- Time and date: Saturday, November 18 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium — Memphis, TN
- Spread: SMU (-8.5)
- Over/under: 66.5
- All-time series: Memphis leads, 10-5
- Last meeting: SMU 34, Memphis 31 — November 26, 2022
- Current streak: SMU, 1 (2022)
Setting the scene
The stakes are high.
The AAC Championship Game is a four-team race between Tulane, SMU, UTSA, and Memphis. The Green Wave, Mustangs, and Roadrunners are all 6-0 in conference play while the Tigers are 5-1 — losing to Tulane in the only matchup that has transpired thus far between those four juggernauts.
Saturday’s matchup between SMU and Memphis will only be the second of three meetings involving those four teams this season. SMU (8-2, 6-0 AAC) hopes to remain unscathed on the road in conference play, while Memphis (8-2, 5-1 AAC) aims to secure a critical tiebreaker needed to participate in the AAC Championship Game.
Memphis is searching for its first AAC title game appearance since 2019, while SMU is vying for its first one ever before it departs for the ACC this offseason. New Year’s Six stakes are also attached in this game, as the AAC champion has a likely track to a prestigious bowl this year.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU is playing the best football in the entire AAC at the moment. The Mustangs are fresh off a 45-21 Friday night win over North Texas where they eviscerated the Mean Green in the second half with 28 unanswered points. SMU collected its eighth win of the season and seven of those victories are by at least 18 points, demonstrating the degree of dominance the team has shown. The last time the team even trailed beyond the first quarter was the Week 4 loss at TCU.
The Mustangs posted 30 or more points in all six AAC matchups this year and allowed 21 or fewer in five of them. The lone close call was a 36-31 triumph at Rice in Week 10, but blowouts have become the norm for Rhett Lashlee’s team.
It’s a well-rounded bunch that ranks seventh nationally in scoring offense at 40.5 points per game and ninth in scoring defense allowing 16.4 points per game. Only undefeated College Football Playoff contenders Georgia and Ohio State share top 10 rankings in both categories with the Mustangs.
Last week, SMU received welcome news when quarterback Preston Stone cleared concussion protocol and made his 10th start of the season against North Texas. The health status of the team’s starting quarterback was certainly a concern, but Stone performed well in his return. He completed 11 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, although SMU primarily leaned on the run game against North Texas.
Stone has three 300-yard performances this year and two of them were on exactly 20 attempts. Due to the blowout nature of most SMU games, the Mustangs don’t air it out too often, and they’ve thrown under 30 passes in four of six AAC contests.
SMU presents a loaded backfield which carries the nation’s 28th-ranked rushing attack. Jaylan Knighton and LJ Johnson Jr. are the ringleaders of the unit, entering Saturday’s matchup fresh off 100-yard performances. Camar Wheaton is a more than viable third option in the rotation, and all three running backs are averaging at least 5.3 yards per carry on the season.
Other skill position players to watch reside within the receiving room. Wide receiver Jordan Kerley is out for the season with a torn ACL, but SMU fields six other receivers with at least 240 yards receiving this year in a passing offense which spreads the wealth tremendously. Jake Bailey has emerged as the top option with team-highs in receptions (32) and yards (414), but plenty of other downfield threats exist in the rotation including Jordan Hudson and Romello Brinson. Among the most frequented receivers is tight end RJ Maryland, who has 355 yards and a team-high six touchdown catches on the year.
SMU ranks 11th in the FBS in total defense and there’s no glaring area of weakness within the unit. The Mustangs are 30th in stopping the run and 12th in containing the air and opponents aren’t doing either task efficiently — completing 57.4 percent of passes and racking up 3.2 yards per carry. SMU isn’t an over-the-top turnover producer but the Mustangs produce routine stops by generating heaps of pressure.
Only five teams collect more sacks per game than SMU’s 3.5 and most of that pressure hails from the defensive line. Defensive end Elijah Roberts ranks first on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks while defensive tackle Elijah Chatman adds respective totals of 8.0 and 4.5. The dominant defensive line often swarms ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage and the team is tied for 13th in the nation in tackles for loss.
The secondary features a horde of ballhawking safeties, ranging from Isaiah Nwokobia to Jonathan McGill to Cale Sanders. Nwokobia leads the team with two interceptions on the year while McGill and Sanders combine for 11 deflections. With those three manning the defensive backfield, SMU limited North Texas’ top 15 passing offense to its lowest total since Week 1 last Friday. Memphis’ passing game should be prevalent on Saturday so SMU must remain true to its coverage in order to pull out a seventh-straight victory.
