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Three storylines to watch in the 2023 AAC Championship Game

SMU will start Kevin Jennings in place of the injured Preston Stone. And are NY6 stakes on the line for both teams?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 SMU at Tulane Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Conference championship week is upon us.

All 10 conferences are prepared to pit two of their best teams together this weekend. Six of those 10 matchups featured two AP Top 25 teams, and one conference falling under that umbrella is the American Athletic Conference.

The 2023 AAC Championship Game between Tulane and SMU kicks off at 4 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. CT on Saturday, available for broadcast on ABC. The reigning conference champion Green Wave will play host duties for the second-consecutive season, while the Mustangs are making their first-ever AAC Championship Game appearance before departing for the ACC this offseason.

Both Tulane and SMU went completely unscathed through their conference schedules. The only other conference championship to feature teams with spotless conference records is the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Plenty of storylines exist between the AAC’s two 2023 juggernauts, so here’s what to look out for as the SMU vs. Tulane matchup approaches Saturday:

Jennings makes his first collegiate start

SMU QB Kevin Jennings will start his first collegiate game in the AAC Championship in New Orleans.
Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nothing seemed capable of going wrong for SMU last Saturday. The Mustangs stormed out of the gates to decimate Navy, building a 42-7 lead by the 9:32 mark of the second quarter. But after their sixth touchdown of the first half, unfortunate disaster struck.

Starting quarterback Preston Stone broke his fibula while taking a sack, and he was carted off the field. Lashlee confirmed Stone is out for the remainder of the season with the injury, and the injury occurred during the quarterback’s best stretch of football. In the first quarter against Navy, Stone totaled 275 passing yards — the most by any quarterback since 2019. He started all 12 games and finished with 3,197 passing yards and a remarkable touchdown-to-interception ratio of 28-to-6.

“The team was disappointed for Preston,” Lashlee said. “Everyone’s bummed when you work your tail off as hard as he did and have the year he did, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns, six interceptions — as aggressive as we are and what he does to value the ball, it’s just his development. You would like him to be able to carry this through the end, but that’s part of being a team sport. They’re disappointed for him, but they’re not worried or concerned at all because they know who Kevin is and they know who our team is.”

Without Stone, SMU turns to redshirt freshman Kevin Jennings. Due to the lopsided nature of many of SMU’s victories this season, Jennings has seen plenty of fourth quarter action, but he only played one meaningful series all year — subbing into the Rice game when Stone exited in the early fourth quarter due to concussion-like symptoms. Jennings led a critical field goal drive to preserve a 36-31 victory and the former high school state champion enters Saturday with a season passing stat-line of 18-of-24 for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

“Fortunately for us, there’s probably not a lot of teams that if they lost their starting quarterback could feel as could as we do. We’ve got a guy who won a state championship just two years ago here in Dallas,” Lashlee said. “You can’t replace the experience and production with how Preston was playing, but that’s not what we’re asking Kevin to do. We feel like we have a good team. We feel like if Kevin will just show up and be Kevin, he’s more than enough and we’re excited about it.”

Jennings isn’t making his first collegiate start in an ordinary game. It’s SMU’s first-ever AAC Championship Game appearance. Still, Lashlee believes Jennings’ mindset and high school state championship pedigree are factors that can keep the Mustangs’ ninth-ranked offense afloat Saturday.

“It’s one of the strengths of who he is — he’s very even-keeled. He’s the same guy every day,” Lashlee said. “That’s what helped him win the first DISD state title in 50 or 60 years his senior year at South Oak Cliff here in Dallas. That’s what turned us on to recruit him right when we got hired for the job. He’s been that way ever since he got here. He’s super talented. He can throw it, he can run it. It’s been really hard. We’ve got so much depth on our team, we feel like a lot of positions on our team, we have co-starters. Quarterback is one of those positions that’s hard to do that, but if you could, he’s talented enough to be playing.”

The gameplan shifts for Tulane as well. The Green Wave faced a backup quarterback in last year’s AAC Championship Game as UCF starter John Rhys Plumlee exited the contest with a hamstring injury in the first half, thrusting freshman backup Thomas Castellanos into the lineup. The Green Wave must prepare to face another second-string quarterback in the AAC title game without being able to rely on substantial collegiate film.

