- Time and date: Friday, November 10 at 9:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX
- Spread: SMU (-17)
- Over/under: 67.5
- All-time series: SMU leads, 35-6-1
- Last meeting: SMU 48, North Texas 10 — September 3, 2022
- Current streak: SMU, 4 (2019-22)
Setting the scene
SMU and North Texas are longtime non-conference rivals. This is the programs’ 43rd meetings in history, and they’ve duked it out every season since 2014.
But finally, the Mustangs and Mean Green share a conference for the first time ever. SMU has controlled the series definitively in the past four seasons, winning the last four matchups by 38, 23, 30, and 22. Another blowout would be beneficial to the Mustangs, which are aiming to secure a ranking en route to their last-ever AAC title quest. But the stakes are high for North Texas as well, as the Mean Green miss out on bowl eligibility if they lose their fourth-straight AAC contest.
It’s one of two FBS games Friday night, earning a national TV spot on ESPN2, so a handful of eyes will be on the Dallas metroplex rivals in soon-to-be ACC country.
North Texas Mean Green outlook
North Texas (3-6, 1-4 AAC) is playing well above its record right now. The Mean Green are on the last leg of the “stretch of death” where they face the conference’s clear top four teams in a four-week span. They fell short of Tulane, 35-28. They overcame a 24-point deficit to capture a lead in the final minute against Memphis, before falling 45-42. And last Saturday, they came within one score of UTSA, 37-29.
North Texas is so close to breaking the metaphorical rock under first-year head coach Eric Morris, and Friday night presents their last opportunity at a true signature win this year. Additionally, bowl eligibility is also at stake for the Mean Green which ride a 3-game losing streak into Dallas. But how does North Texas finally take that leap forward against this level of competition? It starts with starting fast.
North Texas trailed Tulane 21-0 at halftime before tying that game at 28 apiece in the fourth quarter, it trailed Memphis 31-7 before retaking the lead in the final minute, and it trailed UTSA 30-13 entering the third quarter and inched the margin closer to one score in the final 15 minutes. During this “stretch of death,” North Texas has been outscored by opponents 79-23, but second halves have been a different story as the Mean Green hold a 76-38 advantage across those corresponding third and fourth quarters.
Although the offense sometimes sputters early, simply put, North Texas knows how to pile on points. Mean Green quarterback Chandler Rogers is one of the most talented in the AAC. Last week, he shattered his 7-game streak where he threw 19 touchdown passes without a second interception. The UTSA game was also his first time in eight games completing under 60 percent of his passes, and he’s been operating on high volume. In seven starts this season, Rogers averages 40.6 attempts per game and has exceeded the 300-yard mark in five of them.
UTSA’s defense provided plenty of pressure which contributed to Rogers’ worst start of the year, but it was by no means a bad game. He finished 20-of-37 for 272 yards with two touchdowns and interceptions each, but he took three sacks and faced constant duress — issues North Texas’ offensive line must amend before playing this stout SMU front. The Mean Green are in the bottom 30 in sacks allowed in the FBS at 2.8 per game, which is not the optimal formula against a top five pass rush in the FBS.
But North Texas’ offense is very multidimensional as the team produces the 36th-highest per game rushing output in the country at a sensational 5.1 yards per carry. The fleet-footed Ayo Adeyi averages 7.3 as the explosive lead back while Oscar Adaway provides strong support as the second fiddle with a 5’10”, 219 pound bruiser build. Explosive playmaking isn’t limited to the running back room, as Ja’Mori Maclin is a deep threat SMU must lock up at all times, as he can strike from anywhere. Maclin has turned 44 receptions into 766 yards (second in AAC) as Rogers’ preferred downfield target.
So why is North Texas 3-6 with the nation’s 11th-best offense? The defense is dead last in the country. The Mean Green allow an FBS-worst 470 yards per game and feature the fifth-worst scoring defense at 36.7 points per game. North Texas exceptionally struggles at containing the run, allowing an average of 40 more rushing yards when compared to the second-worst run-stopping team (Georgia Tech). It’s also a rarity for North Texas to reach a quarterback multiple times in a game, and the unit has only racked up 11 sacks through nine games — checking into the bottom 10 nationally in sack rate.
