The 2015 season marked the first in the entire 135 year history of history of Navy football in which they did not compete as an independent.
After a long illustrious history that includes one national championship (1926) and two Heisman Trophies, the Naval Academy accepted an invitation to join the Big East in 2012. With the college football landscape growing evermore tumultuous due to conference realignment, Navy gambled and stuck with that commitment even after the Big East became the American Athletic Conference.
Even after only one year, that gamble has paid off in spades.
Let's forget for a moment what Navy did on the field this season. In this era of college football, life as in independent is difficult. Scheduling is hard to do without eight or nine conference games filling up the schedule. Obviously Navy will always have Notre Dame and Army to play every season, but they still have to fill another 10 games every season.
A team like Notre Dame can always find teams to play, especially with their five game agreement with the ACC. It is not so easy for the less prestigious programs. Army played against two FCS opponents this season which is not what Navy, a team that has remained competitive despite the obvious disadvantages that come with competing as a military academy, wants to do.
Bowl tie-ins are also largely based on conference affiliations.
The struggles of finding teams to play or bowls to play in have frustrated teams like BYU and may have contributed to long-time coach Bronco Mendenhall leaving for Virginia. As strength of schedule becomes more important in the age of the College Football Playoff, most independents, other than Notre Dame, are left on the outside looking in. Some conferences don't consider BYU or Army as "power teams" which thus discourages them from adding independents to future schedules.
By joining a conference, Navy gets eight conference games per season, plus Notre Dame and Navy. That means they only need to schedule two other games per season. They also don't need to be worried about getting left out of a bowl should they qualify thanks to the AAC tie-ins.
Now let's go on the field. None of those benefits would matter if Navy was completely non-competitive. That's not what happened. Navy finished 7-1 in conference play, tied with first place in the division with eventual conference champion Houston. Ken Niumatalolo was named the conference's Co-Coach of the Year with Houston's Tom Herman. The Midshipmen are now slated to play in the Military Bowl against Pittsburgh, a game that will take place in Navy's home stadium in Annapolis.
To say this worked out for Navy would be an understatement.
Navy may not always compete for the conference crown as they did this season, but the benefits that come with the move to the AAC will remain. Trading in their tradition as an independent was a gamble, but it will be good for the program and it's a move that has already paid off for the Midshipmen.