One of college football's oldest rivalries has gotten decidedly one-sided. Army hasn't beaten -- or even come within two touchdowns of beating -- Navy in seven years, and even though triple-option wizard Paul Johnson has moved his operation from Annapolis to Georgia Tech, the Midshipmen remain double-digit favorites over the Black Knights. The only consolation for Army is that oddsmakers have established the line for Saturday's game, the 109th meeting in the series, at 11 points. This, I suppose, is a kind of progress. When you've won just 20 of your last 104 games, you have to take consolation in the small things.
And as long as we're taking solace in little victories, I'm going to go one (very tiny bit) further: The Cadets have a very legitimate shot at covering the spread. (Full disclosure -- I'm an Army alum, and fan. Bias!) In my duties for SI this fall, I've had the chance to see both teams play. Back on Sept. 17, I saw Navy whip Wake Forest (then ranked No. 16), and then last month had the chance to see the Middies come within a few plays of knocking off Notre Dame. The next week, I was in Piscataway, N.J., to watch Rutgers pound the Black Knights 30-3.
Don't get me wrong. I've seen enough Army-Navy games to know that the old trope about throwing out the records when these two rivals play is pure, unadulterated bunkum. Navy (7-4) is clearly the superior team. While the Cadets (3-8) have made admirable strides with their version of the triple-option this season, the West Point version of the attack isn't nearly as lethal as Navy's -- the Midshipmen average 27.3 points per game, Army a paltry 16.1 (which ranks 114th in Division I-A). Navy should win comfortably.
But if the Midshipmen don't cruise to victory, the likely reason will be because the Black Knights' defense is unusually stout. Army ranks 32nd in Division I-A in rushing D this year, giving up about 124.8 yards per game.
The key here is the sparkling play of 6-foot-2, 280-pound defensive tackle Ted Bentler, a junior out of Bettendorf, Iowa, who leads all Cadet linemen with 48 stops. Fast (he's run the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds), athletic and physical, he was a disruptive force the day I saw him play last month.
In addition to being one of the better players in this Saturday's game, Bentler is one of the better stories, as well. Highly recruited out of Assumption High in 2004, he opted to stay close to home and attend Iowa, where he saw action in seven games as a redshirt sophomore. But in 2006, when his younger brother, Fritz, earned a nomination to West Point, Ted decided to transfer.
Love of country was part of the reason he turned his back on Big Ten football -- he was inspired by David Lipsky's excellent 2003 book, Absolutely American. So was love for Fritz. But that wasn't all.
"Being with his brother is nice but it certainly wasn't the tipping point," the players' father, Tom, said last year. "Everything (at West Point) fits him to a T. He is so strait-laced. He really enjoys it, the military."
Fritz now starts alongside Ted on the Army front four. Although both players are juniors, Ted is in his final year of eligibility. He'll be a senior at West Point next year, but he won't be able to play.
So in his final college game, Ted Bentler has a chance to help Army beat the spread against Navy, something the Black Knights haven't often done much in the last six years (Navy has outscored them 240-71 in that time). And who knows, maybe Bentler will be the key to an upset. Regardless of the outcomed, though, he's already a winner.