College football teams chasing a third straight conference division title or more include the usual suspects: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Florida.
The exclusive club excludes Ohio State and USC, but it does feature Navy.
Yes, Navy. After 134 years as a conference independent, in 2015 the Midshipmen joined the American Athletic Conference.
The first year, Navy shared the AAC West title with Houston. A win over No. 15-ranked Memphis launched Navy to a co-title with Houston. Both teams finished 7-1 in AAC play, but Houston’s win over Navy gave the Cougars the tiebreaker to play in the conference title game.
Last year, Navy won the West outright. The Midshipmen beat No. 6 Houston to climb to the top, although they lost to Temple in the AAC title game.
Once again, Navy isn’t favored to win the AAC West. The Midshipmen were picked third in the AAC preseason media poll. Navy opens the season on Friday night, Sept. 1 at Florida Atlantic.
But Navy senior inside linebacker Micah Thomas, a second-team All-AAC pick a year ago with a team-leading 107 tackles, says the Midshipmen are unconcerned.
“Most people didn’t think about us winning the division, but we’ve proven we can,” Thomas told FanRag Sports. “We expect to win every game we play. We play with that mentality. Some teams doubt us, which is fine. If they play down, we’ll play passionate. We expect to beat them.”
Included on that list of teams Navy beat last year was Notre Dame. The Midshipmen rolled to a 9-2 record and No. 20 ranking until the modern era of conference affiliation conflicted with the historic Army-Navy Game.
When Navy considered the bold move of conference membership, it had to work around the college football tradition of the Army-Navy Game as the final Saturday of the regular season. That has meant a two-week break from the last regular-season contest until the Midshipmen and Black Knights meet. Across the nation, conference championships are played a week before the Army-Navy Game.
The only solution was the challenge of playing for a conference title before the Army-Navy Game. In these unchartered waters, Navy lost to Temple in the AAC championship, to Army the following week and fell to Louisiana Tech on a field goal as time expired in the Armed Forces Bowl. The three-game losing streak some took shine off the season with a 9-5 final record, but that says something about how high coach Ken Niumatalolo has lifted the program: A nine-win season was tinged with some disappointment.
Thomas, a 6-foot-1, 240-pounder from Cedar Park (Texas) Vista Ridge and a third-year starter, said there was a factor bigger than the AAC title game. The Midshipmen had a Thursday night affair scheduled for Oct. 13 at East Carolina postponed due to Hurricane Matthew to what was a bye week of Nov. 19.
“We played nine straight weeks, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” he said. “We have to be able to adapt and overcome.”
Academy players settle into routines at the same time they prepare for change, but Thomas admits this year already feels different to him.
“It’s surreal to be a senior,” Thomas said. “I remember freshman year; I thought it would never end. Plebe (freshman) year dragged but then it flew by. In the grand scheme of all things, it isn’t that hard. But sometimes you think about what it’s like for your friends in college with no responsibilities and we what have to do.”
Navy football players, like their brethren at Army and Air Force, often say the easiest part of their day is practice. Such are the demands of an education at the academically elite academies along with the military training.
Naturally, my minded drifted to wondering what service academy athletes thought of recent comments from UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. The NFL prospect contends college football and academics don’t mix well.
So I asked Thomas for his thoughts.
“I didn’t understand the comment when I read it,” Thomas said. “He signed up to go to college and play football; it’s not supposed to be easy. You’re not supposed to be given a $100,000 scholarship and not do anything with it. There is a purpose to being a student-athlete. I didn’t understand his comments, but he has a right to his opinion.”
Thomas shrugged off Rosen’s opinion as casually as the Midshipmen disregard not being picked to win the AAC West.
Following Tom Shanahan’s FanRag Sports stories on Twitter @shanny4055