Danielle Parhizkaran/Getty Images)
Navy QB Xavier Arline scrambles during the first half of Army's win over Navy on Dec. 9. (Danielle Parhizkaran/Getty Images) (Boston Globe via Getty Images)

For the last 15 years, on the second Saturday in December, just after 3 p.m. ET on CBS, America’s Game kicks off.

In the renewal of one of the oldest rivalries in American history, the Army Cadets and Navy Midshipmen meet in a usually sold-out stadium in front of a captivated television audience.

Plenty of things set apart the Army-Navy Game from all others in college football. After all, what game features the student bodies from each school marching onto the field in uniform before kickoff? What other college football series has attracted 10 sitting U.S. presidents? And what other rivalry regularly includes 18-play drives and fewer than 30 total points scored.

But there’s something else that makes Army-Navy different than any other: The game holds an unencumbered window on a Saturday in the fall as the only Football Bowl Subdivision game scheduled for that day and the final major college football game before the bowl and postseason arrives.

Soon, that could very well change.

The expanded College Football Playoff puts at risk the Army-Navy game’s future as a standalone event and its relevance in the CFP’s selection of the 12-team field — issues that concern the game’s stakeholders enough for one to have penned a letter to CFP leaders earlier this month.

The CFP’s expansion from four to 12 teams starting this fall has triggered two conversations, both of which could impact Army-Navy:

• Bowl Season officials and their TV partner, ESPN, are exploring moving up the start of bowl games to the second weekend of December to free up television windows for the four first-round playoff games scheduled for the third weekend of December.

• CFP leaders are examining how to consider a game (Army-Navy) that kicks off six days after CFP selections are made when the new format allots an automatic spot for the highest-ranked Group of Five champion.

“It’s tricky. I don’t envy the decision-makers,” said Mike Buddie, the Army athletic director who on Feb. 16 sent a letter to the CFP Management Committee about the situation. “I’m a realist. I understand there’s a lot of money and a lot of games to be played, but I still think Army-Navy transcends the sport of college football and has for decades.”

Given CFP expansion, questions about the game’s future loom.

Should it move dates? Should it share its date? And how, if the date is not moving, should it be considered in CFP selections?

“There is still some uncertainty with all of that right now, but our hope is they will be respectful to the fact that that is America’s Game,” said Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk. “It’s special nationally and special to our troops all over the world. There’s a respect about it that has been appreciated to date. Our associates have left that weekend alone.”

Moving the game is a non-starter, said Gladchuk. The contract with CBS requires the game to be played on that date. There are obligations to corporate sponsors, host cities and the military itself.

“We are not moving the game,” Gladchuk said. “It’s staying there.”

The game’s television rating has soared since it moved in 2009 from conference championship Saturday to its standalone spot the following weekend — a shift made to highlight the clash of U.S. armed servicemen and women and draw eyeballs across the country. The 2009 game was the most watched in the series in a decade.

Last year’s Army-Navy game delivered 7.2 million viewers to make it the 21st-most watched game of the college football season. The 2017 game drew more than 8 million viewers to mark the highest rating in the series in nearly a quarter century.

However, the game could soon get competition from the relocation of bowl games.

During last year’s opening day of Bowl Season, Saturday Dec. 16, seven bowls were played. On that day this year, Saturday Dec. 21, three first-round playoff games are scheduled to kickoff, with a fourth played on the preceding Friday.

Nick Carparelli, executive director of Bowl Season, confirmed to Yahoo Sports that the organization is exploring shifting at least some of those bowls up a week to expand television windows and avoid TV conflicts with playoff games. Final decisions likely rest with ESPN, owner and rights holder to the majority of bowl games.

On a conflict with Army-Navy, Carparelli said, “We’d be respectful of that game. We know its history.”

Mike Aresco has a stake in the situation. As a CBS network executive, he programmed the game for 16 years and was at the center of the idea in moving it to the standalone window. Now as commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, he recruited Army to join the league starting next academic year. Navy has been a member since 2015.

“We can’t prevent bowls moving up, but I’d hope that they’d try to keep the Army-Navy window clear,” he said. “That game is extremely important to the country. It means so much. There are several windows on that day that don’t involve Army-Navy.”

Aresco sits on the CFP Management Committee, the group of FBS commissioners who control decisions around the playoff, including the policy on handling the Army-Navy game. A CFP protocol currently exists that requires the selection committee to delay any pairings — a New Year’s Six bowl game or playoff seeding — involving Army or Navy if the result of the game impacts such.

While chances of Army or Navy’s impact on a four-team playoff were slim, the 12-team format gives either program more of an opportunity as it grants automatic berths to the five highest-ranked champions in an FBS division now with four power leagues. Stakeholders acknowledge that the chances of Army-Navy impacting the expanded playoff remain distant, but the possibility still exists.

In fact, if the CFP’s 12-team format were used in 2015, Navy would have potentially qualified as the highest ranked Group of Five team when reflecting realignment shifts that have since happened. If the CFP format were used in the first 10 years of the CFP (2014-2023), the Group of Five champion would have been selected as the 12 seed in nine of the 10 years. The outlier is AAC champion Cincinnati in 2020.

Army-Navy stakeholders support the CFP retaining its current protocol for the new expanded field. That means, in all likelihood, the selection committee seeding 11 of the 12 teams and keeping two options for the No. 12 seed: Army or Navy and the next-best conference champion in the Group of Five.

In a letter sent to the CFP Management Committee and obtained by Yahoo Sports, Buddie emphasized that the school concedes to be seeded No. 12 if it were in contention and then wins the Army-Navy game, allowing the committee to complete all other first-round pairings.

“If I’m being honest and real, the conversation probably comes up every 30 years,” Buddie said. “It makes it easier to just say, ‘Hey, let’s keep the current protocol in there.’”

In recent CFP meetings, the current protocol has been “subject to debate,” Aresco said. Waiting a week to name a No. 12 seed means that the No. 5 seed — the two are matched in the first round — will be tasked with preparing for two opponents and would only learn of its opponent a week before kickoff.

“If the Army-Navy game is critical to the selection process, let us play the game in the spirit it represents,” Gladchuk said. “Someone will have to be on hold, but most of us through the course of the season only have five days to prepare for an opponent anyway.”

For the CFP, the alternative option is likely to have the selection committee choose the 12 seed regardless of the Army-Navy outcome — a protocol that could end in either team losing the rivalry game, still making the playoff field and costing another G5 champion a spot.

For Group of Five programs, a chance at CFP access is paramount.

Part of Army’s decision to move from independence to a conference was rooted in having a pathway to both CFP access and CFP revenue. Aside from Notre Dame, FBS independents receive about one-quarter of the CFP revenue distribution ($300,000 annually) as Group of Five programs affiliated with a conference (roughly $1 million annually) — one of the reasons for the recent rush of conference movement from independents.

Five independent football programs joined a conference since 2019. The most recent move — UMass to the MAC — left only one independent football team in FBS aside from the Irish: UConn.

Army’s impending addition to the American comes with strings to protect the clash with Navy. The Black Knights and Midshipmen will not meet in a regular season conference game but could both qualify to play one another in the AAC championship game.

That would mean a rematch the very next week.

Considering the history and tradition, that’s no sweat, said Gladchuk.

“We all aspire to be in the championship game,” he said, “but there’s nothing like the Army-Navy game. It’s a standalone event that is extraordinary.”

The questions loom: Will it remain standalone? And what is its relevance to an expanded CFP selection process?

Letter from Army to CFP by Yahoo on Scribd