After nearly shocking the college football world a week ago against UCF, SMU faces a must-win situation in order to keep its hopes of winning the American Athletic Conference’s West Division alive. The Mustangs (6-3, 3-2 AAC) will try to do so on the road against a team heading in the wrong direction.
After a 5-0 start, Navy (5-3, 3-3) has dropped three straight games, essentially ending its hopes of returning to the AAC Championship Game. The Midshipmen however, will be at home where they’ve lost just once this season. Navy is coming off an embarrassing 34-26 loss at Temple in which it failed to tally a rushing touchdown for the first time since 2012.
Speaking of 2012, it also was the last season that SMU finished with a winning record. The Mustangs could change that with a victory on Saturday. Navy, with a win, would become bowl eligible. Navy put up 75 points in last season’s victory over SMU in Dallas.
SMU at Navy
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Navy -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Navy quarterback situation
The status of Navy junior quarterback Zach Abey (above, right) is up in the air for Saturday’s contest. After suffering a concussion in a loss against UCF, Abey left last week's game with a shoulder injury. A big (6-2, 215) body, Abey is the focal point of the Midshipmen's offense, particularly the rushing attack. Prior to last week, Abey had run for at least 108 yards in every game. He leads the AAC and is eighth in the nation with 1,202 rushing yards, and his 13 touchdowns on the ground are tops in the conference too.
If Abey is unable to go, Garret Lewis will likely be called on. Lewis fared well as a passer last week, completing six of his nine attempts for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Temple, but he doesn’t have the command of the offense that Abey does and he isn’t as physical. For the season, Lewis is averaging fewer than three yards per carry (on 13 attempts). Abey is at 5.2. If Abey can’t go on Saturday, Lewis will have to find a way to be effective with both his arm and his legs.
2. SMU's aerial attack
While Navy will look to pound the football with its triple-option attack, SMU will look to get things done through the air. Since struggling in the opener, Mustangs quarterback Ben Hicks is averaging almost 310 passing yards per game. The sophomore has a fine trio of wide receivers to throw to, led by Trey Quinn — the nation’s leader in receptions. Quinn has 90 catches for 921 yards this season, but will look to atone for a big drop late last week against UCF.
In addition to serving as a possession receiver, Courtland Sutton, at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, is the Mustangs’ touchdown machine and red zone target with a team-high nine touchdown grabs. James Proche, a sophomore, is the big-play threat, averaging 21.3 yards per reception. Running back Braeden West also is a versatile player with big-play ability. SMU's receiving corps will face a Navy secondary that has struggled in recent weeks trying to contain the likes of Temple’s Frank Nutile, UCF’s McKenzie Milton and Memphis’ Riley Ferguson.
3. Justin Lawler
SMU's senior defensive end is one of the premier pass rushers in all of college football. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Lawler is the complete package as far as ends go. He leads the Mustangs with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss and actually ranks second on the team with 55 tackles. How Lawler performs against Navy however, will be a mystery.
The Midshipmen run a triple-option attack and rather than try to block the SMU standout, they could actually leave him unblocked and use him as the guy to read whether to give, keep or pitch. With Abey’s status unknown for Saturday however, Navy could find itself in more passing situations on third down. If Abey is unable to go, giving Lawler numerous opportunities to pressure an inexperienced quarterback does not seem to be a development that favors the Midshipmen.
The potential absence of Navy quarterback Zach Abey makes Saturday’s contest a true mystery. The Midshipmen are a very good team at home, but is reeling of late and facing an SMU squad that has a realistic chance of playing for the conference title. The number of playmakers for the Mustangs also makes this a tough matchup for a defense not exactly known for its athletic prowess. If Abey is able to go, Navy should like its chances. If he's ruled out, SMU must take advantage.