- Time and date: Saturday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: SMU (-12.5)
- Over/under: 59.5
- All-time series: SMU leads, 48-41-1
- Last meeting: Rice 36, SMU 14 — November 17, 2012
- Current streak: Rice, 1 (2012)
Setting the scene
It’s a primetime Texas showdown under the lights.
The SMU Mustangs (6-2, 4-0 AAC) appear to fit the role of AAC contenders in every sense. SMU rolled through its last two conference opponents Temple and Tulsa by a combined score of 124-10, eviscerating both by at least 55 points. The Mustangs are clicking on all cylinders right now and have yet to be challenged by AAC competition — winning each contest by at least 18 points.
But the Rice Owls (4-4, 2-2 AAC) are SMU’s toughest conference opponent yet. The Owls steamrolled Tulsa two weeks ago and took a ranked Tulane squad down-to-the-wire in a 30-28 defeat at Rice Stadium last Saturday. Rice eyes its first winning season since 2014, and in order to get there, taking out the dominant Mustangs is a task which can set the Owls on the right track.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU is problem for opponents right now. The Mustangs shut out Temple 55-0 for their most lopsided win since 1978, and one week later, they boatraced Tulsa 69-10 in a game that was 52-3 by halftime — SMU’s largest margin of victory over an FBS team all-time.
Rhett Lashlee’s squad has yet to participate in a game decided by fewer than three scores this year. The Mustangs lost by 17 on the road to Big 12 opponents Oklahoma and TCU, but blew everyone else out of the water. Rice would be the team’s strongest win, as 3-5 Tulsa currently holds that designation. Although a lack of quality victories is evident on the schedule, SMU is doing what it should — blow teams out of the water.
The Mustangs are clicking on all cylinders offensively and defensively at the moment. The offense ranks eighth in scoring at 40.5 points per game, demonstrating a strong balance between the air and ground facets. SMU is 15th in passing and 52nd in rushing, providing one of the more multidimensional units in the AAC. First-year starter Preston Stone is making a midseason leap at quarterback, tying his career-high with 300 passing yards at Temple and resetting it with 371 against Tulsa eight days later — without even playing the fourth quarter.
SMU wasn’t always this offensively dominant this season, but Stone’s development has taken the program to another level. He’s refrained from throwing an interception in three-straight starts after tossing one in four of his first five outings. Also, he’s completed 67.9 percent of passes in his last two after posting a 57.1 percent completion rate six games into the year.
A typical Stone passing performance involves utilization of about 10 different targets. SMU spreads the rock around which makes it difficult for defenses to key on certain receivers. Seven different Mustangs have between 210 and 319 receiving yards on the year, and among those is tight end RJ Maryland. Maryland presents a common matchup issue with an impressive degree of speed for his position, paired with the typical strength of a tight end. He is the Mustangs’ preferred red zone target with five touchdowns on the year but doubles as a deep threat in the offense.
The transfer-led run game is headlined by former Miami (FL) tailback Jaylan Knighton, who leads SMU with 456 yards on a 5.5 average. But several other running backs yield above five yards per carry and get substantial reps including Texas A&M transfer LJ Johnson Jr. and former Alabama back Camar Wheaton. All three have produced an 80-yard game this year, so any of them can strike as a premier option Saturday.
As potent as SMU’s offense has been, it’s arguably not even the strongest unit on the team. The Mustangs haven’t been renowned for sharp defense in over a decade, finishing 119th in scoring defense a year ago. This year, they’re fifth at 14.0 points allowed per game. SMU is fifth in stop rate, 12th in total defense, 11th in fewest yards per carry surrendered, and eighth in pass defense. In summary, the Mustangs are good at just about everything defensively, and that statement holds against good competition too. They’re one of two teams to limit Oklahoma’s dynamic offense below 30 points this year.
Like most great FBS defenses, it starts up front. SMU generates pressure at an extraordinarily high rate, oftentimes not needing more than a 4-man rush to get to the quarterback. The Mustangs are 10th in the country averaging 3.4 sacks, and the effort is led by the Elijahs — defensive tackle Elijah Chatman and defensive end Elijah Roberts. The two combine for 8.0 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss on the year, but other pass rushers such as Nelson Paul and Kori Roberson also apply heavy amounts of pressure on a routine basis.
SMU is rather dominant on the back end too, holding opponents to a 57.4 completion rate while allowing 167 aerial yards per contest. The Mustangs don’t pick off passes at a high rate, but they have three pick-sixes from their six interceptions this year. Safety Jonathan McGill is among the major havoc causers on the back end. A former target of Mike Bloomgren in the recruiting sphere, the Stanford transfer has 33 tackles and a team-high five pass breakups. The secondary will unquestionably be the most important unit for SMU on Saturday when pitted against a high-powered Rice passing attack.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice is a middling 4-4, but the Owls understand one concept very well: they can compete with anybody in this conference. Just one Saturday ago, Rice trailed 27-7 at halftime against a ranked Tulane team, but the game came down to the wire. The Owls actually had a possession down six with a chance to usurp the lead, but wound up falling in 30-28 fashion. Competing against high-level opponents wasn’t a one-time theme for Rice. The Owls defeated Houston back in Week 2 and held Texas to just one first half touchdown in Week 1, repeatedly showing the ability to compete against the toughest teams on the schedule.
