- Time and date: Saturday, November 5 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: NFL Network
- Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX
- Spread: SMU (-3)
- ESPN FPI: SMU has 62.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 22-13-1
- Last meeting: Houston 44, SMU 37 — October 30, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
Houston and SMU produced one of the games of the year in 2021. Mustangs kicker Blake Mazza drained a field goal in the waning seconds which had the game on track for overtime, but then SMU decided to kick to All-American return specialist Marcus Jones. Jones raced 100 yards to the house for the game-sealing touchdown, vaulting Houston into the rankings and ending SMU’s undefeated season.
Now, the teams take the series to Dallas, where Houston remains alive in the AAC race after winning three consecutive matchups. The Cougars’ offense has kicked it into a new gear as of late, and they hope that momentum carries over on the intrastate road trip. Meanwhile, SMU hopes to improve upon its .500 record and send its rival off in losing fashion, as Saturday night marks the programs’ final matchup as AAC opponents.
Houston Cougars outlook
To usher in the month of October, Houston (5-3, 3-1 AAC) completed the largest fourth quarter comeback of 2022 by erasing a 19-point deficit in Memphis, and the Cougars haven’t looked back since. Due to a rough non-conference showing, Houston is not garnering the recognition of fellow AAC contenders Tulane, UCF, and Cincinnati, but in reality, head coach Dana Holgorsen’s team is a fourth down stop away against the Green Wave from a perfect AAC record.
Slow starts plagued Houston to start the season, and the team failed to build a single halftime lead in each of its first six contests. However, the Cougars’ offense took the necessary steps forward in the past two weeks. They constructed two-touchdown leads against Navy and South Florida, putting those opponents to bed rather quickly in a season that featured too many tightly-contested finishes.
Quarterback Clayton Tune is playing his best football of 2022, registering a season-high 380 yards against South Florida last Saturday and firing nine touchdown passes without an interceptions in his two outings since Houston’s bye week. The only time Tune saw a more prolific day as a passer was in the prior matchup against SMU, where he attained a career-best 412 yards through the air. In the win over South Florida, Tune 10,000-yard passing yards club — an exclusive club which features five active FBS quarterbacks. He looks to build upon that number against an SMU passing defense which ranks 52nd nationally, a vast improvement from its 124th ranking in 2021.
SMU learned the hard way last October that containing wide receiver Tank Dell is not a simple task, and it often requires multiple defenders. Dell dominated the first half and wound up with a career-high 165 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns when pitted against the Mustangs’ secondary. The First Team All-AAC receiver remains a force, ranking eighth in receptions with 60 and tied for second in receiving touchdowns this year with 10. While the Cougars seemed overly reliant on Dell to start the year, a new batch of receivers has stepped up alongside the star.
KeSean Carter produced 102 yards on seven receptions against South Florida, while highly-touted blocking wideout Sam Brown produced 86 yards on six catches. Even Peyton Sawyer took over a possession with three consecutive catches while earning his first notable snaps of 2022, allowing Houston to field a viable receiving corps in the absence of Matthew Golden and Joseph Manjack IV. The Cougars’ offense leans more on its passing game, so Tune must rely on receivers other than Dell to step up when SMU inevitably blankets the talented slot receiver with double teams.
Houston’s shorthanded rushing attack will be led by the duo of Stacy Sneed and Brandon Campbell. While Campbell has served as a top two back all season long, Sneed’s utilization is a more recent phenomenon. In his last two outings, the freshman has converted 30 handoffs into 160 yards and his first two career touchdowns. Sneed enters Saturday on a 5-game streak of averaging at least 5.0 yards per carry, so Houston hopes this trend sustains in order to keep the offense multidimensional.
On defense, the strength of the Cougars lies within the defensive line. Chidozie Nwankwo has elevated his play lately as the unit’s anchor, registering 16 tackles in his last three games — an exorbitantly high output for a nose guard. Nwankwo’s disruption in the interior provides more opportunity for Houston’s top two pass rushers D’Anthony Jones and Nelson Ceaser, and because of this talent up front, the Cougars rank ninth nationally in tackles for loss per game.
