Regardless, the loss dropped the Midshipmen to 2-2 on the season and 1-1 in the American Athletic Conference. They have a much-needed bye this week and then play, in order: at Air Force, Temple, Houston, Notre Dame in San Diego, at Cincinnati and at UCF.
That’s quite a gantlet; there’s not a lock win in the bunch. This is the danger of giving up independence to join what has become a solid conference. In 2014, Navy’s last season as an independent, the schedule included Texas State, Western Kentucky, VMI, San Jose State, Georgia Southern and South Alabama. The Mids went 5-1 in those games.
This year’s schedule includes Lehigh in the role of VMI. Tulsa’s not very good, and Tulane’s a disappointment, but neither game can be considered a lock. Life in a conference contains far less flexibility and few breathers.
In January 2012, when Navy announced it would be joining the Big East to play football beginning in 2015, I wrote a column saying I thought the move was a mistake.
Among other things, I pointed out Army’s disastrous foray into Conference USA and that an independent schedule had been an important part of Navy’s success under Paul Johnson and Niumatalolo. I also made the rather simplistic point that I didn’t understand why Navy would mess with success. At that time, the Midshipmen had claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy seven times in nine seasons, beaten Army 10 straight times and gone to a bowl game eight times in nine years.
Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk, who has pushed far more right buttons than wrong ones in his 17 years in Annapolis, said the move had to do with three things: scheduling, bowls and television. Gladchuk was concerned that it was getting harder for Navy to put together a 12-game schedule because fewer teams were eager to play the Mids, a perennially good team. He was also worried that with conferences having so many tie-ins, a good Navy team could get left out of a bowl. And, finally, being part of the Big East’s TV package would guarantee more exposure.
It all made sense — except it really didn’t.
Even when Navy’s good, it’s beatable. As Niumatalolo often reminds his players, “We’re the Naval Academy. We can’t take any opponent for granted.” He reminded them of that after their season-opening loss to Hawaii. That means teams always will schedule Navy — it’s a good name on your schedule, it’s a national school, and it doesn’t come to town with a dozen NFL prospects.
The second-tier bowls love Navy, and there are about a million of them to choose from. They feel the same way about Army, which is an independent again — and will never be left out of a bowl when it is eligible.
TV? It is almost impossible not to get on TV nowadays. Army has the same deal with CBS’s cable network to televise its home games that Navy does.
For almost two seasons, it looked as if Navy had made the right move and all my fears were unfounded. In 2015, with the football schools from the Big East forming the AAC, the Mids, led by generational quarterback Keenan Reynolds, went 11-2, including 7-1 in AAC play, with the only loss on the road to a Houston team that went on to beat Florida State in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
A year later, Navy stunned Houston and Notre Dame and went on to win the AAC West title, with Will Worth stepping in to play brilliantly when Tago Smith, Reynolds’s successor, went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the opener.
The good news was the Midshipmen had a chance to play for the AAC title with a possible trip to the Cotton Bowl — a New Year’s Six bowl — on the line if they could beat Temple and then Army a week later.
The bad news was that, instead of the traditional three-week break before the Army game, the Mids had to play Temple the Saturday before the game. Not only did they lose (badly), but Worth and slotback Toneo Gulley, the offensive captain, both suffered a broken foot on the same play.
A fluke? Absolutely, but it couldn’t have happened if Navy had the day off. A week later, Army rallied to beat the Mids, 21-17, ending Navy’s 14-game winning streak against the Black Knights.
A year ago, the Mids started 5-0. But after an emotionally draining 48-45 win over Air Force, their next six games were: at Memphis, UCF (which finished 13-0), at Temple, SMU, at Notre Dame and at Houston. They finished the season 7-6, just the second time in 15 years they failed to win at least eight games.
It will take a lot of work to be that good again this season. In addition to the tougher competition, Navy has eight opponents it faces every season as opposed to three in the independent days: the other five teams in the AAC West, plus, as in the past, Air Force, Notre Dame and Army. The last three have been on Navy’s schedule forever. The other five have been on it annually for only four years. The more teams see an option offense, the better their chances to stop it.
In their three previous conference games against SMU, Navy had scored 55, 75 and 43 points. On Saturday it scored 23 in regulation, two of those on a blocked extra point that was returned all the way. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Niumatalolo is about as likely to use the more difficult schedule and the burdens of playing in a conference as excuses as he is to coach a game standing on his head. Excuses aren’t part of his vocabulary.
But here’s a fact: One of the secrets to Navy’s recent success was the 4-4-4 scheduling concept Johnson insisted Gladchuk adapt. Four games that should always be wins; four games that should be competitive; four games that would be difficult. Once Navy got good, it became more like 4-6-2. That’s how the Mids won between eight and 10 games most years.
The jury’s still out, but the Mids are 9-11 since that conference-title game loss to Temple, including 5-6 against AAC opponents after starting 14-2. Maybe it’s just a brief downward trend.
Or maybe those games against Texas State, Georgia Southern, San Jose State and South Alabama weren’t such a bad idea after all.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.