SMU and North Texas battled as non-conference rivals consecutively from every year to 2014 to 2022. But this year’s contest was different.
The Mustangs and Mean Green share a conference for the first time ever, as SMU’s final season in the AAC conveniently overlaps with North Texas’ inaugural one. So for the only time ever, this rivalry came with conference title race stakes, as SMU eyes its first and last entry into the AAC Championship Game.
That objective was made much more feasible Friday night as the Mustangs stampeded the Mean Green 45-21 in a battle between teams from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. SMU (8-2, 6-0 AAC) won its sixth consecutive game to remain unscathed in conference play, while effectively dropping North Texas (3-7, 1-5 AAC) from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2019.
SMU’s fifth consecutive victory in the series was a wire-to-wire effort. The Mustangs had been renowned for stellar defensive play all year long, entering Friday boasting the nation’s eighth-ranked yards per game defense. That unit set the tone from the opening kickoff, forcing a turnover on downs on North Texas’ first drive. But a different level of execution was unearthed in the second half as the Mustangs pitched a shutout until the final 90 seconds of action, allowing the offense to collect 28 unanswered points.
SMU entered the break holding onto a 17-14 lead but opportune turnovers quickly widened the gap between the two DFW rivals. An SMU scoop-and-score to open the third quarter was eradicated from the scoreboard after a booth review, but the Mustangs shook it off and just replicated the turnover two plays later when JaQwondis Burns scooped up a fumble by North Texas quarterback Chandler Rogers. The Mustangs cashed in for a touchdown three plays later and then followed it up with an interception to remain in control.
North Texas punted on each of its next three second half possessions. With two turnovers and three punts plaguing the offense, the Mean Green’s first five drives of the latter half produced an aggregate 15 yards. Ranking in the top five in the FBS in sacks, SMU’s immense pressure was one reason that impressive degree of separation formed on the scoreboard. Four different Mustangs registered a sack with usual suspect Elijah Roberts leading the charge from the defensive end spot.
Great defense transitioned to great offense, and SMU wound up with its third game of 45 or more points in AAC play. SMU faithful received welcome news pregame as quarterback Preston Stone returned to the lineup, despite an uncertainty in his status all week. The redshirt sophomore was knocked out of the fourth quarter at Rice last week with concussion-like symptoms, but he cleared protocol to make his 10th-straight start Friday. Stone wasn’t relied upon as heavily as usual — only throwing 20 passes — but his 11 completions traveled 234 yards and he delivered two first quarter touchdowns, one to Moochie Dixon and another to tight end RJ Maryland.
Pitted against the worst run defense in the country, SMU preferred to establish its offense via its running back room. Both Jaylan Knighton and LJ Johnson Jr. eclipsed the century mark attaining 129 and 106 rushing yards, respectively. Camar Wheaton added 51 yards as the third fiddle, putting the dagger in North Texas with a 22-yard touchdown scamper in the early fourth quarter. Overall, the Mustangs accrued 318 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns as a team, shattering their season-high in ground production.
But for North Texas, it was only the third-worst rushing performance allowed by its struggling defense. Both Navy (331 yards) and Cal (359 yards) exceeded that monstrous total the Mustangs backfield posted Friday night. The Mean Green are also last nationally in total yardage allowed and SMU’s 552-yard explosion should keep them holding on to that undesirable designation.
Despite cruising to a 24-point victory, SMU missed several opportunities in the early going — further proving its wide margin for error. In the first half alone, the Mustangs threw an interception, dropped a surefire touchdown pass, turned it over on downs, and committed a costly penalty on a North Texas field goal attempt which led to a Mean Green touchdown. But stout defensive play in the second half quickly turned SMU’s fortune, allowing the Mustangs to earn their seventh win by 18 points or greater this season.
North Texas is eliminated from bowl eligibility after losing its fourth consecutive conference game. The Mean Green challenged the AAC’s other contenders Tulane, Memphis, and UTSA to within one possession in each of the three previous weeks, but they concluded this grueling stretch with their first multi-score defeat since Week 1. Until this blowout in Dallas, North Texas had a positive point differential in AAC play at +10, but now that total diminishes to -14, in spite of its 1-6 league record.
As one of three AAC teams with an undefeated conference record, the Mustangs not only continue to eye a conference championship appearance, but hosting duties remain within sight. In order to set Dallas as the sight of the AAC Championship, SMU must rely on nationally ranked Tulane to drop one game. That is out of the Mustangs’ control as they avoid matchups with the other undefeated AAC teams — Tulane and UTSA. Still, there is one circled matchup looming on the calendar as SMU travels on the road to face 7-2 Memphis next Saturday.