- Time and date: Saturday, October 28 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX
- Spread: SMU (-21)
- Over/under: 58
- All-time series: SMU leads, 16-13
- Last meeting: SMU 45, Tulsa 34 — October 29, 2022
- Current streak: SMU, 1 (2022)
Setting the scene
The World Series may be the main event Saturday night in the Dallas metroplex, but the morning kicks off with another local team seeking a championship.
The SMU Mustangs (5-2, 3-0 AAC) remain unscathed in conference play after dominating in the national spotlight last Friday night. They eviscerated Temple in a 55-0 shutout which is the fourth-greatest margin of victory in the 2023 season and SMU’s largest against FBS competition since 1978. SMU has never qualified for the AAC Championship Game, but the opportunity to buck that trend before departing the conference is certainly on the table with a manageable schedule remaining.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane (3-4, 1-2 AAC) are riding a 2-game losing streak after a solid start to the Kevin Wilson era. In its last outing, a favored Tulsa dropped a home game in 42-10 fashion to Rice, getting dominated in almost every facet of the game. As wins become more critical for bowl eligibility purposes, the Golden Hurricane desperately seek a get-right game in what could be a signature victory for the program.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane outlook
Last Thursday night is certainly a game Tulsa would like to keep in the rearview. The Golden Hurricane were marred out of the gate by three first quarter turnovers and a turnover on downs, providing Rice a 14-0 advantage that would only augment as the night progressed. In addition to losing the turnover battle in lopsided fashion, Tulsa struggled to generate a semblance of a passing game while Rice aired it out with ease, contributing to the 42-10 result on the scoreboard.
This isn’t the first time Tulsa suffered a loss like this in 2023, as the Golden Hurricane were subjected to similarly-sized defeats to current top six teams Oklahoma and Washington. Now, this team needs to show the fortitude for another bounce-back when facing a marquee opponent in SMU.
First-year head coach Kevin Wilson has long been renowned for his rushing attacks, and that remains the case at his latest stop. Tulsa ranks 29th in the FBS in rushing yards generated per game and that is the foundation of this offense. Anthony Watkins is the bellcow back with a team-high 396 yards on the year, while Jordan Ford and Bill Jackson are also staples in the backfield rotation.
Tulsa rotates quarterbacks between Braylon Braxton and Cardell Williams depending on the situation. Braxton is the Golden Hurricane’s preferred option when trying to promote the run, while Williams displays the greater passing stats. Braxton averages 6.9 yards per rush and his adept at avoiding sacks, but SMU typically counters mobile quarterbacks well. The only one to post at least 40 rushing yards on the Mustangs this year is Charlotte’s Jalon Jones, who attained 55.
Williams has been the most frequent starter this year as he opens up the aerial game more, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt on a 59.5 completion rate. But Tulsa rarely attempts more than 20 passes per game, and SMU’s passing defense is one of the most stellar in the country, so keeping the ball relatively grounded is the likely strategy.
Subject to three blowout losses this year, Tulsa is situated at 110th nationally in scoring defense and total defense. Generating pressure is one element the Golden Hurricane lack which often contributes to these lopsided showings. They’ve produced nine sacks through seven games and when calculating the average, it’s one of the 15 lowest sack rates in the country. Still, there is one name SMU’s offensive line must emphasize in film study and that’s edge rusher Ben Kopenski. The Oklahoma State transfer is responsible for 4.5 of those nine sacks, and he offers a bevy of moves to get to the quarterback.
In the secondary, Jaise Oliver has been the standout this year with a team-high three interceptions. The strong safety is the polymath of the defense, checking in at third in tackles (two games removed from an 11-tackle performance at Florida Atlantic) and first in pass breakups at five. Some brushing up needs to be done on the back end though as Tulsa ranks eighth-to-last in passing defense — although facing quarterbacks like Michael Penix Jr., Dillon Gabriel, and JT Daniels certainly contribute to that ranking.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU needed a performance like the one it unleashed in Philadelphia to prove its mettle as an AAC title contender. The Mustangs beat opponents like Louisiana Tech and East Carolina by at least three touchdowns, but last Friday’s Temple game was the first time they went full throttle and annihilated an opponent in a complete showing.
