Navy football now focuses on winning record, beating Army
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: November 20, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — For the Navy football program, this season has come down to accomplishing two remaining goals: Winning season. Beating Army.
Actually, achieving the latter would clinch the former as a victory over the archrival on Dec. 9 in Philadelphia would guarantee the Midshipmen finish no worse than 7-6.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said before the season that Navy had two major goals with reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and capturing the American Athletic Conference championship ranking as 1 and 1A.
Memphis clinched the West Division of the American by beating SMU on Saturday, so that goal is gone. Navy can secure runner-up status in the West by beating Houston on Friday at TDECU Stadium.
That in itself would be a tremendous accomplishment as Navy has already finished in a tie for first place (2015) and as West Division champ (2016) since joining the American. A runner-up finish this season would further establish the Midshipmen as an annual contender for the AAC championship.
In that respect, Friday’s contest does have relevance as every school’s final position in the American Athletic Conference standings does matter.
However, in the grand scheme of things, the final game of the regular season is what’s most important to Navy at this point. Army and Navy both beat Air Force this season, so the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy will be on the line the second Saturday in December at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Army and Navy last played for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 2012. It also happened in 2005. Prior to that, the trophy was last on the line during the Army-Navy game way back in 1996.
This may be the best Army football team since 1996, which was the last time the West Point contingent captured the CIC Trophy. The Black Knights boast an 8-3 record with a 21-0 shutout of Air Force being the highlight. Army also defeated Temple, which turned around and beat Navy in its next game.
Head coach Jeff Monken has done a tremendous job of rebuilding Army during his four-year tenure, leading the team to consecutive eight-win seasons capped by bowl berths. As an independent, the Black Knights have been playing a pretty weak schedule in recent years, but that makes sense for a program that managed just one winning season from 1997 through 2015.
This year, Army owns wins over opponents such as Fordham, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Rice. The Black Knights are now off for three weeks after losing a shootout with North Texas, 52-49, on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Navy stands at 6-4 after falling just short at No. 8 Notre Dame, 24-17, on Saturday. The Midshipmen must win at least one more game to avoid suffering just their second losing season since 2003.
Many pundits have the Midshipmen meeting an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in the Military Bowl on Dec. 28 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Playing a postseason contest in its own stadium for the second time in three years cannot be very attractive for the Navy players, especially the seniors.
However, it is looking more and more like a distinct possibility, since the American Athletic Conference works in conjunction with its bowl partners to create the best matchups that make sense in terms of travel and geography. You can be darn sure that Military Bowl organizers would love to land Navy to basically guarantee a successful game.
A dream matchup for the Military Bowl would be Navy against Georgia Tech in a showdown of triple-option practitioners and the first meeting between teacher and pupils. Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper are both disciples of Paul Johnson, the former Navy head coach who is now in his 10th year at Georgia Tech.
However, Georgia Tech currently stands at 5-5 and must win its season-ending rivalry game against Georgia to become bowl-eligible. The Yellow Jackets are coming off a surprising loss to Duke, which had dropped six straight, including a loss to Army.
Military Bowl executive director Steve Beck would be just as happy with a Navy-Virginia border battle as that also would attract a good crowd to Annapolis. Virginia, which came close to upsetting Miami on Saturday, is 6-5 heading into next Friday’s rivalry game against Virginia Tech.
No matter how you slice it, Navy’s remaining schedule is challenging with a road game against a strong Houston squad (6-4) that handed South Florida its only loss, the annual showdown with arguably the best Army team in two decades and a postseason matchup with a quality opponent.
It is not inconceivable the Midshipmen could finish on a four-game losing streak to finish 6-7, although I have a hard time envisioning such a thing happening to a Niumatalolo-led club. However, Navy did close out last season with three straight losses, having its 14-game winning streak over Army snapped.
Of course, the best case scenario is that Navy plays its best football down the stretch and winds up with a 9-4 record. That would mark the ninth time since 2004 the Midshipmen have posted nine or 10 wins, a remarkable display of excellence.
©2017 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)
Visit The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) at www.hometownannapolis.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.