Both the BYU Cougars and Navy Midshipmen saw opening-week rivalry games get scuttled because of COVID-19 related upheaval. The Midshipmen were set to kick off their season in Ireland against Notre Dame, while BYU originally opened up against Utah. The two teams filled the season-opening hole in their respective schedules by agreeing to this last-minute Labor Day clash. It offers what is likely the best game in a truncated week one slate.
Navy is coming off an 11-win season that culminated in a 20-17 victory over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. The Midshipmen engineered a remarkable turnaround a year ago, going from a 3-win team in 2018 to a Top-25 squad in 2019. Navy led FBS teams in rushing offense last season, churning out a school-record 360.5 yards per game on the ground and rushing for 52 touchdowns. The Midshipmen also totaled a school-record 4,687 rushing yards.
BYU sputtered to a 7-6 finish a year ago, capped by a 38-34 loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. The Cougars were the epitome of inconsistency in 2019. They scored upset victories over USC, Tennessee, and Boise State while dropping games to the likes of Toledo and South Florida. Season cancellations by the Pac-12, Big Ten, and Mountain West Conferences gutted BYU's original 2020 schedule, and the new eight-game slate promises to be more conducive to success.
The series is tied 1-1. BYU won 31-10 in 1989 in the most recent game between the two teams.
BYU at Navy
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: BYU -1.5
When BYU Has the Ball
The injury bug is already attacking the Cougars before their season opener. Senior tight end Matt Bushman tore his Achilles tendon at the end of August, costing BYU its top returning receiver.
Bushman's season-ending injury leaves the Cougars without any of their top four receivers from a year ago. Gunner Romney and Dax Milne will need to take the next step forward in their absence. Romney tallied 377 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 31 catches last season. Milne added 285 yards and two scores on 21 receptions. If some receivers and tight ends can emerge, it will help quarterback Zach Wilson bounce back from an injury-marred sophomore season. Wilson is 100 percent healthy going into his junior campaign, which bodes well for BYU.
Running back by committee will be the approach for the Cougars to start. Expect Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier to be the main weapons in the backfield. Katoa was BYU's No. 2 rusher last season with 358 yards and four touchdowns. He only averaged 4.2 yards per carry and will need to be more productive to take the pressure off Wilson and the passing game. Allgeier only rushed for 119 yards in 2019 after spending part of the season at linebacker, but he averaged 7.0 yards per carry. He has a chance to lock down the starting spot if he can duplicate that level of performance in extended minutes on the field.
When Navy Has the Ball
Replacing a playmaker like Malcolm Perry is never easy. That's the challenge facing Navy's offense this season with Perry now graduated. He ranked second in the FBS last season with 2,017 rushing yards and tied for first with 21 rushing touchdowns.
Dalen Morris takes over at quarterback this season after winning the job in fall camp. The senior started camp as the No. 3 signal-caller, but surged past Perry Olsen and Maasai Maynor for the top spot by mid-August. Morris ran twice for 16 yards last season as the No. 3 quarterback behind Perry and Olsen. He has played in just five career games, so his inexperience could be an issue while facing an experienced BYU defense.
Morris has plenty of capable runners sharing the backfield with him to alleviate the pressure. Jamale Carothers was the No. 2 rusher at fullback last season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry while churning out 734 yards and 14 touchdowns. Nelson Smith is another capable runner at fullback with 571 and seven scores to his credit in 2019. The duo is certain to cause problems for a BYU defense that routinely struggled to stop the run last season.
Navy is 5-0 in season openers at home under Ken Niumatalolo. All five victories came against FCS opponents. Opening against BYU offers a decidedly stiffer challenge. Still, if Morris can hit the ground running as the new starting quarterback, the Midshipmen will have an advantage. The Cougars inexplicably dropped eight on a regular basis in their defensive schemes last season and let several opponents run all over them at critical times. Injuries to key players on offense mean that finishing drives might be an issue as well. Navy is adept at chewing clock and yards on long-drives and could put BYU in a tough spot for four quarters.
Prediction: Navy 24, BYU 20
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.