“I really feel bad about Preston Stone,” Fritz said. “He’s had a tremendous season and all coaches and players don’t want to see that happen to anybody. He’s got our best wishes. But you always prepare ‘what if this guy is gonna play,’ ‘what if this guy isn’t gonna play’... when you get toward the middle of the week, you go back and start looking at some high school tape when you don’t have a lot of college tape. I’ve watched a little bit and there’s probably a little different skillset and probably a few things different that they’ll do with the offense having another quarterback starting.”

Defense wins AAC championships, at least in 2023

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis
Tulane ranks sixth nationally in run defense, headlined by OLB Tyler Grubbs and DE Darius Hodges.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The AAC Championship Game is no stranger to offensive shootouts. In 2017, UCF edged Memphis 62-55 in a double overtime thriller. The next year, UCF delivered a follow-up act in a high-scoring 56-41 barnburner. Even last year, Tulane and UCF combined for 1,058 yards in a 45-28 Green Wave victory. But this year’s game might shift to a defensive-oriented matchup. Both SMU (13th) and Tulane (17th) rank top 20 in scoring defense nationally and top 30 in total defense.

Although Tulane returned tons of All-AAC offensive talent from its 2022 Cotton Bowl champion team, the Green Wave never hit 38 points all season. Instead, Tulane utilized a suffocating defense to eke out win after win, holding its last four opponents to an average of 14 points per game. Defense was the emerging force in Tulane’s pivotal matchup against UTSA, which turned out to be an AAC Championship play-in game. The unit forced five Roadrunner turnovers and scored 17 points off them in a 29-16 triumph.

“It played out that way during the season,” Fritz said. “There’s different ways that we needed to win games, based on availability of players. We’ve had quite a few injuries, and also in case the opponent we were playing — if they were strong on offense or defense. The defense has really risen to the challenge over the last few weeks.”

Tulane’s scoring offense dropped from 19th to 63rd when comparing 2022 to 2023, but the scoring defense rose from 32nd to 17th with a per game allotment of 18.3 points. The Green Wave switched coordinators this offseason as 2022 defensive coordinator Chris Hampton departed to Oregon. Shiel Wood arrived from Troy and instantly crafted the FBS’s sixth-best run defense and a unit which ranks top 15 in the country in turnovers forced.

“Coach Wood and the defensive staff have done an excellent job,” Fritz said. “The kids bought in to what we were doing. There were some similarities from what we did last year compared to this year, but there were also a lot of differences. I think over time, our guys were able to pick up what we were doing and the nuances of it. The game happens so fast and you have to make adjustments with calls and changing calls and shifts and tempo and all those kinds of things. It’s allowed us to play fast and play better.”

SMU never qualified for an AAC Championship Game during its first 10 years of membership in the conference. But one significant change allowed the Mustangs to breeze through all eight AAC games — a substantially improved defense. The difference between SMU’s scoring offense and scoring defense ranks have been staggering in recent years — 12th in offense and 119th in defense in 2022, 10th in offense and 87th in defense in 2021, 15th in offense and 75th in defense in 2020, 7th in offense and 110th in defense in 2019.

But by maintaining a high-octane scoring offense and tweaking the defense, SMU finally accomplished a mission over a decade in the making.

“If we wanted to have a chance to compete for the championship, we couldn’t just have top 10 offenses,” Lashlee said. “We had to have a championship caliber defense. You look at Tulane and what they did last year, they had a championship caliber defense, coupled with a big time quarterback and running back and really good receivers. They’ve done it again this year. The reality of it this year, we haven’t had a top 40 defense at SMU in four years. We felt like that had to change if we wanted to change our overall result as a team.”

Eight of SMU’s usual 11 starters hail were offseason additions from the transfer portal. But the Mustangs’ defense is also supremely deep. Not a single Mustang ranks in the AAC’s top 20 in tackles, but 16 different defenders accrued at least 20 tackles on the season and nine different players boast at least four tackles for loss. Lashlee credits these transfers, as well as second-year defensive coordinator Scott Symons for revamping a defense which hadn’t allowed under 28 points per game since 2012.

“We had some really good returning players like Elijah Chatman, DeVere Levelston, Nelson Paul, Isaiah Nwokobia, and on and on,” Lashlee said. “But we went out and were very aggressive in recruiting. We brought in some transfer defensive linemen that have stepped up and made a huge impact and some transfer DBs, and we feel like we’ve upgraded our roster and added value to those guys returning on defense. And at the same time, you have to give Scott Symons and our entire defensive staff a ton of credit. Scott’s a guy when I hired him, he had back-to-back top 15 defenses at Liberty. He just needed to get one year here, get his system in place, maybe fill some holes like we did, and they were able to put guys in position and get a lot of confidence.”

