Surviving the wide-open American Athletic Conference race is a tricky task.
One loss is survivable. Two can spoil the season.
That's the perch Navy and SMU sit on as they match up this week in what has become a competitive AAC rivalry. The Midshipmen visit the 22nd-ranked Mustangs on Saturdayevening.
Both teams lost last week, wrecking any plans for a smooth path to the AAC championship game. Getting back on the right track is on top of the to-do list for both.
For the Mustangs (5-1, 2-1 AAC), that means continuing to evolve with a reshuffled deck on offense. They are expected to again be without receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and tailback TJ McDaniel, both of whom were hurt in a win against Memphis on Oct. 3.
Without those two and against a Cincinnati defense that is as stingy as any in the AAC, SMU managed only 290 yards last week -- its lowest total since the second game of 2018 -- during a 42-13 defeat.
SMU coach Sonny Dykes didn't mince words about his team's performance and what the Mustangs must do to avoid a repeat.
"I was disappointed with the way that we played," Dykes said. "We just didn't do the routine things that we typically do that would've given us a chance to be at least in the game.
"I think we have to regroup, and we're going to have to play better against Navy or the same thing will happen."
The Midshipmen (3-3, 3-1) can relate.
In a 37-21 loss to Houston, the Cougars' fast-paced offense exposed some defensive problems for Navy. Houston junior quarterback Clayton Tune peppered the Midshipmen defense for 316 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Now the Midshipmen have to brace for a better passing attack engineered by a veteran quarterback who has been with his coaching staff longer.
SMU senior Shane Buechele, the 2019 All-AAC quarterback, has thrown for 1,926 yards and 13 touchdowns this season despite playing without Roberson the past two games.
Their struggles against Cincinnati notwithstanding, the Mustangs rank 11th nationally in total offense (517.7 yards per game) and are churning out 37.7 points a game.
"It helps when you have a veteran quarterback that is very steady and knows what's going on," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "He's very accurate and as good as any quarterback we've seen in years."
As much as the Midshipmen have their hands full with Buechele and company, there remains a pressing need for them to get their offense going.
Navy has generated only 288.2 total yards a game and its flexbone running game ranks just 31st nationally. Houston limited the Midshipmen to 166 yards on the ground, the fourth game this season in which Navy failed to top 204.
"We have to continue to get better offensively," Niumatalolo said. "We have to find a way to get better quickly."
If Navy can do that and manage to keep the game close, that bodes well. The Midshipmen's three victories this season have come by a total of nine points.
--Field Level Media