Navy football is no longer in contention for the American Athletic Conference championship game. However, the Midshipmen can certainly play spoiler in the race.
Seventh-ranked Cincinnati (8-0, 6-0) sits atop the AAC standings with one game left and has clinched a berth in the championship game. However, there are three schools mathematically alive for the other spot in the title tilt, being held Dec. 19 at the home stadium of the higher seed.
No. 22 Tulsa (5-1, 5-0) is in the driver’s seat and would clinch its first appearance in the AAC championship game by beating Navy this Saturday.
However, a loss to Navy combined with wins by Memphis (6-2, 4-2) and Houston (3-3, 3-2) would mean the American race would come down to the final weekend of action.
Tulsa had a game with Houston postponed and it will not be made up. That means it would lose a potential tiebreaker with Memphis based off winning percentage.
There is also a possibility Houston and Tulsa could finish 5-2 without a head-to-head matchup. In that scenario, the tiebreaker would be determined by which team is ranked higher in a set of aggregate computer rankings.
Of course, the Midshipmen are not solely playing to be a spoiler.
It will be Senior Day in Annapolis and Navy has developed a tradition it hopes to continue. The Mids have won 17 straight games on Senior Day with the last loss coming in 2002.
“We’re a hard team to beat on Senior Day, so that’s a big deal,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Hopefully, we can send our seniors out the right way against a really good football team. This senior class deserves that.”
Beating a Top 25 team would be a real confidence-boost for Navy (3-5, 3-3), which can still finish with a winning record both in conference and overall as there is a good chance the Midshipmen could receive a berth in one of eight bowl games affiliated with the AAC.
However, falling to Tulsa would guarantee Navy a losing record on both counts and it would carry a four-game losing streak into the annual showdown against archrival Army on Dec. 12.
Quarterback Zach Smith and inside linebacker Zaven Collins have led the way for Tulsa, which is vastly improved since finishing 4-8 a year ago. That marked the third straight losing seasons for the Golden Hurricane, which was a combined 9-27 from 2017 to 2019.
Niumatalolo on Monday reiterated a statement he made three weeks ago when Navy was originally supposed to play Tulsa. That contest, slated for Nov. 7 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, was postponed due to a coronavirus crisis among the Midshipmen.
“I think they’ve always been talented. They’ve just had some hard luck. They’ve kind of been snake-bitten in some of their losses,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s not happening this season. They’re finding ways to win.”
Tulsa benefited from a blown call against East Carolina on Oct. 30 in a 34-30 win with the AAC announcing a day later that a replay official should not have overturned an on-field ruling off a fumble.
The Golden Hurricane have also displayed tenacity and resiliency, coming back from double-digit deficits in four of five wins this season. Tulsa’s 21-point comeback against SMU was the second largest of coach Philip Montgomery’s seven-year tenure.
Tulsa also overcame an 18-point deficit in defeating Central Florida (34-26), which was ranked No. 11 at the time.
Backup quarterback Davis Brin completed a 37-yard pass to Juan Carlos Santana as time expired as Tulsa forced overtime against Tulane.
Navy has had Tulsa’s number, winning all five meetings as conference foes. The Midshipmen have done well containing the high-powered Golden Hurricane, limiting them to 21 points or less three times.
Smith has completed 60 percent (98-of-162) of his passes for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns. Keylon Stokes (31 catches for 446 yards) is one of the top wide receivers in the AAC and considered an NFL prospect. Running mate Josh Johnson (32 catches, 408 yards, 5 TDs) has posted slightly better numbers than Stokes.
Deneric Prince and T.K. Wilkerson have combined to rush for 656 yards and six touchdowns for Tulsa, which has not been quite as balanced as season’s past. The Golden Hurricane are averaging 265.7 yards through the air and 164.7 on the ground.
“What they do on offense presents everybody with trouble,” Niumatalolo said. “They spread you out a ton and pound the football. If you don’t shore up the run game, they’ll keep pounding you. If you try to get people involved with the run game, they’ll get you on the edges.”
Collins is a leading candidate for AAC Defensive Player of the Year and Monday was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound redshirt junior has been a one-man wrecking crew in totaling 48 tackles, including 10 ½ for loss. He also has four sacks and four interceptions, two of which were game clinchers.
Numerous scouting services rank Collins as a high first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft if he foregoes his final season of eligibility. Niumatalolo believes the Oklahoma native is the best defensive player in the American and noted he’s bigger than most of Navy’s defensive linemen.
Niumatalolo marveled at the speed Collins showed in returning an interception for a 96-yard touchdown in overtime against Tulane.
“He’s huge, he can run, he can cover, he can hit. He’s a very physical player and he’s smart,” Niumatalolo said. “You definitely need to account for a player like that. You need to know where he’s at and be aware of him.”
Meanwhile, Navy needs to find a way to put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. The Midshipmen posted season-highs for points and yards at SMU but the defense was shredded during a 51-37 loss.
This past Saturday, the Navy defense was tremendous in holding Memphis well below its season averages for points and yards. However, the offense was a no-show in a 10-7 loss.
Navy is looking to upset a Top 25 opponent in back-to-back years for the first time since 2015-16. Last year, Navy knocked off No. 21 SMU, 35-28, on Senior Day.
A total of seven Tulsa games have been impacted by COVID-19 with two being canceled and five postponed. Due to circumstances, the Golden Hurricane have played just two home games to date.