Memphis Tigers outlook
Memphis rides a 4-game win streak into Saturday’s contest against SMU. A win is a win in the AAC standings, but the Tigers have allowed several of these contests to be too close for comfort. Last Saturday, Memphis trailed Charlotte 38-28 with under six minutes to go and three games ago, it trailed North Texas 42-38 in the final minute.
But Ryan Silverfield’s team usually finds a way out thanks to the leadership of veteran quarterback Seth Henigan. Henigan was responsible for the last-minute touchdown drive to knock off North Texas and pieced together to clutch possessions in the final minutes to force overtime last week. The quarterback suffered a game-ending non-throwing shoulder injury two weeks ago against South Florida but returned to the lineup against Charlotte and thrived with 329 passing yards and two touchdowns on 32-of-48 passing.
Just like SMU, Memphis’ offense features an impressive degree of versatility and features a likely All-AAC running back in Blake Watson. Watson contributed 124 yards from scrimmage and accounted for three touchdowns against Charlotte — fielding all five touches in overtime to clinch a 44-38 victory. The Old Dominion transfer is one of two 900-yard rushers in the AAC and he doubles as a major receiving threat, checking in at second on the team with 43 receptions — the most of an FBS running back.
Opponents haven’t come up with many answers to the Henigan and Watson-led offense, but there is one recurring issue plaguing the Tigers, and that’s turnovers. They committed four last week against Charlotte, as a costly interception and goal line fumble prevented Memphis from gaining a significant edge as heavy favorites.
Against FBS opponents this year, Memphis is 7-0 when Henigan throws fewer than two interceptions and 0-2 otherwise, so avoiding those costly mistakes against a defense that forces plenty of pressure is of utmost importance. The targets the junior quarterback seeks include Watson as well as No. 1 receiver Roc Taylor, who has 779 yards on 50 catches this season. Toledo transfer DeMeer Blankumsee is another preferred option, tallying 669 yards on 40 receptions in his first year on campus.
For a team that ranks top 20 in passing attempts, Memphis does a decent job at protecting its quarterback. Center Jacob Likes is the star of the offensive line which allows 1.7 sacks per game and the only teams to sack Henigan more than twice this year, once again, are the two that defeated Memphis — Missouri and Tulane.
Memphis started the season as one of the better defenses in the AAC, but much has unraveled in the past few weeks. The Tigers have allowed an average of 43.3 points per game to their last three opponents (North Texas, South Florida, Charlotte) and none of the three have a winning record, and the 49ers are a bottom 15 scoring offense in the country.
Those issues must be rectified against an explosive SMU offense, and that starts with containing the run. The Tigers are 106th in rush defense and Charlotte produced a 198-yard, 3-touchdown runner on the unit in Week 11. The last four opponents all posted at least 180 rushing yards on the Tigers and three attained the 200-yard threshold. Also, the pass defense is 97th in the FBS in yards surrendered per game and the defensive backs recently let North Texas gather 411 passing yards and South Florida rack up 357.
Memphis does have a solution to generating stops and that involves a high turnover output. The Tigers are tied for 11th in the FBS with 19 takeaways forced this season. Free safety Cameron Smith is one the disruptors emerging in the secondary with three interceptions on the season in addition to having the fourth-most stops on the team. Arkansas transfer Simeon Blair is also one of the top pieces in the secondary at strong safety with 50 tackles, four pass breakups, and a pair of picks on the year.
One thing the Tigers need to elevate this defense is a pass rush as no member of the roster has recorded more than two sacks in 2023. After producing just two sacks in the past two defensive debacles, Memphis must correct this element heading into this all-important home game. Homefield advantage is one major factor that points in the team’s favor, as Memphis has won 29 of its last 34 at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
SMU is rolling everyone in the conference right now, but the Mustangs haven’t faced a team as potent as Memphis. The Mustangs’ best win by record this season is 4-6 Rice, and that was their lone one-score game in AAC play.
But they’re doing exactly what they should against sub-.500 competition, rolling in blowout win after blowout win. Lashlee and longtime SMU players understand the Memphis game is never an easy one, and the last four meetings between the opponents have been decided by one score.
Both offenses are balanced, efficient, and more than capable of scoring on a moment’s notice. However, the Mustangs are the owners of the superior defense in this game and that defense — which limits both elements of the game quite well — will outweigh Memphis’ homefield advantage and keep SMU spotless in conference play.
Prediction: SMU 31, Memphis 24