New Year’s Six on the line... for both teams?

SMU is currently unranked in the College Football Playoff standings, jeopardizing its New Year’s Six hopes.
Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Considering the conference has been represented in the New Year’s Six seven years in a row, it seems like the AAC possesses an automatic bid to college football’s most prestigious slate of bowls. However, that’s not the case as one NY6 bowl is reserved for the highest-ranked champion among the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

The College Football Playoff committee released its latest set of rankings on Tuesday, assigning a No. 22 beside Tulane’s name. Should Tulane defeat SMU in New Orleans, it’s a safe assumption that the Green Wave are New Year’s Six bound for the second consecutive season. Tulane defeated USC in the Cotton Bowl last January, and the Green Wave are one win away from punching another ticket to a bowl of similar stature.

However, the New Year’s Six bid isn’t as definite for SMU should the Mustangs win Saturday. The College Football Playoff committee ranked CUSA Championship Game participant Liberty and No. 24 and spurned the Mustangs of a ranking entirely.

“We’re going to approach it the same way as we look at this and make sure that we are evaluating everything,” committee chair Boo Corrigan said regarding the race between the AAC champion and Liberty. “Liberty plays Friday night, so we’ll be able to see that. Obviously then we’ll watch the Tulane game on Saturday and make sure, just as we have all season, that we’re looking at everything and making sure that we’re comparing for those two specifically, the course of the entire season, all 13 of their games, and making sure that we come up with the right decision.”

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is campaigning for SMU to qualify for the New Year’s Six if the Mustangs stage a signature road win in New Orleans for the conference championship. One metric contributing to Aresco’s campaign is strength of schedule. Liberty ranks dead last in the FBS at 133rd in strength of schedule, with 10-3 New Mexico State and 7-5 Bowling Green among the strongest opponents.

“I really do think they would be deserving and I hope they would get it without question,” Aresco said. “Strength of schedule is critical. One of their competitors (Liberty) has a strength of schedule that is 133 — literally at the bottom. No P5 opponents.”

Liberty’s non-conference schedule consisted of Bowling Green (7-5), Buffalo (3-9), Old Dominion (6-6), and UMass (3-9). SMU scheduled two road games on Big 12 campuses, facing Oklahoma in Norman and TCU in Fort Worth for the annual Iron Skillet rivalry. The Mustangs fell 28-11 to the Sooners in a game that was 14-11 with under 10 minutes remaining and then lost 34-17 to the Horned Frogs — before TCU quarterback Chandler Morris’ season-ending injury — in a game that was within 10 points with under 90 seconds remaining. Aresco does not believe SMU should be punished in the rankings for scheduling those games.

“We have really had a tough non-conference schedule,” Aresco said. “SMU played at Oklahoma. It was competitive midway through the fourth quarter. Let me ask you if the teams that would be potentially competing with them for New Year’s Six would have done that at Oklahoma. And then at TCU — it’s a rivalry game and it was at TCU, another road game against a reputable P5 team that has had an up and down season. I’m not gonna argue that, but they gave Texas all they wanted. They’re a real team. And the point is, both SMU and Tulane played a Memphis team that lost by seven points to Missouri and you know the kind of season they’ve had.”

Memphis is unquestionably the strongest win on SMU’s résumé. The Tigers were among the four titans of the AAC this year, wielding a 9-3 record with losses to 10-2 Missouri, 11-1 Tulane, and 10-2 SMU by an average of seven points. But outside of SMU’s 38-34 win over Memphis, the Mustangs eviscerated the rest of the competition. They are the only team to defeat multiple FBS opponents by at least 55 points, and they recorded eight of their 10 victories by a margin of 18 points or greater. They rank fourth in scoring offense and 13th in scoring defense, dominating opponents on both sides of the ball all year long — qualities Aresco believes are enough to warrant that coveted New Year’s Six bid.

“What SMU’s done recently — 52 points against Navy in the first half, 52 recently against Tulsa (in the first half). What they’ve done in the conference is nothing short of remarkable. Should they win on Saturday, they’re absolutely deserving. Our league, as far as I’m concerned, has the four best teams in the so-called ‘G5’ with Memphis just being edged out by the other two and UTSA, an outstanding team that was dominating its competition and just ran into a tough game at Tulane and lost to an absolutely Tulane team with a veteran quarterback, an outstanding coach — just a great team.”