Niumatalolo, Navy captains embrace 3rd-place prediction
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: July 19, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy has thrived on its seemingly perpetual underdog status over the years. At this time last year, head coach Ken Niumatalolo marveled about how the Midshipmen went from being ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll for 2015 to being rated in the lower third of Football Bowl Subdivision programs by several preseason publications going into 2016.
So it was no surprise to hear Niumatalolo and Navy's two team captains embrace being picked third in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference.
Media members identified Memphis as the team to beat in the West with Houston as the runner-up in the preseason poll released by the American Athletic Conference on Tuesday. Navy, which represented the West Division in the second AAC championship game last season, received just one first-place vote out of a possible 30.
"I know the media has to predict stuff as part of sports, but I don't really pay much attention to any of that," Niumatalolo said. "Bottom line is that you have to get it done on the field. This is a results-driven profession. I've never gotten caught up in preseason polls. My job is to get our team ready to play football games."
Co-captains Darryl Bonner and D.J. Palmore shrugged off the slight, having become accustomed to Navy being underrated. The Midshipmen were predicted to finish third in 2015 and were West Division runner-up; they were picked second last year and wound up as West Division champion.
"It's the preseason poll. They could have picked us last as far as we care," said Bonner, a senior slotback. "We have goals in mind and we're going to try to reach them, regardless of what anyone on the outside thinks."
Palmore, a senior outside linebacker who was named to the Butkus Award Watch List on Tuesday, said the preseason polls simply give fans and media something to talk and write about.
"People can say whatever they want right now because it doesn't really matter. It's nice to get some buzz going, some competition started," Palmore said. "I saw Temple was picked third in its division and that's the defending champions. So we don't take it personal."
Houston was the overwhelming favorite to win the West and capture the AAC championship last season. The Cougars, who are now under the direction of first-year head coach Major Applewhite, did not even reach the championship game in 2016.
Navy, which was picked to place second behind Houston a year ago, went 5-0 against the West and 7-1 overall in the conference — its only loss coming to South Florida.
"You can only refer back to history, and last year the team that was picked to win the division and the league was not able to accomplish that," Memphis head coach Mike Norvell said. "Right now, Navy is the defending West Division champions and Temple is the reigning American Athletic Conference champion."
South Florida, under the direction of first-year head coach Charlie Strong, was the overwhelming favorite to capture the AAC championship. The Bulls, who return 18 starters from last year's squad that went 11-2 and was ranked No. 19 in the final AP poll, garnered 26 of 30 first-place votes.
"When you talk about early favorites you always look at what teams have returning and we return a lot of talented players. There is certainly a nucleus there," Strong said. "Even with that nucleus, it comes back to work. You can be the preseason favorite all you want, but if guys don't have the right attitude and make the right commitment then you have no chance. Right now, I just love our overall work ethic and level of determination. Those are the building blocks to success."
South Florida, which defeated South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, was one of three American Athletic Conference schools to have its head coach plucked by a Power Five program. Willie Taggart left USF for Oregon while Tom Herman departed Houston for Texas and Matt Rhule was lured away from Temple by Baylor.
Strong, who was head coach at Louisville during the inaugural year of the AAC, was hired by South Florida one month after being fired by Texas. He inherits one of the nation's most dynamic quarterbacks in Quinton Flowers, the 2016 American Offensive Player of the Year after setting a single-season school record with 4,342 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns.
"It's very humbling and a great honor, especially considering where we came from," said South Florida linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who endured a 2-10 record as a freshman.
"At the same time, just because you are picked to win the conference doesn't mean you will. We have a lot to prove. There are a lot of teams in this league that can beat us so we need to go to work and show up every game. It's a senior-led team and not making it to the conference championship game last year has left a big chip on our shoulder. We're a very motivated team."
Memphis also boasts a standout quarterback in Riley Ferguson, who passed for 3,698 yards and a school record 32 touchdowns last season. The Tigers also possess a proven deep threat in wide receiver Anthony Miller, who amassed 95 receptions for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"It's a great compliment to our program and the players we have coming back. It's recognition of the job that has been done up to this point, but at the end of the day we haven't accomplished anything in 2017," Norvell said.
Houston, which received six first-place votes among West Division schools, has compiled 22 victories over the last two seasons. The Cougars earned respect for the American by upsetting Oklahoma and Louisville when both were ranked No. 3, but suffered three league losses.
"Let's wait till it gets to December. Polls and rankings that come out in July are kind of meaningless," Applewhite said of being picked second in the West. "As coaches and players, we know it's all about how we prepare and perform."
It speaks volumes about the depth in the West Division that SMU drubbed Houston 38-16 last season while Tulsa pounded Memphis, 59-30.
"We know how tough the West Division can be and how it's really up for grabs. I could say the same thing about the American as a whole," said Norvell, who succeeded Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) at Memphis. "When you look at the West, it's a phenomenal division because the quality from top to bottom is so strong. Most games are going to come down to one or two plays. There are going to be some highs and lows, but it's going to be a great challenge and a great journey through the league."
Norvell shook his head when told that Navy is relishing its underdog status.
"Navy is never my underdog. I've got the utmost respect for Coach Niumatalolo and his staff. They always put a quality product on the field," Norvell said. "Navy has been a consistent standard for this league."
Navy was hit hard by graduation, losing 14 starters (7 offense, five defense). Gone from the offensive side are proven playmakers such as quarterback Will Worth, wide receiver Jamir Tillman and slotback Dishan Romine. The surprising transfer of safety Alohi Gilman to Notre Dame added to the defensive holes that must be plugged.
Navy was riding high heading into December last season, having gone unbeaten in November while averaging almost 53 points per game in four wins, one of which came against Notre Dame. However, the injury-depleted Midshipmen limped to the finish — getting routed by Temple (34-10) in the AAC Championship game, losing to archrival Army (21-17) for the first time since 2001 and dropping a shootout to Louisiana Tech (48-45) in the Armed Forces Bowl.
"I think the way the season ended last year left a bad taste in our mouths. Losing the conference championship, losing to Army, losing the bowl game. ... those are the things that motivate you," Niumatalolo said. "More importantly, it's motivated our entire senior class. I could tell during the offseason that they've been really focused. I'm encouraged that our guys have been dialed in from January to July."
Niumatalolo, who is entering his 10th year at the helm, has compiled a 77-42 career record while leading Navy to an average of 8.5 wins per season. The Midshipmen have posted winning records in 13 of the last 14 seasons, with eight of those coming during the Niumatalolo era.
"It shows that our program is on the right trajectory right now. Some schools win nine games and are happy. We won nine games and feel like we could have won 12," Niumatalolo said.
AAC PRESEASON POLL
(School, total votes, first place votes)
1, Memphis, 169 (22); 2, Houston, 137 (6); 3, Navy, 128 (1); 4, Tulsa, 102 (1); 5, SMU 64; 6, Tulane, 30
1, South Florida, 180 (30); 2, Central Florida, 126; 3, Temple 119; 4, Cincinnati, 100; 5, East Carolina, 63; 6, Connecticut, 42