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2023 AAC Championship Game Preview: SMU Mustangs @ Tulane Green Wave

Tulane seeks back-to-back AAC titles as the host. SMU aims for its first AAC championship on its way out.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 21 Tulane at SMU Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, December 2 at 4:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ABC
  • Location: Yulman Stadium — New Orleans, LA
  • Spread: Tulane (-3.5)
  • Over/under: 47.5
  • All-time series: SMU leads, 15-14
  • Last meeting: Tulane 59, SMU 24 — November 17, 2022
  • Current streak: Tulane, 1 (2022)
  • Tulane AAC Championship history: 2022, defeated UCF, 45-28
  • SMU AAC Championship history: No prior appearances

Setting the scene

Welcome to conference championship weekend.

The American Athletic Conference Championship Game is a late afternoon staple of the weekend, often associated with New Year’s Six stakes. This year’s matchup between two teams with unblemished conference records is no exception.

Tulane (11-1, 8-0 AAC) hosts the event for the second consecutive year. The Green Wave are the reigning conference champions, knocking off UCF 45-28 last December at Yulman Stadium before the Knights departed for the Big 12. Once again, Tulane’s AAC Championship Game opponent is on its way out of the conference.

SMU (10-2, 8-0 AAC) prepares for its first and last AAC Championship Game. The Mustangs were founding members of the conference in 2013, but they leave for the ACC in the upcoming offseason.

The Green Wave are ranked No. 22 in the latest College Football Playoff standings. With a victory Saturday, all signs point to Tulane clinching its second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl, and the program may another massive opportunity awaiting on the sport’s grandest stage after stunning USC in last year’s Cotton Bowl.

The Mustangs are unranked in the College Football Playoff standings, and it is unclear if SMU claims a New Year’s Six berth with a victory. In order to do so, SMU must be ranked higher than any Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, or Sun Belt champion. CUSA title favorite Liberty checks in at No. 24, and the question is, would a road victory at Tulane vault the Mustangs above the Flames?

Neither Tulane nor SMU has lost a game since September, but one long winning streak will end Saturday, while the other team’s night will end in a trophy, a confetti shower, and a spectacular celebration in the Big Easy.


SMU Mustangs outlook

Journey to the AAC Championship Game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Navy at SMU
SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee led the Mustangs to their first-ever AAC Championship Game appearance in the program’s last year in the league.
Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SMU finally made the leap. The Mustangs strung together four consecutive winning seasons from 2019-22, just falling short to the AAC Championship Game on multiple occasions. But in their final year of AAC membership before joining the ACC, SMU attained a goal a decade in the making.

The Mustangs may exhibit an unblemished AAC record, but the road to New Orleans wasn’t completely smooth. SMU dropped two September games on the road in Big 12 country, falling 28-11 to Oklahoma and 34-17 to crosstown rival TCU, starting Rhett Lashlee’s second year at the helm with a 2-2 record. The wheels fell off late in both contest, as SMU only trailed Oklahoma 14-11 with under 10 minutes remaining and struck within 10 points of TCU as late as the final 90 seconds of gametime.

The offensive woes from those games were instantly corrected when AAC play commenced, and the rest was history. SMU rides an 8-game win streak into this contest, winning its conference games by an average score of 46-17. Eight of the Mustangs’ 10 victories came by a margin of at least 18 points, and dominance was an ongoing theme for them this year. SMU participated in as many 50-point victories as one-score games this year, annihilating Temple 55-0 and Tulsa 69-10 to become the only team with two FBS wins of 55+ points in 2023. The Mustangs never even trailed in the second half of an AAC game all season.

Tulane provides a significant step-up in competition for SMU, however. The Mustangs only defeated two bowl eligible team this year, edging 9-3 Memphis, 38-34, and Rice, 36-31, on the road — SMU’s only two one-score games all season.

Offense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Tulsa at SMU
SMU quarterback Kevin Jennings prepares to make his first collegiate start Saturday, filling in for the injured Preston Stone.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SMU is fourth in the FBS in scoring offense at 41.8 points per game and scoring in droves is nothing new for the Mustangs. This is their fifth consecutive season boasting a top 15 ranking in scoring offense, earning designation as the only FBS team to accomplish that feat.

