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Military service academy football, quickly explained

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You probably know about Air Force, Army, and Navy, but what about the rest?

Obama Presents Commander-in-Chief Trophy To Air Force Academy football Team Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Army and Navy square off in one of the most famous rivalries in college football, and both compete with the Air Force in the three-pronged Commander-in-Chief’s trophy race every season.

But there are two other official branches of the military, plus whatever the hell the Space Force is. Together, they form a small slice of the college football ecosystem.

You know about Army, Navy, and Air Force.

They’re the FBS academies, with Army still independent of a conference. Neither Army nor Navy are anything near what they were back in the 1940s, largely due to size requirements for players.

But Air Force had great success under former coach Fisher DeBerry with two top-10 finishes in the polls. Navy owned Army for years on the field, but the Black Knights have returned to prominence in the academy world under coach Jeff Monken. The academies have navigated changes in the landscape of college football while maintaining their identities.

Army and Navy have retained their status as revered combatants with their showcase regular-season finale. It is near impossible not to get wrapped up in the pageantry of the game, particularly when you realize how big of a deal it is to the players involved.

The weight of Navy Week started to set in on Monday, to press down on the staff. The players are in class, so at the moment there’s no need to put on. When they’re present, there’s a constant effort to keep the weight of the game out of their minds.

“There’s a reason why there’s signs all over the building that say ‘BEAT NAVY,’ even though, at times, as coaches, we think it’s too much,” offensive coordinator Brent Davis said on Tuesday morning.

“But it is that important. Go ask our guys about the bowl game. They’re thinking about Navy. I had kids texting me this weekend. They’re watching film, they’re watching Navy play: ‘Coach, what do you think of this?’ They don’t do that when we’re getting ready to play any other team.”

The rivalries with Air Force might not be as famous as Army-Navy, but those still rage.

“We wanted to beat Air Force from a player’s perspective probably more so than Army,” J.D. Gainey, a Navy lineman in the class of 1998, said. “The reason why I say that is that Army-Navy — that’s a natural, expected rivalry. Everybody in the country recognizes it. It’s really for the fans and it’s really for the alumni to get together.”

The Coast Guard has a college football team too.

The Coast Guard Academy is Division III, which is probably why you might not have heard of the Bears. While the other three academies have more than 4,000 enrollees each, the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut has barely 1,000.

The big rivalry for the Coast Guard Academy is the Merchant Marine Academy on the other end of Long Island Sound. The Secretaries Cup series has been dominated by the Merchant Mariners.

Also, the Coast Guard Academy has a mascot. Objee the Bear is swole.

Coast Guard

But what about the Marine Corps?

While the Marines are a separate branch, they’re under the umbrella of the Naval Academy. During their time at Navy, Midshipmen can select the Marine option, if it’s something they’re interested in.

In 2015, out of 32 seniors, 15 were sent to the Marine Corps.

The peak of military service football was, obviously, the 1940s.

As the base system expanded and many regular colleges shut down sports, former sports stars would get together and play in the United States or abroad. They were glorified exhibitions, sometimes against gutted college teams. There were also military all-star teams that played in exhibitions against professional teams.

During wartime, there were some incredible college football team names, like the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks, Second Air Force Superbombers, Great Lakes Navy Bluejackets, El Toro Flying Marines, 11th Airborne Angels, Johnson Air Base Vanguards, and Marine Corps Sukiran Streaks.

The NCAA catalogues a bunch of their postseason games, with equally incredible names like the Marine, Missile, G.I., Rice, Parc Des Princes, and Electronics bowls.

And what about schools like Texas A&M and The Citadel?

A&M, University of North Georgia, The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, Norwich University, and Virginia Tech are senior military colleges. It’s like these schools have ROTC programs on steroids. They mirror a service academy experience at a regular school (particularly at A&M and Virginia Tech). That’s why you’ll see these guys and girls at Aggies home games.

Texas A&M v Arkansas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The biggest different between these schools and the federal service academies is students who matriculate through the ROTC programs at those schools don’t have to serve. The Citadel estimates about a third of its graduates receive military commission.

As for Merchant Marine Academy, its graduates must keep a merchant mariner license for six years and serve five years as a merchant marine officer or in a maritime profession. They can also become a commissioned officer in one of the five branches.

Finally, about that SPACE FORCE ...

**sigh** OK, let’s talk about it. First of all, for it to have an academy, the Space Force has to actually be a real thing. It remains to be seen if a president can unilaterally create a new branch of the military.

The White House text of the order doesn’t actually feature a directive to create the space force. Reporters didn’t get any advance notice that (President Donald) Trump had made the decision, and the Pentagon is not answering questions about it. Lawmakers and staff on the Hill didn’t know this was coming — and creating a space force may require a vote.

The most likely scenario is that Space Force would fall under the umbrella of the Air Force, much like the Marines do with the Naval Academy.