Elsewhere in the unit, Houston relies heavily on Donavan Mutin from the inside linebacker spot as the team’s top run stopper. And while Mutin has yet to contribute to the turnover game in 2022, the senior captain is more than capable, as demonstrated by his three forced fumbles in 2021. But the key position group needed to stifle SMU’s offense is the secondary. In order to counter Rashee Rice and company, Houston will trot out cornerbacks Jayce Rogers and Art Green to spearhead a pass defense which has improved the last several weeks. They’ll need to step up in place of Alex Hogan, who is out for the remainder of the season after recording an AAC-best 10 pass deflections through Houston’s first six games.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU (4-4, 2-2 AAC) isn’t exactly out of the conference race, but in year one of the Rhett Lashlee era, the Mustangs will need plenty of assistance in order to qualify for their first ever AAC Championship Game. They reverted back to .500 after dismantling Tulsa in a 45-34 shootout, but the win wasn’t without loss. Second-string quarterback Preston Stone, the program’s highest rated recruit of the 21st century, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the victory. Fortunately for SMU, starter Tanner Mordecai expects to return to the lineup per Joseph Hoyt of the Dallas News.
Mordecai is no stranger to lighting up opposing defenses, exhibiting four games with 300 passing yards and four games with at least three touchdown strikes this year. The senior gunslinger posted 305 yards and three touchdowns in his only previous start against Houston, and he’ll look to replicate those numbers against a Cougar secondary which ranks 98th in average passing yards allowed.
Mordecai operates with a deep receiving corps and seven different Mustangs have at least 10 catches and 150 yards this year. But similar to Houston, there is an overwhelming No. 1 target, and that is the FBS receiving yards leader Rashee Rice. With 62 receptions and 982 yards on the season, Rice more than triples the next closest SMU receiver in both statistical categories. He is fresh off a 180-yard, 2-touchdown masterclass at Tulsa, and the 6’2”, 203 pound receiver’s diverse route tree makes him one of the country’s most lethal targets in all areas of the field.
The Mordecai and Rice duo allows SMU to boast the ninth-ranked passing attack in the FBS, but the Mustangs must amplify their rushing numbers in order to kick the offense into a more dangerous degree. Injuries and other factors have caused SMU to switch its No. 1 running back on a game-by-game basis, and the likely candidates for that role this week are Tyler Lavine and Velton Gardner. Lavine’s usage has skyrocketed in recent games, posting season-best numbers of 72 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the win over Tulsa. Camar Wheaton exited last Saturday’s matchup with an injury, so Gardner — the team’s leading rusher with 277 yards on the year — should get plenty of burn in the backfield.
SMU’s 158 rushing yards in the Lavine-led backfield were its most against an FBS opponent all season. Like the Cougars, the Mustangs favor the air as one of 13 teams to average north of 40 passing attempts per game. Still, three of SMU’s four wins in 2022 featured 150+ rushing yards so it is essential to generate production from this element of the offense.
On defense, it’s been a mixed bag for the Mustangs. Last season, the team sent out a rather stout run defense and a struggling pass defense, both those facets have flipped through eight games this year. Even though stopping opposing running backs has been a recurring issue, SMU still shows plenty of strength in its front seven with one of the AAC’s better pass rushers. Led by defensive end Nelson Paul and defensive tackle Elijah Chatman, the Mustangs collect 2.5 sacks per game, and this is one advantage the team can establish against a Houston offense trending in the right direction. Another force to watch on the d-line is DeVere Levelston, who causes chaos up front with a 6’5”, 275 pound frame. Levelston recorded his first sack of 2022 in SMU’s last home game, and he’ll look to add to his career total of 8.5 this Saturday night.
While SMU’s pass defense has amplified the clamps this year, the Mustangs still hope for higher turnover outputs. No Mustang has more than one interception to his name at the moment, and the team has only picked off four passes total. For playmaking against Houston’s defense, SMU needs a strong showing from safety Bryan Massey. Last year, Massey contributed on special teams with a halftime kickoff return, and while he remains a threat on that unit, he also exhibits stellar zone coverage when operating in the secondary.
Another important defender assisting with the coverage this year is outside linebacker Jimmy Phillips Jr. While Phillips is more renowned for his work around the line of scrimmage with team-highs in tackles (46) and tackles for loss (6.0), the senior also ties for the team-lead in pass deflections with four on the season. Drawing mismatches on linebackers is typically ideal for a speedy receiving corps like Houston’s, but Phillips’ athleticism allows him to thrive in these matchups more than most players at his position.
There will be no shortage of fireworks when it comes to these passing offenses. Clayton Tune and Tanner Mordecai can light up defenses without issue, and wide receivers Tank Dell and Rashee Rice still churn out impressive numbers on a weekly basis despite defenses game-planning around them.
Both passing offenses will get the best of the secondaries. But when it comes to rushing offense and containing the run, Houston holds slight advantages in both departments. Given this edge, as well as the luxury of a stout defensive front, Houston continues its streak and emerges victorious on the road to put closure on the AAC rivalry with SMU.
Prediction: Houston 35, SMU 31