Almost nothing went wrong for Rhett Lashlee’s team. The Mustangs’ defense showed up by limiting the Owls to 0-of-14 on third and fourth downs. They suffocated Temple at the line of scrimmage to 24 rushing yards on 25 attempts. And there was greater probability of a coin showing tails than Temple completing a pass, as SMU forced the Owls to a 13-of-29 showing. Then offensively, the Mustangs dropped 55 points in a season-high passing performance while converting 10-of-15 third downs — their first 40-point outing against an FBS team all year.
Replicating that performance on a weekly basis won’t occur, especially as the competition ramps up, but SMU can build on many positive happenings from the road trip to Temple. For one, it was a massive confidence booster for first-year starter Preston Stone, who tied his career-high with 300 yards passing, adding two touchdowns without an interception. SMU’s offense attempts a bevy of medium to long passes, so the completion rate naturally won’t be high, but Stone demonstrated more efficiency than usual against Temple, and that could be a positive sign of his growth going forward.
SMU won’t attack opponents through the air with one formidable option at receiver, but there are many skill position players capable of making an imprint on the Tulsa defense. Ten different targets caught a pass last week and eight different Mustangs currently boast between 144 and 294 yards receiving. Jake Bailey, Jordan Kerley, and Jordan Hudson are the leading receivers, but SMU incorporates plenty of tight end into the mix. Tight end RJ Maryland is tied for the team-lead in touchdowns and features 21 receptions and 220 receiving yards in a stellar campaign.
The Mustangs exhibit an impressive balance on offense, showing a remarkable ability to run the ball. SMU’s backfield is a haven for transfers, where former Miami (FL) standout Jaylan Knighton is the primary option with 77 attempts and 422 yards. Texas A&M transfer LJ Johnson Jr. and Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton get substantial reps out of the backfield as well, serving as key cogs in the country’s 34th ranked offense.
But SMU’s defense is even more powerful than its offense for once. The Mustangs are one of 12 teams to produce an FBS shutout this year, and they are loaded in every position group. One year after fielding the the nation’s 119th ranked scoring defense, SMU is ninth in points allowed per game at 14.6 — even limiting Oklahoma to 28 back in Week 2. And it’s pick your poison against this unit led by coordinator Scott Symons. The run defense is 29th in the FBS, while the pass defense is 12th.
Led by Elijah Roberts, Elijah Chatman, and a stout defensive line, SMU is tied for 11th overall in sacks per game. That pressure works well with the coverage to force an opponent completion percentage of 57.6. And while the Mustangs lack interceptions — generating just four on the season — they are coverage specialists, and three different defensive backs have at least five pass breakups on the season. The headliner is Stanford transfer Jonathan McGill, who also has 31 tackles from the safety position.
This matchup does not favor Tulsa.
After 27 combined points in their last two AAC contests, the Golden Hurricane are attempting to establish an offense against the league’s unquestionable No. 1 defense. Tulsa wants to run the ball and SMU’s front does not make that easy for any opponent. And the Golden Hurricane’s passing game is not a favorable matchup against an SMU team which completely cuts off the air on a weekly basis. Even Big 12 opponents Oklahoma and TCU dealt with a fair share of offensive struggles before pushing past the Mustangs in the second half.
Meanwhile, SMU presents a capable passing attack against a Tulsa defense fresh off allowing over 330 to Rice. The Mustangs aren’t as explosive nor reliant on the air as the Owls, but Preston Stone appears to be on a promising trajectory, and he’s assisted by exceptional depth at the skill positions, as well as a sturdy offensive line which rarely surrenders sacks.
SMU shouldn’t have an issue collecting its sixth win of 18 or more points this year.
Prediction: SMU 41, Tulsa 14