One key playmaker on the unit to watch is cornerback Ridge Texada. The junior from Frisco, TX was a First Team All-CUSA selection last year with 15 pass breakups and he remains a force in coverage. How he counters SMU’s pass-happy offense is one of the most essential matchups Friday night.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU (7-2, 5-0 AAC) is playing at a higher level than anybody in the AAC at the moment. The Mustangs are outscoring conference competition by an aggregate mark of 225-67, which calculates to an average score of 45-13. SMU lost early-season games to Oklahoma and TCU, but when the Mustangs win, it’s been dominant. Last Saturday against Rice was their first victory in 2023 by fewer than 18 points. But edging Rice 36-31 was no coincidence as Rice was SMU’s toughest AAC competition to date, considering the first four opponents it faced all currently boast records of 3-6 or worse.
North Texas is playing well right now, but overcoming the Mean Green’s spectacular offense isn’t the only adversity SMU is facing Friday night. The Mustangs are approaching the game with an uncertain quarterback situation as starter Preston Stone exited the Rice game in the fourth quarter after taking a shot to the head. Stone, who had been playing his best football the past three weeks, never returned, causing SMU to insert backup Kevin Jennings into the contest.
Jennings earned plenty of reps in the prior weeks due to 55-0 and 69-10 wins over Temple and Tulsa, but the redshirt freshman has yet to earn a start. Before the fourth quarter of the Rice game, Jennings hadn’t fielded a non-garbage time rep this season, but he’s shined in every opportunity. He is 16-of-20 on the year with 190 passing yards and three touchdowns, and he led SMU on a critical field goal drive on his only series against the Owls last Saturday. Jennings has demonstrated a degree of mobility as well, but SMU likely won’t design as many quarterback runs due to their current depth situation.
If Jennings starts instead of Stone, expect SMU to lean heavier on the run game out of the gate. While the Mustangs field the nation’s 20th-ranked passing attack, they aren’t too shabby in the run, averaging 174 yards per game as the FBS’s 42nd-best rushing unit. Different running backs get the spotlight each week in this backfield, but at this point in the season, it’s shifted to a two-back system featuring Jaylan Knighton and LJ Johnson Jr. Knighton and Johnson haven’t produced too many breakaway runs this year, but both backs are stellar at gaining 4-5 yards on initial downs and making things easier for the offense. Thanks to those early down contributions, SMU converts third downs at a respectable 43.7 percent clip.
SMU’s offense also boasts an incredibly deep receiving corps. Jake Bailey has emerged as the number one option with a team-high 31 receptions, but it’s an all-around versatile group. Jordan Kerley and Roderick Daniels Jr. are the premier deep threats, while tight end RJ Maryland (second on the team in receptions, tied for first in touchdowns) possesses a nightmare matchup for many linebackers due to speed and safeties due to size.
As dangerous as SMU’s offense is, the defense is even stronger. The Mustangs allowed an unorthodox 31 points to Rice last week — their second time surrendering 30 all year — although seven of them were due to special teams miscues. Still, the Mustangs rank ninth in scoring defense, eighth in total defense, ninth in pass defense, and 30th in run defense. Basically, there aren’t many holes in this unit.
What SMU does best is apply pressure. Only four teams generate sacks more often than the Mustangs’ 3.4 per game, and most of that pressure stems from the four men up front. North Texas’ linemen must be wary of anybody named ‘Elijah’ as defensive end Elijah Roberts has a team-high 7.5 sacks on the year while Elijah Chatman stars from the defensive tackle spot with 4.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss.
The Elijahs aren’t just great pass rushers, but they do an excellent job at stuffing the run game before the second level. Kobe Wilson is also one of the premier run stoppers on the team with a team-high 52 takedowns on the year. When it comes to SMU’s elite pass defense, one name to watch is Isaiah Nwokobia. The strong safety is first among defensive backs on the team with 44 tackles and he secured the game-winning interception in deep zone coverage a week ago.
Until the Rice game, SMU was playing at a higher level than anybody else in the AAC. The Mustangs weren’t facing the stiffest of competition, but they were obliterating opponents to a Georgia vs. FCS-like extent for several weeks. SMU’s offense has been a juggernaut for years, but 2023 just feels different since the defense is clicking on cylinders for the first time since the program joined the AAC. However, after allowing 31 to Rice, is the defense potent enough to contain a North Texas team that has proven to score in droves on everyone?
Don’t be fooled by North Texas’ record. The Mean Green keep competing within one score of the conference’s toughest competition. Given the uncertainty of Stone’s status, this could be the game North Texas finally breaks through and secures that coveted victory. The undefeated AAC record nearly snapped against Rice in a game where SMU had Stone for three quarters, and an improving Mean Green could certainly deliver that blow Friday night.
Prediction: North Texas 31, SMU 28