As the AAC season hits its final month, the clutter at the top of the West Division will begin to clear out Saturday evening when Memphis hosts Navy. The teams join Houston with 4-0 records in league play, so this game could be something of an elimination affair, since both still have to play the Cougars.
It’s no secret that this is a contrast of styles. Navy (6-1 overall) is fourth in the nation in rushing, while Memphis (8-0) is seventh in passing. This is the first of a string of important AAC games that continues next week with Memphis-Houston, the following week with Temple-Memphis and Nov. 27 with Navy-Houston. The winner of this one gets a big leg up.
Navy at Memphis
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Memphis -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Passing Fancy
Thanks to the sturdy arm and strong decision making of QB Paxton Lynch, the Tigers are almost unstoppable through the air. They face a Navy defense that hasn’t exactly been that tough against the pass, allowing enemy passers to complete a fat, 64.6 percent of their throws. Navy has sacked the QB only 11 times this year and has just four interceptions. It’s possible to imagine Memphis striking often and quickly against the Mids’ soft aerial D.
2. Ground Control
One of the problems with playing against Navy is that no team spends very much time practicing against the triple option, so devoting only a week to stopping an attack as successful and efficient as the Mids’ is often not enough. Making things even tougher is the presence of Navy QB Keenan Reynolds, who has rushed for 753 yards (5.0 average) and 13 TDs already. His next touchdown run will break the NCAA record for career rushing scores (77), which Reynolds now holds with former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. If Reynolds doesn’t get you, Chris Swain (582 yards, 5 TDs) will. They comprise a formidable tandem Navy hopes will key a big time-of-possession advantage that keeps the potent Memphis attack on the sideline.
3. Getting Their Kicks
Both teams boast strong placement specialists, one reason they have combined for a 14-1 record. Navy’s Austin Grebe has made 9-of-10 field goal attempts this year, while Memphis’ Jake Elliott is 14-of-16, with a long of 52 yards. Elliott has been the AAC’s first-team kicker the past two seasons and is certainly in the discussion for a third-straight honor.
When the AAC put Navy in the West Division, some scoffed at the relative geographical nonsense of such a move. But while the map may disagree, sticking the Mids in the West has created quite a compelling scenario, especially since the schedule maker decided to backload the games between Memphis, Navy and Houston. This is a biggie, with the winner taking a strong step forward.
There isn’t too much mystery with Navy. The Mids want to run it and confuse the Tigers with their motion, counters and pitches. Usually, option teams struggle with turnovers, but Navy is plus-nine in that category this year. Memphis is third in scoring offense nationally and has the potential to pile up the points quickly. Lynch has thrown just one interception all year and could well erupt for big numbers against a generous Navy passing defense.
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.