The last time Navy football played in a major bowl game was when Roger Staubach, a future Dallas Cowboys’ legend, won the Heisman Trophy for the Midshipmen, took them to an undefeated season and they played in the Cotton Bowl against top-ranked Texas. Navy lost that game and hasn’t been back to college football’s biggest stage since. That was 1963. As they prepare to play in a conference for the first time in their history, could the American Athletic affiliation be the key to a New Year’s berth?
It’s certainly going to help. The AAC is one of five conferences (along with the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC) that make up the so-called “Little Five”, and the highest-ranked of these teams is guaranteed a berth in one of the six major bowl games played over December 31 and January 1.
Navy now has a path to New Year’s Day and they’ve been building towards this opportunity. The Middies’ football program has been growing in stature since 2003. Paul Johnson, now the head coach at Georgia Tech, started taking the Mids to bowl games and Ken Niumatolo, has continued in the tradition. Two straight bowl wins, including last year’s victory over San Diego State, have Navy primed for more.
The triple-option offense defines the Navy program and quarterback Keenan Reynolds is a superb orchestrator of that attack. Reynolds must make snap-decisions every single play—to put the ball with the dive back up the middle, to keep it himself and go to the outside or pitch it to the outside.
The system carries a substantial amount of risk and the Mids do turn the ball over. But it’s also much more explosive than your standard running game. Navy can be behind in a game and still get back into it without abandoning their system, as Notre Dame found out last year at FedEx Field when a seeming Irish rout got interesting before it was over.
Any road to a New Year’s Six bowl naturally starts within one’s own division. Navy will be in the AAC West, where Houston has emerged as an early favorite and Memphis is a contender. I like what’s going on in the Houston program and the way they run the ball and play defense. But anytime a game is going to be settled by who controls the ground game better, I like the Mids chances.
Navy visits Houston on Black Friday, November 27. The trip to Memphis, where Justin Fuentes has done a terrific job rebuilding a once-terrible program is on November 7. The schedule isn’t ideal, with both key divisional games on the road, but it’s manageable.
If the Middies can win the division, Temple is the favorite in the AAC East. This would be a great geographic rivalry, with Annapolis and Philadelphia so close. If Navy survives this, there’s still the question of looking outside the AAC and to the other four conferences. Other preseason favorites include Louisiana Tech, coached by Skip Holtz and Western Michigan in the MAC.
But the real elephant in the room for anyone aspiring to a New Year’s Six spot out of the Little Five is Boise State. The Broncos earned this spot last year and then beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Boise is the favorite to get the bid again, and I won’t contest that. But I also want to point out that San Diego State is considered a strong contender to Boise in the Mountain West…the same San Diego State team that Navy just beat last December…in San Diego no less.
Anytime you’re talking about one bid to go around five conferences, the odds are against you. But as one who likes the Navy program—I lived near Annapolis for four years and totally enjoyed the couple trips I took there to watch the Mids play Air Force—it’s fun to have a conference championship, and now a major bowl spot, as something to strive for. They’ve got as good a chance as any Little Five team that doesn’t play on blue turf.