However, producing that typical scoring output won’t be easy Saturday, as SMU must overcome adversity beyond facing Tulane’s stout defense. For the first time in 2023, the Mustangs will be without redshirt sophomore quarterback Preston Stone. Stone, the highest-rated recruit in SMU history, suffered a season-ending left fibula fracture in the second of quarter of SMU’s regular season finale, a 59-14 evisceration of Navy. Stone exited with a 42-7 lead in the second quarter, and Lashlee confirmed earlier this week Stone is out for the remainder of the season.

It’s an unfortunate loss for SMU, as the All-AAC quarterback was playing his best football. In the first quarter vs. Navy, he posted 275 passing yards — the most by any quarterback since 2019. He completed a 3,197-yard season with an impressive 28-to-6 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, firing for multiple touchdowns in all eight AAC starts.

Stone’s absence leaves redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Jennings as Saturday’s starter. The former high school state champion at South Oak Cliff is preparing for his first collegiate start, but due to the blowout nature of the Mustangs’ contests, Jennings received plenty of fourth quarter reps this year. He is 18-of-24 on the season with 224 passing yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Jennings played one critical drive all year, leading SMU to a field goal to preserve a 36-31 win over Rice when Stone exited in the early fourth quarter due to concussion-like symptoms. Jennings received a week with first team reps in the aftermath, although Stone wound up starting the next game vs. North Texas.

Although SMU loses Stone, Lashlee is expected to welcome a key piece to the offense back Saturday. Jaylan Knighton sat out Week 13 with an injury, but the Mustangs’ leading rusher is expected to suit up against Tulane. While Knighton leads the nation’s 42nd ranked rushing offense with 645 yards, SMU is quite deep at the position. LJ Johnson Jr. has produced back-to-back 100-yard games, while Camar Wheaton is a viable supporting back with three 70-yard showings this year. All three backs exceed 5.0 yards per carry, demonstrating the efficiency of this ground attack.

Just like the running back room, the wide receiver room is a deep group where any member is capable of stepping up to be the No. 1 option. No Mustang ranks top 20 in the conference in receiving yards, but eight different players exhibit between 317 and 462 yards on the year — although one of them, Jordan Kerley, will miss the remainder of the year with an ACL injury. The leader of the pack with 462 yards is First Team All-AAC tight end RJ Maryland, who possesses an impressive blend of speed and hands for the position.

Maryland is tied with Jordan Hudson for the lead with seven touchdowns. Meanwhile, the most targeted receiver is Jake Bailey with 34 receptions. With Stone, SMU frequented the deep ball to a varying number of recipients — with four of the eight aforementioned receivers averaging at least 16.0 yards per reception — but it’s unclear what approach Lashlee’s offense takes with Jennings in the lineup.

SMU’s offensive line is also one of the most heralded units in the conference, warranting three members on the All-AAC First Team and one on the All-AAC Second Team. The Mustangs tied for 13th nationally in fewest sacks allowed, and the unit’s ability to protect Stone and keep the run game afloat were the main ingredients in crafting SMU’s ninth-ranked yards per game offense.

Defense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 Navy at SMU
SMU defensive tackle Elijah Chatman earned his third-straight All-AAC appearance as the only player to achieve the honor in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With annual top 15 scoring offenses, what’s prevented SMU from qualifying for the AAC Championship Game? Simply put, defense was. The Mustangs ranked 119th in scoring defense a year ago and haven’t finished above 75th in the category since 2012 — garnering eight triple-digit scoring defense rankings in that span. This year, SMU is different. The Mustangs boast the 13th best scoring defense in the FBS at 17.7 points per game and the 13th best total defense at 301 yards per game.

Second-year defensive coordinator Scott Symons quickly revamped this unit after experiencing rampant success in spearheading defenses at Liberty. SMU doesn’t exhibit a particular weakness on defense, boasting the country’s 16th ranked pass defense and 28th ranked run defense. With both facets of the defense executing to this extent, the Mustangs held five conference opponents below 17 points and never yielded more than 34 (Memphis and TCU) points to any team in 2023.

