Team: Navy Midshipmen
2014 record: 8-5
Recap: Despite starting the season 2-4 through first six games—including perplexing losses to Western Kentucky and Air Force—Navy was able to reel off six wins in its final seven outings for its 11th year of eight wins or more since 2003.
Out of all the service academies, there’s no question that eighth-year coach Ken Niumatalolo has Navy in the best position to succeed no matter the amount of transition within the roster. There’s an infrastructure that is built to win games and compete against college football’s best (e.g. Ohio State and Notre Dame in 2014), and that doesn’t change as the Midshipmen join a conference—the American Athletic—for the first time in over a century.
But the Middies were outscored 129-92 in the fourth quarter in 2014, only winning the final 15 minutes in four contests. Improving those numbers will ultimately lead to winning more games, and to so, they will need to fix turnover issues (t-92nd in margin) and replace a lot of production on defense.
Key player: Keenan Reynolds, Sr., QB
You should already know this, but Reynolds enters his senior year as the NCAA’s record holder in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 64, which is also fourth-most in history by any player. His 23 rushing touchdowns in 2014 came in just 11 starts, and he has 16 performances where he finds the end zone at least three times. Reynolds is one of the most exciting players in college football, and is undoubtedly the most important piece to the Midshipmen’s roster.
Biggest strength: Wait for it … a deadly option attack
Here’s a shocker. Navy has ranked in the top six nationally in rushing yards in each of the last seven seasons, and 2015 will be no different. Returning to the field are several key pieces to an offensive unit that scored nearly 32 points per game (46th overall) last season, which would have earned it a respectable fourth-place finish in the AAC. But pair Reynolds against a conference that had six teams allow 160 yards rushing per game, and you can count on a third straight year with over 4,000 total yards on the ground.
Biggest weakness: Run defense
Navy faces questions with its front seven after losing four starters to a unit that already had an extremely difficult time stopping the run in 2014, allowing opponents to rush for 4.95 yards per carry (100th in NCAA). Depth on the line and at linebacker is a concern. If DT Bernie Sarra and LB Daniel Gonzales can’t step up and fill the holes, the Midshipmen’s bend-don’t-break defense could turn into a liability.
Most important game: at Memphis (Nov. 7)
Navy will need to beat either Memphis or Houston (preferably both, obviously) if it wants to compete for the West division, and with the Tigers reloading on defense, this might be the better opportunity.
Best-case scenario: 10-2 (7-1)
I don’t see Navy beating Notre Dame, and in-conference competition will be much tougher this season than it has been the last two years. Winning 10 games isn’t a stretch by any means and if they can sustain the momentum from the latter half of the 2014 season, the Midshipmen could be looking at their third 10-win campaign over the last 12 years.
Worst-case scenario: 7-5 (5-3)
Like I stated above, the defense could turn out to be a major liability. Last year, Navy thrived off a true “bend-don’t-break” mentality, finishing 9oth in yards per play (5.83), but 26th in opponent long scrimmage plays (21 of 30-plus yards). Ineffectiveness up front could put unwanted pressure on the secondary, and that might not bode well in a pass-friendly AAC. And if the offense continues to have turnover problems, it might not be able to compensate here.
Early prediction: 9-3 (6-2)
Navy is 10-2 at home with Reynolds under center, but 11-9 on the road or at neutral sites. If the Midshipmen can steal one from Notre Dame, Memphis, or Houston—all away matchups—then they will have a legitimate shot at winning the West (yes, the West) and appearing in the AAC title game in their first year as a member.