Editor's note: On Thursday, Navy announced that Saturday's scheduled game with Tulsa had been postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases at the Naval Academy. The two schools will work with the American Athletic Conference to see if this game can be rescheduled.
Following Houston's home loss to UCF last week, there are just two American Athletic Conference teams still undefeated in conference play. One is a Cincinnati team ranked in the top 10 and vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The other is Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricane will put their perfect AAC record (3-0, 3-1 overall) on the line this weekend as they travel to Annapolis to face Navy. Tulsa rallied from 14 points down last week to beat East Carolina on a late touchdown for its third straight win. Navy (3-4, 3-2 AAC) has dropped back-to-back contests to Houston and SMU.
Navy has won five straight contests in the series, including a 45-17 blowout last season at Tulsa. The Midshipmen lead the all-time series, 6-1. A victory would give Tulsa its most conference wins since 2016.
Tulsa at Navy
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Line: Tulsa -10.5
When Tulsa Has the Ball
If there is an area where Tulsa is vulnerable, it's offensively. The Golden Hurricane rank in the middle of the pack in the American Athletic Conference in total offense and just eighth in scoring offense. Quarterback Zach Smith is experienced, but is largely a game manager. When he’s had to use his arm to make plays, however, he's shown an ability to do so. A senior, Smith has averaged more than 250 passing yards in conference play and is averaging a career-high 7.8 yards per pass attempt. He threw for 254 yards against Navy last season, but completed less than half (23-for-48) of his attempts to get there. Tulsa has done a nice job protecting Smith this season as he has been sacked just six times.
A veteran offensive line also has improved immensely in opening holes. The Golden Hurricane are averaging 4.5 yards per rushing attempt this season after grinding out an AAC-low 3.3 yards per carry last season. At the skill positions, running backs Deneric Prince, T.K. Wilkerson and wide receiver Keylon Stokes are the names to know. Prince leads the team with 279 rushing yards on nearly six yards per carry while Stokes is the top receiver with more than 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns on better than 15 yards per catch. Wilkerson, a 230-pound sophomore, scored the winning touchdown last week against East Carolina.
As for Navy, the Midshipmen have gone the way of their defense so far this season. In losses, Navy is yielding more than 43 points per game. In victories, opponents are scoring a little more than 25 points. Among AAC teams, no one gives up more points per game than Navy. The biggest weakness for Navy has been the run defense. The Midshipmen are allowing 5.9 yards per carry. Nationally among teams that have played more than two games, only Vanderbilt gives up more.
Against the pass, Navy has actually been better, but still leaves much to be desired. Junior linebacker Diego Fagot is the unquestioned leader of the Navy defense. Fagot leads the team with 53 tackles and owns three of the team's six sacks. Fellow linebackers John Marshall and Tama Tuitele also are in the midst of solid seasons. Tuitele is tied for the national lead with three forced fumbles. Unfortunately for Navy, it has forced just seven turnovers as a team.
When Navy Has the Ball
When Navy is on offense, there is no doubt what it will try to do. The Midshipmen under Ken Niumatalolo are annually among the nation's leading rushing teams. Last season, Navy averaged an FBS-best 360 yards per game, but that number has been nearly cut in half this season. Nelson Smith has been the feature back for Navy this season with a team-high 447 yards and seven rushing touchdowns on a solid 5.9 yards per carry.
Jamale Carothers, a junior, stands just 5-foot-9, but has the respect of his teammates. Carothers has 337 rushing yards this season after totaling more than 700 and 14 touchdowns last season. The Midshipmen finished with 388 yards on the ground in last season's win over Tulsa, but leading rusher and quarterback Malcolm Perry is now a member of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. His replacement, Dalen Morris, isn't as big of a running threat as past quarterbacks, but he is averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt.
The story of Tulsa's success this season has been defense. The Golden Hurricane rank second in the AAC to only Cincinnati in total and scoring defense this season. Tulsa ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense and much of that is due to its ability to stop the run. That spells bad news for Navy as opponents manage just 3.5 yards per carry, less than 130 yards per game, and have scored just three rushing touchdowns against Tulsa this season. The Golden Hurricane held All-American Chuba Hubbard to just 2.8 yards per carry in the season opener against Oklahoma State.
Defensive tackle Anthony Goodlow is a load on the interior of the defensive line, but linebacker Zaven Collins may be one of the best defensive players in the country. Collins has 28 tackles this season to go along with three sacks, two interceptions, and a pair of fumble recoveries, all team highs. At 260 pounds, Collins is a phenomenal athlete. Sophomore safety Kendarin Ray is a hard hitter who leads the team with 31 total tackles.
As long as Tulsa doesn't commit costly mistakes, Saturday's matchup at Navy is an extremely favorable one. Although the defense wasn't at its best last week against East Carolina, the Golden Hurricane have shut down the run this season. They should be able to slow Navy's triple-option attack on Saturday and the Midshipmen probably aren’t good enough to consistently make plays through the air. Zach Smith and the Tulsa offense have a way of doing just enough.
Prediction: Tulsa 34, Navy 16
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
(T.K. Wilkerson photo courtesy of @TulsaFootball)