Earlier in the week, colleague Bart Doan sized up the coming clashes in the American Athletic Conference, the league poised to grab the New Year’s Six bowl spot in the Group of Five conferences.
Naturally, the prospect of a College Football Playoff berth also existed for the Memphis Tigers entering this weekend. They defeated Ole Miss. Other conferences such as the Pac-12 had already lost all remaining unbeaten teams. As it turned out, the SEC lost its last unbeaten team on Saturday with LSU falling to Alabama. The idea that Memphis had a shot at the No. 4 seed in the playoff was not preposterous. If the playoff is part of the conversation in early November, that’s going to attract a lot of attention.
First things first, though: Memphis not only had to win its conference to get its seat at the discussion table on Dec. 5; the Tigers had to win the AAC West Division first. September and October put Memphis in position to claim an elevated place in the college football world, but November is the month when claims are either strengthened or lost.
Would the beginning of a November gauntlet — comprised of the other three teams at the top of the AAC — bring out the best or the worst in the Tigers? Saturday’s game against Navy marked the first big test for this team, the preliminaries having been dispensed with.
The results could not have been worse.
Saturday was a day when quarterbacks in the Heisman top five endured very difficult outings. Hours after Trevone Boykin of TCU sprayed interceptions all over Boone Pickens Stadium, Paxton Lynch of Memphis could not throw the consistently accurate ball which had been his forte in September and October. The deep passes and quick strikes which defined coach Justin Fuente’s offense against the likes of Tulsa and Cincinnati were shut off by Navy’s defense, which — yes, it’s true — has been the stronger side of the ball for the Midshipmen for a majority of the season. Navy’s triple option, with NCAA record-setter Keenan Reynolds, gets so much of the attention in Annapolis, but Navy’s wins in the previous two weeks were built on the back of a defense which proved to be the team’s steadying influence.
If Memphis was going to take one big step toward division and conference titles — the stepping-stones on the path to an improbable but very possible playoff spot — the Tigers had to impose their speed on the Midshipmen’s back seven.
In that pursuit, Memphis utterly failed.
With Lynch missing the mark and Navy taking away the home run (much as Oklahoma State did to great effect against Boykin and TCU, it should be noted), Memphis turned to the running game at the start of the second half. The Tigers did score a touchdown to forge a 17-17 tie, but the game was not being played at their tempo or on their terms.
Navy, for its part, showed more of the diversity on offense Memphis surprisingly lacked.
After the Tigers did attain that 17-17 tie — briefly bolstering the idea that they would rescue themselves — their secondary suffered a total bust, allowing Navy to score a quick 75-yard touchdown and immediately regain control. In an instant, Memphis didn’t just lose a foothold on the scoreboard; it lost the psychological foothold it briefly established. As soon as the Tigers failed to match Navy’s touchdown and then coughed up a 40-yard run against the triple option, they never again mounted a credible threat. Dropped passes and fumbles on offense, combined with third-down failures on defense, led to a snowball-effect fourth quarter in which nothing went right.
Memphis wasn’t narrowly outplayed; the Tigers were bombed out of the Liberty Bowl stadium by 25.
As was the case for TCU, Memphis’s one bad night in early November took a season full of possibility and turned it into a season fraught with peril. Memphis still has plenty to play for over the next month, but the Tigers (like TCU) now face a season in which one more loss means the absence of virtually every major prize on the table. One more loss in the next three weeks will almost surely leave the Tigers without a division championship, without a chance to play their way into the New Year’s Six.
College football is a cruel beast, but it’s never more cruel than when one loss leads to a second loss the following week.
If Memphis can successfully regroup and beat Houston next Saturday, this season can still be everything the Tigers could have imagined.
If, however, this face-plant against Navy is a sign of things to come, Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch will not be able to forget this moment anytime soon.