What an utterly fascinating 2016 season this has turned out to be for Navy.
In this respect, the whole of the campaign stood in stark contrast to Friday night's contest against the South Florida Bulls.
A 28-0 deficit after 12 minutes is a great way to take the intrigue out of a Friday night, be it in Tampa or anywhere else. The Midshipmen have endured a noticeable Jekyll-and-Hyde split this season based on home and road games. That, plus the short week of preparation, plus the disruption caused by the postponement and rescheduling of the East Carolina game, could not have given Navy the regularity and rhythm it needed against a USF team steaming mad after a poor performance against Temple.
This game was a perfect storm in the making. It became a perfect storm in actuality after 12 minutes. A 24-point fourth quarter did nothing to change the mathematical fact that Navy never had the ball when down by seven points or fewer after the game's opening minutes. The 52-45 final score was a classic case of window dressing, as opposed to a comeback attempt which was stopped short in a context of genuine drama. (The only drama surrounding this endgame was, as Brent Musburger is fond of saying, connected to "Our friends in the desert.")
Navy's trip to Tampa resulted in what one can call "A Trash Can Game." The label is readily understandable -- it's the kind of game that a coaching staff simply tosses into the trash can. There's no grand lesson to be learned. A bad performance coinciding with a motivated and highly talented opposing offense in a road game on a Friday equaled the kind of loss that was easy to forecast from a great distance.
The trash can has been filled.
What Navy must absorb is that this season has been dealt a fundamental -- and multi-pronged -- plot twist.
Anyone who looked at Navy's AAC schedule before the season would have concluded that if the Midshipmen were even remotely in the hunt for the West title after this just-completed USF game, they would be in good shape. Clearly, Navy has exceeded all expectations by going 4-1 in the league -- and 2-1 in the Houston/Memphis/USF triple -- but the new and emergent story line in this upside-down AAC season, one in which the Houston-USF title game won't materialize, is that the back end of Navy's AAC slate is becoming formidable right before encountering the Mids.
Did you see what Navy's three remaining AAC foes did on Saturday? SMU moved to 4-4 and scored 35 against the same Tulane defense which made life very difficult for Will Worth. East Carolina flexed its muscles and crushed the UConn team which came a yard from beating Navy in Annapolis. Most of all, Tulsa strode into Memphis and beat the Tigers by 29, exceeding Navy's 25-point margin of victory in the Liberty Bowl last year (45-20).
If one game on Navy's AAC schedule felt like a West Division title game two months ago, it was surely Houston. The odds didn't favor Navy, but purely from a logical vantage point, it seemed that if Navy could pick off the Cougars, it would have a real shot in the West.
Funny how life works out.
Memphis improved in the weeks before the Navy game, to the point that the Tigers -- had they defeated the Mids in Memorial Stadium -- would have enjoyed leverage in the AAC West race. When Navy handled that test -- and keep in mind, Memphis gave Navy a full battle on Oct. 22 -- the Midshipmen had reason to think the Tigers would then take care of Tulsa, giving them an extra cushion in the division race.
Not so fast.
Tulsa's 59-30 blowout marks the Golden Hurricane not just as a hot team in the weeks before a Navy game; that result very likely makes Tulsa-Navy on Nov. 12 the true determinant of the AAC West champion. Tulsa has already played Houston and Memphis and does not have to play Temple or USF. If the boys from Oklahoma beat Navy the Saturday after Election Day, they will likely win the equivalent of the AAC primary and move to the "general election" championship game on December 3.
Navy had to play Houston in what felt like an "all the marbles" game. Then it had to play Memphis under similar circumstances. Tulsa will be the third such example of AAC high-stakes poker.
Easing down the back stretch of the season? HA!
As an addendum, the combination of Navy's road difficulties and SMU's Pony-powered surge makes that Nov. 26 game in Texas (yet another visit to the Lone Star State for an AAC-flavored Thanksgiving Weekend) very dangerous.
Navy plays a game it always does -- and always should -- care about this weekend when it plays Notre Dame in Jacksonville. Expect a good bounce-back performance from the Men of Ken.
The new concern in Annapolis: What follows Notre Dame looks more imposing and threatening than it ever did before.
Navy threw its one Trash Can Game away against USF. Now comes the stretch of the season in which Navy's energy and precision can't be allowed to fluctuate.