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Navy ruins Memphis's dark-horse CFP aspirations, boosts its bid for AAC title

Navy's triple-option offense propelled the Midshipmen to a 45–20 win over Memphis, the Tigers' first loss of the season.

Memphis’s chance of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff likely vanished less than a week after the selection committee released its first set of rankings. The Tigers lost 45-20 at home to Navy on Saturday to fall to 8-1.

With the Midshipmen in their first year in the American Athletic Conference, this was the first time Memphis had to face their triple-option offense. It showed.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team racked up 374 yards on the ground, including 108 and three scores from Chris Swain. Swain broke the game open with a big play in the third quarter when, on second-and-one with the Midshipmen leading by four points, the senior took a handoff from quarterback Keenan Reynolds, burst through the line and scampered for a 40-yard score. Navy scored two more times in the fourth quarter to seal it.

While Memphis had struggled defending the run most of this season—it entered Saturday ranked 61st nationally in Football Outsiders’ rushing defense S&P + statistic—the Tigers had been able to overcome that weakness by putting up lots of points. Stud quarterback Paxton Lynch did his part against Navy, completing 26 of his 42 pass attempts for 305 yards with a touchdown. But Memphis also committed three turnovers compared to zero from the Midshipmen.

Ultimately the Tigers could not overcome the combination of a minus-three in the turnover column and an inability to contain the triple option.

In the bigger picture, this loss effectively eliminates Memphis from the playoff hunt. In the first edition of the playoff rankings, released Tuesday, the Tigers were slotted at No. 13. To continue moving up, they would have needed to keep winning and hope teams slotted ahead of them—five of which already had suffered one loss—tripped up down the stretch.

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That wouldn’t have been an easy task no matter what happened Saturday: Memphis still must play Houston and Temple on the road, not to mention a possible rematch with the Owls in the AAC title game. And even if the Tigers finished undefeated, they would have been a long shot to make the field barring total chaos in the upper reaches of the Power Five conferences, especially after Ole Miss, the team Memphis beat for its marquee win of the season, lost to Arkansas on Saturday.

Still, a win over Navy would have kept the dream alive. To be clear, the Tigers still have a lot to play for. They could still win the AAC and claim a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five champion. But at this point, it’s impossible to guarantee a strong finish for Memphis given its remaining schedule. Can the Tigers’ porous defense slow down electric Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr.? And can they trade punches with a Temple team that nearly upended Notre Dame last week?

Any questions about Memphis’s path to the postseason must make mention of the team to which it just lost. By virtue of their win in the Bluff City on Saturday, the Midshipmen hold the tiebreaker over the Tigers in the AAC West and also face an easier slate of remaining games (SMU, at Tulsa, at Houston). Navy—now 7-1 with its only loss coming against the No. 5 Irish—should enter the playoff rankings this week and look like a strong bet to win the division behind Reynolds and a powerful rushing attack with which its conference opponents are not familiar.

In a sense, Saturday’s result should serve as a testament to the AAC’s strength. Though the loss ultimately could make the league less relevant come New Year’s Eve, that notion presupposes Memphis’s viability as a playoff contender. That may not have been the case irrespective of what happened in this game and in the coming weeks. Absent a legitimate threat to make the final four, the AAC still features multiple very good, if not great, squads. With Houston undefeated, and Navy, Memphis and Temple at 8–1, the top tier of this conference is a step up from that of the other Group of Five leagues.

Who is the best of the bunch remains to be seen.