Unlike past years, the identity of Mike Bloomgren’s 2023 Rice team is its passing offense. The Owls are led by well-traveled sixth-year senior JT Daniels, who is in the midst of his best season to date in Rice’s pro-style offense. Daniels is 11th nationally in passing yardage and first in the AAC. With 19 touchdowns delivered this season, he ranks 10th in the FBS and he’s been fairly accurate on high volume, boasting a 63.6 completion percentage with just six interceptions in eight starts.
Half of Daniels’ games with Rice featured at least 340 yards, but last week was a rare contest where he was held under 200. This also happened at Texas, and there is one ongoing theme with these sub-200 performances — they occur against dominant defensive fronts. SMU also offers one, so Rice’s offensive line must be up to the challenge to counter the Mustangs and provide the star quarterback ample time to read through progressions and find a target downfield.
When surveying downfield, the unquestionable No. 1 option is Luke McCaffrey. Third in the AAC in yards and second in touchdown receptions, McCaffrey is a versatile force who has mastered the entire route tree — for short-yardage situations and for home run shots alike. McCaffrey has caught fire in the AAC slate and rides a 7-game streak averaging over 14 yards per reception — a testament to his downfield playmaking and ability to generate yards after the catch.
Outside of McCaffrey, Daniels’ receiving options are pretty versatile. Checking in at second, third, and fourth in receptions are running back Dean Connors, tight end Boden Groen, and wide receiver Rawson MacNeill. MacNeill is becoming an increased fixture in Rice’s offense as a 6’5” sideline threat that can draw matchup advantages with most cornerbacks.
SMU’s defense is stellar at defending both the run and pass, so it’s pick your poison. Rice will likely opt for a heavy passing game as the Owls are one of 13 teams averaging over 300 passing yards and they rank eighth-to-last in rushing at 91.1 yards per outing. Two weeks ago, Connors posted the only 100-yard rushing game of the season for Rice and he ran the ball well against Tulane, but the Owls ditched the run game due to the lopsided nature of the game at halftime. Increased reps might be there for the running backs if Rice can launch off to a stronger start.
The Owls’ defense has been a roller coaster throughout the year and throughout each game. Notable occurrences of this roller coaster were evident in Week 2 against Houston when a 28-0 lead transformed into a 35-28 deficit and again last week when limiting Tulane to three second half points after yielding 27 before halftime.
Rice’s top defender in the front seven is outside linebacker Josh Pearcy, a premier pass rusher who leads the team in tackles for loss. But Pearcy left the Tulsa game with an injury and his status is up in the air for Saturday, which could thrust Demone Green into an increased role in stopping the run. Additional running back stoppers include nose tackle De’Braylon Carroll and defensive end Coleman Coco, who must generate contact consistently at the first level to force SMU’s offense into trickier situations.
The secondary is headlined by Gabe Taylor, the recipient of interceptions in back-to-back weeks. Taylor is a havoc player with a team-high five pass breakups, and he’s most likely to contribute to the turnover effort — exhibiting career totals of six interceptions and four forced fumbles. There are many options to limit in SMU’s passing game and Taylor will certainly draw a variety of assignments in zone coverage throughout the night.
If you take a glance at SMU’s schedule, Rice is a unique opponent. The Mustangs played a currently top 10 Oklahoma team as well as a talented TCU squad before a slew of injuries plagued the Horned Frogs. Then, there’s a significant drop-off from second-best to third-best opponent, jumping down from TCU to Tulsa — a team Rice eviscerated 42-10 just two weeks ago.
That being said, SMU hasn’t competed against an opponent similar to Rice’s level this year. The Owls should present significantly more challenges than each of the Mustangs’ four prior AAC opponents. For one, Rice features one of the strongest passing attacks in the FBS with JT Daniels and Luke McCaffrey leading the charge. Three of SMU’s four AAC opponents ranked 114th or lower in passing yards per game and the other one was Temple, which was without starting quarterback E.J. Warner, so the Mustangs will see previously unforeseen firepower from this passing attack.
Rice will keep this one close, but SMU’s defense should be potent enough to prevent the Owls from a barrage of touchdowns. The Mustangs pull away in the late fourth quarter thanks to a versatile offense, but this one should be back-and-forth throughout under the lights at Rice Stadium.
Prediction: SMU 33, Rice 24