Undefeated AAC West rivals face off in prime time on Thursday
The American Athletic Conference takes over the Thursday night spotlight for a second straight week, and it has another potentially good one on tap. Navy heads to Memphis for a key, early AAC West division battle.
Memphis has been and may once again be a perennial contender in the AAC, but the Tigers have had some trouble with Navy. Since the series started in 2015, Navy leads the series 3-1, including last season's 22-21 upset of the Tigers. Memphis is once again a favorite in the matchup, but it may be difficult to overlook what Ken Niumatalolo has going for them this year. Navy is looking to turn things around with the program after a downward trend in recent seasons. They will have their hands full trying to slow down a potent Memphis offense, but slowing things down is what Navy prefers to do.
Navy at Memphis
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept, 26 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Memphis -10.5
When Navy Has the Ball
With Navy, you know what the offense is going to look like. A healthy dose of option football for better or worse. Senior quarterback Malcolm Perry leads the option attack and is the one who makes the decision to keep it or pitch it out to Nelson Smith or CJ Williams. Perry comes into Thursday night’s showdown leading Navy in rushing yards and touchdowns, with Smith and Williams next in line in each statistical category.
Memphis brings the AAC's top-ranked defense into the matchup though. Although Navy will inflate the rushing yards allowed by Memphis just because that's what service academy offense will do, Memphis will feel good about their chances. Memphis has allowed 3.88 yards per play this season, good for second in the AAC behind Temple. The key for Navy will be to wear down Memphis up front as the game goes and hope to bring that average up a bit in the second half.
When Memphis Has the Ball
Since opening the season with a tough offensive showing against Ole Miss, the Tigers seem to have found their flair for putting points on the board. A week after scoring 55 on FCS opponent Southern, Memphis racked up 42 points on the road against South Alabama. Can they keep that going against Navy? History would suggest not because the Midshipmen tend to be one of the AAC opponents Memphis faces that has the best chance to slow down the offensive productivity thanks to eating up large chunks of the clock their own offensive style.
So when Memphis has the ball, it will be essential to maximize the scoring opportunities they may have. Quarterback Brady White has thrown three touchdowns inside the red zone without an interception, although he has thrown two picks between the opponent's 39- to 21-yard line.
Memphis also gets the job done on the ground. Last week against South Alabama, Kenny Gainwell and Kylan Watkins each rushed for at least 100 yards. Gainwell, a freshman, will be the main back (he leads the Tigers with 307 yards and 3 touchdowns so far) but the Tigers have multiple options ready to carry the football. Navy's defense has played against the run very well in their first two games, holding each of its opponents to fewer than 85 rushing yards. Of course, Memphis has the best offense the Midshipmen have faced in the first month of the season, so they will be tested a bit more this week.
It is difficult to truly suggest Navy has corrected their course for this season after a few steps back last season. The level of competition in the first two games hasn't been stellar, so this is a good litmus test for the Midshipmen. But Memphis appears to be on track with their offense and playing at home feels like a good advantage for the Tigers.
Picking Memphis to win feels like a pretty safe bet, but covering the spread may be a different story. Last year's game was decided by one point, and the season before that was a three-point victory for Memphis. And the two meetings before that resulted in double-digit victories for Navy. Picking Memphis to cover feels risky.
Prediction: Memphis 30, Navy 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.