Transforming the 119th ranked scoring defense to the 13th best unit overnight involved personnel changes on the field as well. SMU nailed the transfer portal this offseason and eight of the 11 projected defensive starters from Saturday, as well as many key cogs in the two-deep, are first-year transfers from elsewhere.

Defensive end Elijah Roberts came from Lashlee’s former school Miami (FL) and instantly bolstered the pass rush. He ranks first on the team with 8.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles for loss, and SMU is fourth nationally in team sacks per game thanks to his contributions. The Mustangs are loaded up front, also trotting out incumbent talent like Elijah Chatman and Nelson Paul. Chatman is one of two active three-time All-AAC selections with 4.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, while Paul is one of five Mustangs with at least three sacks as a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker.

The defensive line plays a major role in stopping the run for SMU with many tackles at the first level. But the linebackers are excellent tacklers in Symons’ 3-3-5 scheme. Temple transfer Kobe Wilson and Liberty transfer Ahmad Walker field the most tackles on this melting pot of a defense, totaling 63 and 53 respectively. But similar to the receiving corps, the defense is incredibly deep. SMU doesn’t feature a single top 20 tackler in the AAC, but 16 different players enter Saturday with at least 20 tackles on the year.

Passing defense was among SMU’s major heels in recent years, but now it’s a strength. The Mustangs force opponents to a completion percentage of 57.5 and three different players — Charles Woods, Jonathan McGill, and Cale Sanders — have broken up at least seven passes on the year. SMU isn’t a major player in the turnover battle defensively, as only one Mustangs has more than one interception on the year. That title belongs to free safety Isaiah Nwokobia, an incumbent member of the defense with 50 tackles (most among the secondary) and two pick-sixes on three interceptions — a vital playmaker on the back-end.

With many stellar defensive backs flying around the back-end, it’s no surprise SMU is fourth in the FBS in third down stop percentage, only allowing conversions on 28.2 percent of attempts. Defense needs to sustain its excellence in order for a celebration to transpire in New Orleans this Saturday, especially considering the Mustangs are operating with a first-time starting quarterback on the other side of the ball.


Tulane Green Wave outlook

Journey to the AAC Championship Game

NCAA Football: Tulane at East Carolina
Tulane head coach Willie Fritz aims to become the second coach with back-to-back AAC Championship Game wins, joining former Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane never entered a season with higher expectations. For the first time in program history, the Green Wave launched a year with an AP Poll ranking beside its name, coming off the heels of a spectacular 2022 season which featured an AAC Championship, a dramatic Cotton Bowl victory over USC, and a season-ending No. 9 ranking.

Willie Fritz conducted the most impressive turnaround in college football history going from 2-10 in 2021 to 12-2 in 2022, but this season, he was tasked with something more difficult — defending a title with a target on his back. Tulane was the preseason AAC favorite, and the Green Wave lived up to that designation by clinching the conference championship game with an 8-0 league record, a No. 17 ranking from the AP Poll, and a No. 22 ranking from the College Football Playoff committee — one win away from another New Year’s Six appearance.

Tulane rides a 10-game win streak as its anticipated matchup against SMU awaits. The Green Wave slipped once all year, falling Week 2 at Yulman Stadium to Ole Miss in a game they played without starting quarterback Michael Pratt. Tulane stormed to a 17-7 lead without its captain and entered the fourth quarter tied at 17 apiece before running out of gas in a 37-20 defeat. Since then, Tulane has edged every opponent, even though many were closer calls than the Green Wave would have hoped.

Tulane never won an AAC game by more than two scores this year, with a 24-8 victory over Florida Atlantic serving as its most lopsided win. The Green Wave found itself in the midst of a streak of close calls, winning four consecutive games over North Texas (35-28), Rice (30-28), East Carolina (13-10), and Tulsa (24-22) by one score each. But Fritz’s team took out its two most marquee conference opponents in impressive fashion, unseating Memphis and UTSA from perfect AAC records with 31-21 and 29-16 wins, respectively.

SMU earned the style points in the regular season, but Tulane has been a machine. The Green Wave earn homefield advantage Saturday, hoping to secure their 12th straight victory over an AAC opponent — a streak which includes the 2022 AAC Championship Game triumph over UCF.

