Cougars sink to underdog status after loss
Entering the season, the odds that the Cougars faced to crash the College Football Playoff were enormous as a Group of Five school.
Even in last year’s Peach Bowl victory, the team was considered a long shot to beat Florida State University.
After their breakout win in week one against the University of Oklahoma, who were then-No. 3 and seven-point favorites, the Cougars’ chance to become the first non-Power Five team to make the playoff seemed realistic.
The momentum started to build through the first five weeks as the Cougars dominated their foes and appeared to be invincible — especially heading into conference play. Then the United States Naval Academy Midshipmen made the Cougars look vulnerable for the first time this season.
The shocking defeat killed the Cougars’ chance to make the playoffs and could derail the season and the opportunity to repeat as American Athletic Conference Champions. It was the team’s preseason goal.
The Cougars now sit in second place in the West Conference and need Navy to lose at least two out of their remaining five conference games. Navy now owns the tiebreaker over the Cougars.
The team also needs to win their remaining conference games if they want to represent the West in the championship game.
Winning out will be no easy task since the rest of the conference knows that the Cougars are beatable.
Although no other team in the conference runs the triple option, many will replicate Navy’s game plan by attacking the Cougars laterally with sweeps and screen passes to the outside.
Senior linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser were sorely missed in the second level of the Cougars’ defense as the team struggled to make open-field tackles. There’s also no telling how long Bowser will be out with an orbital fracture from a scuffle with teammate Matthew Adams.
Adams was suspended during the University of Connecticut game.
Taylor is likely to suit up in week seven against the University of Tulsa, but head coach Tom Herman can’t be thrilled considering he’s had to bench two starters in back-to-back weeks due to team policy violations.
Going back to the game, it wasn’t just the defense that got beat, though. The Cougars played sloppily in all aspects.
On offense, senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. had an uncharacteristic game as he threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball once. Ward’s three turnovers cost the Cougars 17 points.
Special teams also made a couple errant plays, including an 85-yard kickoff return that led to Navy’s first touchdown and a roughing the kicker penalty that resulted in a game-tying field goal to close out the first half.
It is unlikely that the Cougars will have another game as bad as this considering the weather and their mediocre performance, but they’ve put themselves in an uphill battle to win the conference crown.
Before the loss, it appeared that the Cougars were a lock to at least make it to another New Year’s Six Bowl. That ship may have sailed, too.
The best Group of Five university automatically qualifies for one, which is the Cotton Bowl this year, and right now it is the Boise State University Broncos. Their remaining schedule is considerably easier than the Cougars’.
There’s still hope, maybe
Even if the Cougars beat the University of Louisville on Nov. 17, it will be hard for the CFP Selection Committee to put the Cougars high enough in the rankings to make the Cotton Bowl and then win the conference championship.
Regardless of where they finish, the Cougars will compete in a bowl game. Their plan, however, was to win the conference and leave it up to the committee to determine where they would play postseason.
The board will still decide the Cougars’ destiny, but the likelihood of them playing in a more prestigious bowl has now dwindled at Navy’s expense.
The team needs to stay focused, continue to treat every game as if they’re 0-0 and play as if they’re looking for their first win.
Following the loss, the Cougars’ postseason fate looks bleak, but they still has a chance to repeat if certain scenarios fall into place.
The team, after all, is used to being an underdog.