SMU was a founding member of the American Athletic Conference in 2013. The Mustangs endured an onslaught of tumultuous seasons upon gaining admission into the league, but the trajectory of the once-proud program changed in 2019. SMU became a perennial winner, and even after Sonny Dykes handed the reins to his former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, the Mustangs remained on the correct side of the win column.
Yet, despite appearing in the AP Poll in three separate seasons, SMU never completed one mission — qualifying for the AAC Championship Game. The Mustangs officially stamped their way into the ACC for the 2024 college football season, so 2023 would present the last opportunity to check off that box.
That goal finally came to fruition Saturday. SMU (10-2, 8-0 AAC) collected its eighth consecutive win, clearing its entire plate of AAC teams en route to its first-ever AAC Championship Game. The Mustangs routed Navy (5-6, 4-4 AAC), 59-14 in Dallas to book a ticket to New Orleans next Saturday to battle the reigning conference champion Tulane. It was the Mustangs’ eighth victory of 2023 by a margin of 18 points or greater and their third AAC win by at least 45.
However, the decisive victory came with a significant cost.
In the second quarter, starting quarterback Preston Stone was carted off the field. He suffered a left leg injury while absorbing a sack. He exited the field with a heavy limp, assisted by two trainers and made his way to the injury cart. Before the cart departed the stadium, an emotional Stone was embraced by free safety Jonathan McGill and head coach Rhett Lashlee. A dejected look showed on his face as he gestured a thumbs up toward the home crowd.
It was a disastrous end to a near-perfect performance from the first-year starter. Stone has been SMU’s starting quarterback for all 12 contests this year, but Saturday was arguably his strongest showing yet. He completed 14-of-19 passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns, connecting on flea-flickers, deep passes off his back foot, and other downfield shots to generate 42 points for the offense before exiting.
After setting the tone with a deep flea-flicker completion to RJ Maryland in the first minute, Tyler Lavine punched in the first of his three rushing touchdowns to hand the Mustangs a 7-0 advantage. Stone then delivered three consecutive touchdown passes to close out the quarter, connecting with Moochie Dixon from distance twice and Jordan Hudson on a 27-yard delivery. No receiver caught more than four passes in the offensive clinic, but Dixon led the unit with four catches traveling 125 yards.
Navy broke the 28-0 shutout due to a punt SMU muffed on its own 1-yard line. The Midshipmen scored on the next play, but SMU quickly exacted its revenge for that special teams miscue by reversing the roles. In the first minute of the second quarter, the Mustangs booted a ball which bounced in between Navy returner Amin Hassan’s legs. While Hassan didn’t touch the ball, it made contact with his towel, which was deemed part of his body after an official review. SMU recovered in the end zone to essentially conclude its fifth consecutive drive with a touchdown.
The Mustangs ended each of their first seven drives with a touchdown and their eighth with a field goal to establish a 52-14 halftime lead. It marked the second time in AAC play SMU registered 52 points in a half, also replicating that feat four weeks ago against Tulsa.
Scoring certainly wasn’t a priority for SMU in the second half, especially Stone out of the lineup. The Mustangs punted on all five second half positions, and four of them ended in three-and-out fashion. Yet, they still outscored Navy in the final 30 minutes of action thanks to a 74-yard pick six by free safety Isaiah Nwokobia.
SMU operated under the direction of quarterback Kevin Jennings for the late second quarter and the majority of the second half. The redshirt freshman saw substantial action in three other blowouts this season, as well as the Rice game when Stone exited for concussion protocol in the early fourth quarter. Jennings wasn’t tasked with much other than handing the ball off, but the Oak Cliff, TX native completed 2-of-4 passes for 26 yards. He’s thrown 20 passes this season and likely receives his first starting nod in the upcoming AAC Championship Game.
SMU’s spectacular finish to the 2023 season was undermined by the injury to Stone. But the Mustangs still have an opportunity at winning the conference in their farewell season. SMU visits Tulane next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. CT in hopes of claiming its first league championship since winning the Southwest Conference in 1984.