Thousands of fans decked in olive green and sky blue flocked into Yulman Stadium to witness a coronation. Tulane claimed the American Athletic Conference championship on the same playing surface 364 days prior. Last year’s conference title was about establishing a legacy. This year, in a revamped version of the AAC, it was about cementing a dynasty.
But enter the SMU Mustangs. SMU similarly entered this game unscathed in AAC play, riding an 8-game win streak since late September. They thoroughly dominated their conference competition by an average margin of 29 points per game and never trailed in the second half of a single AAC game. Yet, the Mustangs entered their first AAC Championship Game as road underdogs, unranked and unaccounted for by the College Football Playoff committee.
In their final crack at an AAC title before departing to the ACC in 2024, SMU made its statement. The Mustangs continued their breeze through the AAC, taking down the reigning champion Green Wave in a 26-14 result. It marked SMU’s first conference championship since 1984 and first outright title since 1982.
“I could not be more happy for our president Dr. Gerald Turner for getting a conference championship in football, our AD Rick Hart, our board of trustees, and our entire fanbase who has been through a lot for 40 years,” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee said. “One of the most unjust penalties in the history of college athletics set our program back and it’s been a long road back, but I couldn’t be proud for just everyone who went to SMU, loves SMU, grew up wanting to play at SMU, comes to games, the entire SMU family.”
SMU was a founding member of the AAC in 2013. After initial struggles, the Mustangs turned their program into a perennial winner in 2019 with current head coach Rhett Lashlee serving as the program’s offensive coordinator. Despite the AP Poll appearances and regular top 15 scoring offenses, SMU never attained its conference championship dreams until this year. Defensive struggles prevented the Mustangs from reaching the promise land, finishing 75th or below in scoring defense in each of their first 10 years holding AAC membership.
This year’s SMU team was simply different. The Mustangs, led by second-year coordinator Scott Symons, entered ranked 13th in scoring defense and total defense. For a program renowned for its offensive reputation, that defense won them a championship Saturday. SMU suffocated a run-oriented Tulane team to just 36 yards on 21 carries, forcing punt after punt. Then strong safety Isaiah Nwokobia iced the cake to a defensively dominant performance with an interception that essentially sealed the contest with 4:28 remaining. Nwokobia was named the first defensive MVP in AAC Championship Game history for his efforts.
“As far as the defense, we took pride in ourselves to make SMU a defensive school again, help the offense, and be as good as the offense is,” Nwokobia said. “We took that pride upon ourselves to get deep in the offseason, stay together as a team, and it paid off.”
Offensively, the Mustangs were required to overcome adversity before the game kicked off. Year-long starting quarterback Preston Stone fractured his fibula in the regular season finale after an all-conference campaign featuring 3,197 yards and 28 touchdowns. Backup Kevin Jennings was thrust into the starting lineup for the first time in his collegiate career.
Then, overcoming in-game adversity was required. Jennings committed three turnovers in the first 20 minutes of game-time, but SMU’s defense prevented those giveaways from serving too costly. That gave Jennings the confidence needed to needed to finish, and the quarterback extended countless plays, throwing for 203 yards and rushing for 63. In the second quarter, he delivered a perfect 17-yard strike to Key’Shawn Smith in the end zone to establish a 14-7 lead which never would be relinquished.
“The one I was most proud of him bouncing back from was the first play which wasn’t his fault,” Lashlee said, referring to Tulane’s strip-sack on the game’s opening snap. “For that to be your first play of the game, that could be rattling. We told the guys when we ran off that it’s 10 seconds into the game, it’s 7-0, we got the ball first. That’s not good. But we got four quarters to make up for it, and I thought the defense did a great job of coming over to him between drives and telling him, ‘We got your back.’ We were gonna be aggressive, we were gonna play to win the game, we trusted him fully. He made a whole lot more big time plays, particularly on third downs and scrambling, than the two mistakes.”
SMU never scored a touchdown after that second quarter strike from Jennings, but the Mustangs pushed the sticks in the second half a lot more successfully than the Green Wave. SMU totaled 21 first downs compared to Tulane’s nine, and the Mustangs regularly invaded field goal range. A 4-for-4 second half showing by First Team All-AAC kicker Collin Rogers provided them all 12 of their second half points.
“It’s big for him because he’s missed more field goals this year than we thought,” Lashlee said. “But the mental component of the game for him has really gone up a tick this year. Last year he made everything short of 50 yards. This year, especially in the first three or four games, he missed some kicks he doesn’t normally miss. But then he just kept making big kicks in big moments.”
