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Navy's all-time great QB vs. Pitt's defensive mastermind: Let the Military Bowl chess match begin

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Pittsburgh played Georgia Tech, which means the Panthers have been exposed a bit to this type of option. Of course, Navy's also been exposed to how Pitt will defend it. Dec. 28, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2015 Bowl Calendar

Pitt hasn't won nine games in a season since 2009. Navy hasn't won 11 in a season since ... ever. There are stakes, but perhaps the biggest battles have already been won: neither Pitt nor Navy appears to be losing its head coach this season! (Knock on wood.)

1. Saying goodbye to Keenan Reynolds

The last two performances of the year -- a three-touchdown road loss to Houston (which cost Navy the AAC West title) and the usual slog past Army -- may have been two of their worst of the year, but Ken Niumatalolo's eighth season as Navy's head coach was easily his best.

Per the Simple Ratings System, the Midshipmen fielded their best team since 1963; that makes sense since quarterback Keenan Reynolds might be Navy's best since Roger Staubach was a senior 52 years ago.

With Reynolds running the option and a top-40 defense executing Niumatalolo's bend-don't-break to perfection, Navy scored 44 points or more five times and held opponents to 21 or fewer points 10 times. Their only losses were to Notre Dame and Houston, they took down both service-academy rivals, and they went 7-1 in conference play in their first-ever year in a conference.

Though Niumatalolo spurned BYU to stay in Annapolis, the Military Bowl will still serve as a transition. Fullbacks Chris Swain and Quentin Ezell and slot backs DeBrandon Sanders and Demond Brown are seniors who combined for 1,724 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns this year. So are three of the top five tacklers.

But that's not who we're talking about. Since taking over as Navy's starting quarterback midway through 2012, Reynolds has rushed for 4,415 yards and 85 touchdowns and thrown for 3,875 yards and 30 touchdowns. Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon passed him on the all-time touchdowns scored list, but he now gets one opportunity to seize the record back. (His rushing touchdowns record is safe.)

We've seen what Navy can do when the right person is running the show. Ricky Dobbs led the Midshipmen to a 19-8 record in 2009-10, and Navy went 5-7 the year after he left. But the team is now 27-11 in three full years with Reynolds.

Pitt beat Georgia Tech, the team coached by Niumatalolo's mentor Paul Johnson, this season. But a) the Panthers allowed 376 rushing yards in the process, and b) Navy's offense graded out better than Tech's.

2. Let the chess match begin

The to-do list for any major program is 1) win games, and 2) if you've won games, keep your coach.

Pitt has done a decent amount of the former -- this is a program that is bowling for the eighth consecutive season and the 13th in the last 16 years -- but the latter has been difficult. Since dismissing Dave Wannstedt following a then-disappointing 8-5 in 2010 (one they didn't match until this season), Pitt hired Mike Haywood (and fired him days later due to a domestic assault allegation), Todd Graham (and lost him to Arizona State after one year), Paul Chryst (and lost him to alma mater Wisconsin after three years), and now former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

We don't know how long Narduzzi will stay (and he does have to replace offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who's leaving for Georgia), but if nothing else, he seems to have had a karmic effect. Narduzzi and Mark Dantonio helped Michigan State end a long string of bad luck and close losses, and in his first year at Pitt, Narduzzi inherited a program that was 35-53 in one-possession games over 18 seasons and won five of six such games to start 2015. (The Panthers then lost two, to UNC and Miami.)

A top-40 performance isn't rare for Pitt, but an 8-4 record is. And the Panthers pulled it off without star running back James Conner, who tore up his knee in the season opener.

Without Conner, Pitt has still managed a reasonably efficient run game with two freshmen, Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. The Panthers almost never gain more than about 4 yards, but they never lose ground, and they convert short yardage. That has taken pressure off junior quarterback Nate Peterman and a limited passing game.

Of course, never mind the offense. Against Navy, so much of your success depends on how well you defend the option. Georgia Tech advanced into Pitt territory on six of 10 possessions but lost a fumble and missed a field goal. But most notably, five of those six good possessions came in the first half. After halftime, the Panthers only allowed Tech past its own 35 once.

Navy is constantly adapting to you, but Narduzzi's defense is doing the same. It should be a fun chess match.

3. Key Stat: Finishing

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Navy -4
S&P+ Projection: Navy 33.7, Pittsburgh 26.9
Team Sites: Cardiac Hill, Underdog Dynasty (Navy)
Category Pittsburgh offense Navy defense Navy offense Pittsburgh defense
FINISHING DRIVES 4.6 (79) 4.4 (43) 5.4 (11) 5.2 (110)

This game will not have many possessions. Navy averages only 10.5 possessions per game (fewest in FBS), and Pitt averages only 11.8 (eighth-fewest). Niumatalolo perfectly applies underdog principles at Navy, and Narduzzi's a member of the Dantonio school of thought, which tends to be that an offense's first goal is to not screw over the defense.

Fewer possessions mean fewer opportunities for separation; they also mean every scoring chance becomes important. And while the averages are about the same for Pitt's offense and Navy's defense, Navy has had one of the best offenses in the country when it comes to closing out drives in the end zone. Pitt's defense has been one of the worst.

Assuming a similar number of opportunities for both teams, the Panthers will have to stiffen better than they have this season to pull off a slight upset.