Rick Bouch examines NAVY Football’s entrance into the American Athletic Conference
Navy Midshipmen guard Jake Zuzek (64) leads the team out before the game against the San Diego State Aztecs in the 2014 Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
(C+P) — For 134 years, the Naval Academy football program existed as an independent. That all changes in 2015, as the Midshipmen are now a football-only member of the American Athletic Conference. It’s a perfect time for the Middies to enter the league, now in its second full year. With an explosive offense led by four-year starting QB Keenan Reynolds, Navy is a favorite to wind up in the inaugural AAC championship game.
Reynolds took over the starting quarterback job in the Navy triple option offense early in his freshman season. He finished that year 6-2 and is now a combined 21-11 as a starter. A year ago, Reynolds led Navy in rushing with 1,191 yards on 250 attempts. He added 23 touchdowns to his career total of 64, the most in the history of the NCAA by a quarterback. In fact, Reynolds owns the NCAA record for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season with 31, set in 2013. The 5-11, 195-pound senior is just 13 touchdowns away from the NCAA career record set last year by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.
The rest of the AAC will have a difficult time defending the Midshipmen, who under head coach Ken Niumatalolo have been to seven bowl games in the past eight seasons. Navy has won seven of the last 10 Commander-In-Chief trophies (in the annual series with Air Force and Army) and has defeated rival Army 13 times in a row.
While the offense revolves around Reynolds, it also relies heavily on the fullback. Noah Copeland has graduated, but Navy returns 6-1, 245-pound Chris Swain, who rushed for 693 yards (6.7 yards per carry) last year. Swain will play a big part in how successful the Navy offense is this year. The Middies rushed for 338.1 yards per game, good for second in the nation, in 2014. Niumatalolo expects that to continue.
Where Navy finishes in the AAC West Division will depend upon a defense that is known for its ability to defend against the big play. Navy gave up 39 plays of 20 yards or greater, good enough for fifth in the country. The Midshipmen play an unconventional form of the 3-4 defense, and while they are not a dominating unit, they may be just good enough to keep Reynolds and the offense in football games.
Niumatalolo gets the benefit of the playing the West Division meaning Navy will get SMU, Tulane and Tulsa, three of the poorer programs in the nation. They will have to play Houston and Memphis on the road, and those two games could determine whether or not the Middies earn a trip to the AAC title game. Regardless, six wins and a bowl trip should be a given. The move to the AAC should help Navy continue its success as playing the league schedule will help recruiting in other parts of the country.