Offense

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Central Florida at Tulane
Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt prepares to start his second AAC Championship Game after throwing for a career-high 394 yards in last year’s event.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane’s offense ranks 63rd in the FBS at 27.9 points per game, a significant drop from the 2022 Tyjae Spears-led unit which produced 36.0 points per game for the 19th best mark in the country. The Green Wave posted 37 points in the opener and never exceeded that mark again, attaining 35 or fewer points in all eight AAC games this season.

However, some of that is by design. The MO of Slade Nagle’s offense involves pounding the rock and controlling the clock, and Tulane’s ability to exhaust time of possession — especially down the stretch in close games — has been evident all year. The Green Wave are 18th nationally in time of possession, and they rely heavily on the AAC’s leading rusher Makhi Hughes on contributing to that metric.

Replacing a dominant runner like Spears didn’t seem like too feasible of a task before the season, but Tulane did a tremendous job preparing Hughes for the role. He attained First Team All-AAC honors with a league-best 1,246 yards — good for 12th in the FBS. Hughes exceeded the century mark in seven of eight AAC games this year, recording a career-high 166 yards against a typically-relentless UTSA run defense with over 140 yards by halftime. The rising star will be the focal point of Tulane’s offense Saturday as the supreme workhorse back, earning at least 20 carries in seven of his last eight starts.

But the name that generates the most attention on Tulane’s offense is quarterback Michael Pratt. Pratt was named the AAC Offensive Player of the Year this week and received his second All-AAC selection after guiding the Green Wave to their second-straight conference title game. The fourth-year starter possesses significant big-game experience, throwing for a career-high 394 yards and four touchdowns in the 2022 AAC Championship Game win over UCF and then contributing 234 passing yards, 83 rushing yards, and the game-winning touchdown strike to shock USC in the Cotton Bowl.

Pratt is a security blanket for Tulane, and the Green Wave claim 14 consecutive victories with the quarterback in the starting lineup. Tulane didn’t particularly emphasize the passing game as much this year, but when called upon, Pratt delivered in an efficient manner. While he didn’t register a 300-yard game, the all-conference quarterback completed passes at a career-best 66.4 percent clip, showcasing an incredible touchdown to interception ratio of 21-to-4. The 6’3”, 220 pound Pratt delivered multiple touchdown passes in seven of 10 starts and added 321 rushing yards on the side as a tough, physical runner.

However, Pratt might operated with a shorthanded receiving room Saturday. Lawrence Keys III was Tulane’s receiving yards leader before suffering an injury in the Nov. 11 matchup vs. Tulsa, and he remains out for the third-consecutive game. Fritz is hopeful Jha’Quan Jackson will return to the lineup after last playing Nov. 4. The speedy deep threat and All-AAC return specialist can strike from anywhere, as each of his last five touchdown receptions were of 35 yards or greater. In the absence of Keys and Jackson, Pratt found himself a new reliable No. 1 receiver in Chris Brazzell II. Brazzell led the team in receiving the past two weeks with 93 and 103 yards, ranking first on the team with 670 on the year. Yulkeith Brown will likely round out the trio of starting receivers should Jackson return to the gridiron.

Tulane also relies on heavy tight end utilization. Alex Bauman has emerged as the No. 1 option at this position this season after coming up clutch the game-winning touchdown in the Cotton Bowl last January. Bauman is third on the team in receptions with 29 and second in receiving touchdowns with five, operating as a short-yardage threat in a team that often pushes the ball downfield through the air.

Rounding out the Green Wave offense is a commanding offensive line led by three-time All-AAC center Sincere Haynesworth. Haynesworth, a future NFL Draft pick, is one of three All-AAC selections on the Green Wave offensive line, sharing nods with tackles Cameron Wire and Rashad Green. In addition to paving the way for Hughes, Tulane’s line has done a better job than ever of protecting Pratt, only allowing 13 sacks in 10 starts this year.

Defense

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis
Tulane cornerback Jarius Monroe is one of two players in the conference to receive back-to-back First Team All-AAC selections.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 Green Wave made weekly statements on the offensive side of the ball. This year’s Tulane team is more renowned for its contributions on the defensive end. Tulane is 17th in the FBS with a per game allotment of 18.3 points, limiting teams to 328 yards on average.

