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Navy faces defining stretch that starts with Memphis

Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire

Navy upset the defending AAC champion Houston two weeks ago at a time when the Cougars were unbeaten and ranked No. 6 in the nation. Houston was the only AAC team to beat Navy a year ago.

The Midshipmen are ranked No. 24 by AP and No. 25 by USA Today, marking the first time Navy has been ranked in both polls in back-to-back seasons since 1978 and 1979.

With a midseason win over the team to beat, it should be smooth sailing for the Midshipmen the rest of the way toward winning the AAC West title, right? Not so fast, to paraphrase Lee Corso.

Houston may be out of the way, but Navy (4-1, 3-0 AAC West) faces a tough stretch to win a conference title in only its second year of AAC membership. It starts with Memphis (5-1, 2-0 AAC West) Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Navy and Memphis control their own destiny as the last two teams in the AAC West with unbeaten records.

After Memphis, Navy has a cross-division game with AAC East leader South Florida (6-1, 3-0 AAC East) followed by Tulsa (4-2, 1-1 AAC West). In between is a non-conference games against Notre Dame (2-4), a tough opponent regardless of the down season the Irish are experiencing.

Navy finishes with East Carolina (2-4, 0-2 AAC East) on Nov. 19 in a makeup from the Oct. 13 date that was postponed due to Hurricane Matthew and SMU (2-4, 0-2 AAC West).

Memphis faces a tougher road. The Tigers still have to play Tulsa, SMU, South Florida, Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3 AAC East) and Houston (6-1, 3-1 AAC West) in the regular-season finale.

Memphis is more likely to lose two conference games before the end of the season than Navy. That’s trouble for Houston. The only way the Cougars can get back in the race to win the West to advance to the American Conference Championship game is if Navy drops two of its final five conference games.

Navy’s current run to back-to-back seasons in the Top 25 began with a 45-20 win over No. 15 Memphis last year at the Tigers’ field, the Liberty Bowl. Now it’s Memphis that is unranked despite a winning record, although the Tigers have 14 points in the USA Today poll to equal No. 34.

Memphis outranks Navy in NCAA stats such as total offense and scoring. The Tigers are No. 46 in total offense (438.3) and Navy No. 81 (392.0). Memphis is No. 6 in points per game (40.2) and Navy 52nd (32.2).

But Navy, despite the triple-option’s grind-it-out reputation, showed in the upset of Houston the Midshipmen can outscore a wide-open spread offense.

One reason is despite Navy’s passing game that averages only 129.6 yards per game to rank 123rd in the nation, the catches have gone for big gains that average 18.5 The Midshipmen are led by Jamir Tillman, a 6-foot-4, 212-pound senior, with 18 catches for 271 yards. He averages 15.1 with a long of 47.

No one else has more than three receptions, but of the five with three or two catches, their long receptions are impressive: Toneo Gulley, 57; Calvin Cass Jr, 45; Brandon Colson, 42; Dishan Romine, 30; Darryl Bonner, 25; and Taylor Jackson, 21.

Memphis has avoided a drop-off despite losing former head coach Josh Fuente to Virginia Tech and former quarterback Paxton Lynch to the NFL as a first-round pick by the Denver Broncos. New head coach Mike Norvell arrived from Arizona State, where he served as offensive coordinator.

Quarterback Riley Ferguson, a 6-4, 210-pound junior college transfer, has two 300-yard passing games and one 295-yarder. He is 129-of-197 passing for 1,596 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. Wide receiver Phil Mayue has caught passes in 22 straight games.

The Tigers lead the nation in takeaways with 18. Memphis has scored 58 points off of turnovers.
Placekicker Jake Elliott is the school’s all-time scoring leader. He has booted 70 field goals with 10 from 50 yards or more. He has hit all 171 PATs in his career.

Navy-Memphis is a tough matchup, but the AAC West race isn’t necessarily over with Saturday’s winner.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter @shanny4055

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