The big winner in Army’s convincing 23-3 victory in Denver over Air Force?
Of course, that was Army, for several reasons.
Yet beyond Army, the biggest winner could be the American Athletic Conference. And the second may be Liberty.
We’ll get to that in a bit, but first up, this was a season-altering win for Army, even though just three games remain.
First off, Army is now in the driver’s seat to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy which goes to the winner of the annual round-robin competition between the service academies.
That is a big deal.
The champion earns a trip to the White House.
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Air Force is 1-1, having beaten Navy 17-6. Army would clinch the trophy with a win over Navy on Dec. 9.
If Army loses to Navy, there would be a three-way tie, but Air Force would retain the trophy since the Falcons won it in 2022.
In addition, Army (3-6) hopes to gain momentum after snapping a five-game losing streak. The Black Knights face FCS Holy Cross and surging Coastal Carolina at home and then meet Navy in Foxborough, Mass.
There was very little to suggest that Army would be the team to hand Air Force its first defeat and snap the Falcons’ 13-game win streak dating back to last year. Army was coming off a 21-14 loss to UMass (3-7) which had been shellacked by Penn State, 63-0 in its previous game. Before the loss to UMass, Army suffered a 62-0 defeat at LSU.
Contrast that with Air Force, which entered the game 8-0, one of eight undefeated FBS teams, and was an 18.5-point favorite.
Led by LB Leo Lowin, who had 12 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery, Army forced six turnovers, four fumbles, and two interceptions.
Before the loss, Air Force was the second highest-ranked G5 team in the inaugural College Football Playoff Poll, one spot behind Tulane at No. 25.
Had the Falcons gone undefeated, which would include winning the Mountain West Conference Championship, they could have made a real argument for the New Year’s Six bid.
Now losing to Army might be too difficult of an obstacle to overcome.
That brings us to the AAC, which has earned seven of the nine New Year’s Six bowl bids.
The AAC currently has three teams with 5-0 conference records – Tulane, SMU, and UTSA.
Tulane is 8-1 overall, with the loss to current No. 10 Ole Miss (without starting QB Michael Pratt who was injured). SMU is 7-2 with losses to current No. 17 Oklahoma and TCU.
Tulane and SMU don’t meet each other in the regular season. If each wins out and then plays one another in the AAC title game, the champion will have a good argument for the New Year’s Six bowl.
Both SMU and Tulane should face serious challenges in the final three games.
Tulane is home against Tulsa, at FAU, and then home against UTSA.
SMU hosts North Texas, visits Memphis, and finishes at home against Navy.
It won’t be easy for both to stay unbeaten, but it’s not impossible either.
Then there is UTSA, which is 6-3, with road losses at Houston and Tennessee and a home defeat to – Army. (It must be noted that UTSA starting QB Frank Harris missed the Army game due to injury).
Like Air Force, UTSA may not be able to withstand that loss to Army and earn a New Year’s Six bowl berth, even if the Roadrunners win the AAC championship.
UTSA has home games with Rice and South Florida before ending its season at Tulane.
Liberty (9-0) remains a candidate for a New Year’s Six bowl, but the schedule hasn’t been overly challenging. Still, if the Flames win out in home games against Old Dominion and UMass and at UTEP and then win the Conference USA title game, there will be an argument.
Teams like Toledo (8-1) and Fresno State (8-1) shouldn’t be counted out, but with James Madison ineligible for the conference championship due to its second season as an FBS team, the Sun Belt will be hard-pressed to contend for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
James Madison appealed the NCAA for full bowl eligibility on Monday. If the Dukes are successful, then the entire picture changes.
As things are now, the AAC is in a good position. A Tulane-SMU championship would be the conference’s best bet. Those two would have been contenders even had Air Force defeated Army, but the loss opens the door that much more for the AAC.