Ole Miss scored 37 points on Tulane in Week 2, although many of those points were due to offensive miscues. Outside of that lone defeat, Tulane hasn’t surrendered 30 points to a single team on the schedule. The Green Wave defense hit their stride in November, holding three of their four AAC opponents — including a high-powered UTSA offense — to below 17 points.

Tulane generates stops on the regular, but the Green Wave are also exceptional at winning the turnover battle. Led by first-year defensive coordinator Shiel Wood, who arrived from Troy, this unit produced 22 takeaways this year which is tied for 13th nationally. Turnover production proved monumental in the Week 13 win over UTSA with an AAC Championship Game appearance on the line. The Green Wave intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles to emerge 5-1 in the turnover battle — the ultimate difference in a 29-16 win.

The most intimidating position group on the defense is unquestionably the defensive line. Two of Tulane’s three First Team All-AAC defensive selections reside within the group. Defensive tackle Patrick Jenkins is the centerpiece of the dominance, tying for the team-lead with 11.0 tackles for loss in addition 31 tackles and 5.5 sacks — extremely impressive totals for an interior lineman. Jenkins’ havoc frees up availability for the other All-AAC defensive lineman in Darius Hodges. Operating from the boundary, Hodges ranks atop the team and fourth in the AAC in sacks with 7.5 in 2023. Keith Cooper Jr. and Kameron Hamilton are among other key pieces of this deep line and both exhibit at least 4.0 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss this season. One other name SMU’s offensive line must be wary of is defensive end Devean Deal, who has been omnipresent with 36 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, and two turnovers forced in a breakout campaign.

In Week 1, Tulane lost linebacker Corey Platt Jr. for the season after a monstrous 15-tackle performance. While this injury was devastating, the Green Wave didn’t miss a beat due to the depth exhibited at the position. Louisiana Tech transfer Tyler Grubbs, a former First Team All-CUSA selection, stepped up in Platt’s absence to become the team’s second leading tackler. The other starting linebacker in Tulane’s 4-2-5, Jesus Machado, owns 92 tackles to his name this year for one of the nation’s premier run stopping units. Tulane is sixth in the FBS by holding opponents to 86 rushing yards per game.

However, the same level of dominance isn’t witnessed in the aerial defense, as the team is tied for 100th in this department. But Tulane compensates for what it allows in the yardage department by forcing turnovers at a high rate. Cornerback Lance Robinson picked off four passes this year, free safety DJ Douglas intercepted three, and First Team All-AAC cornerback Jarius Monroe has a pair of his own. One other name to watch in the secondary is strong safety Kam Pedescleaux, who recorded six solo tackles, forced a fumble, and provided a key fourth down pass breakup in last Friday’s win over UTSA.


Prediction

Yulman Stadium will be rocking on Saturday. The 9-year venue in New Orleans hosted an incredible atmosphere for the 2022 AAC Championship Game, fueled by a fervent crowd in olive green and sky blue which celebrated with an intense field storm in the aftermath of the championship. Expect similar vibes from the crowd as Tulane can clinch its second AAC title on its home turf.

Although the Preston Stone injury puts a damper on what would be a spectacular matchup at full-strength, this battle between two 8-0 AAC teams should live up to the hype. Due to Kevin Jennings’ lack of meaningful in-game experience, SMU’s offense switches from its usual exclamation point to somewhat of a question mark. But the Mustangs still exhibit a potent run game, a dominant offensive line, and a versatile receiving corps which are capable of inflicting damage on Tulane’s defense.

Tulane hasn’t marveled offensively this year, but the Green Wave simply take care of business and muck up the game for every opponent. They’ll lean heavily on the Makhi Hughes led run game and utilize Michael Pratt’s arm when necessary. But the defense is the most important unit in this game, which will ultimately control the pace, the game flow, and the result on the scoreboard. Tulane’s defensive front can be intimidating for a first-time starter, and the Green Wave will emerge in a close one due to winning this pivotal matchup in the trenches.

With a victory, Tulane clinches its second consecutive AAC championship and New Year’s Six bowl.

Prediction: Tulane 26, SMU 24