SMU was firmly in control for nearly the entirety of the game, but the defending AAC champions couldn’t have asked for a better 10 seconds to start the contest. On the first snap of the afternoon, defensive end Devean Deal shed a blocker and stripped the ball out of SMU quarterback Jennings’ hand. Deal recovered the loose ball and was tripped just inches from the goal line. Tulane completed the most efficient 1-yard possession possible in response, utilizing the trendy “tush push” quarterback sneak to send quarterback Michael Pratt into the end zone.
Aside from that expedited 1-play, 1-yard touchdown drive, Tulane’s offense was rather limited for the remainder of the night. A Green Wave team which prefers to run down opponents’ throats never exploded for more than nine yards on 21 attempts. The inability to gain leverage on SMU’s immovable front resulted in three-and-out after three-and-out. The Mustangs punted on each of their first five drives following the tush push — only picking up one first down in that extended sequence.
“It’s pretty cool to win our first outright conference championship since ‘82 and our first championship of any kind since ‘84 on the shoulders of our defense if you really think what our reputation’s been like the past decade,” Lashlee said. “It’s a true team win and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The inability to run shifted Tulane’s focus to the passing game, where the Green Wave put the ball in the hands of Pratt, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year possibly playing in his final game at Yulman Stadium. But SMU dominated in the trenches in this facet as well, recording seven sacks on Pratt, led by 2.5 from defensive end Isaiah Smith. The ongoing sacks put SMU into many difficult down-and-distance situations, and SMU finished 2-of-15 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth.
“(SMU) plays really, really well,” Pratt said. “They’re a really good football team. They’ve got a lot of dudes on the defensive side of the ball that can make plays. They can cover well. They can put pressure on the quarterback, but we didn’t make plays when they were there... To be successful, push the ball down the field, continue drives, you’ve got to be able to convert on third and fourth downs, and we didn’t.”
But until the midway point of the fourth quarter, Tulane remained within striking distance by means of the turnover battle. The Green Wave entered Saturday tied for 14th nationally in takeaways with 22 on the season, upending UTSA last Friday thanks to a 5-1 advantage in the turnover battle. Tulane snatched the ball from the Mustangs three times by the 10:22 mark of the second quarter, picking off two passes inside the 20-yard line in addition to the fumble recovery on the game’s opening snap.
“We knew we wanted to be really aggressive,” Tulane cornerback Jarius Monroe said. “We stress ball security over here, so we know what great ball security is. We just wanted an opportunity to make plays for our team. We talked about it all week, even at practice. To see it come into play, it was amazing.”
Tulane managed seven points after the first 10 seconds of the game as Pratt fired an uncontested 42-yard bomb to Yulkeith Brown on a 3rd and 1 with a QB sneak disguise. But SMU pitched a total shutout for the final 23:46 of action, extending its streak to nine consecutive games without trailing in the second half. The Mustangs snapped Tulane’s 10-game win streak, providing the Green Wave their first loss to an AAC opponent since last November.
“We went out there and we played our hearts out, man,” Monroe said. “You can look at the scoreboard and say whatever it says, but everyone on our team with a Tulane jersey played their heart out, and that’s what I’m most proud of. You can’t be sad for too long... This program is a dynasty, man. The thing about this, it’s just one game. Tulane’s gonna continue to grow and I think you guys will see that.”
When Jennings took the final kneel down, a party was hosted at midfield for the visitors. SMU fans stormed the field, celebrated and took pictures the players, and even chants of “A-C-C” erupted in the midst of the mosh pit to celebrate the Mustangs’ upcoming conference move, while leaving the AAC as champions. Blue and red confetti sprinkled the field as Lashlee held the trophy high into the New Orleans night sky.
“It means the world to me, being here from Dallas and bringing a championship back to the city of Dallas,” Nwokobia said. “It just means the world we were able to come together as a team and do something that hasn’t been done this city for a really long time.”
Now, SMU’s successful 2023 campaign belongs in hands external to the program. The Mustangs discover their fate Sunday. In order to clinch a coveted New Year’s Six bowl, this currently-unranked SMU team must vault Conference USA champion Liberty which was ranked No. 24 in the College Football Playoff committee’s latest rankings. SMU defeated No. 22 Tulane to add a top 25 road win to its résumé. Using Liberty’s 133rd ranked schedule of 133 FBS teams as an argument, Lashlee strongly advocated for the committee to reserve SMU a spot in the New Year’s Six.
“The American Conference, without question, whoever won this game should be in a New Year’s Six Bowl,” Lashlee said. “Tulane’s a phenomenal team. They don’t care what I think anyway, but the facts are the facts. Look, I voted Liberty and James Madison in the top 25 this week in the Coaches’ Poll. I just didn’t have them ahead of us and Tulane. I think they’re excellent football teams. But we’re the only one of that group that went on the road and beat a top 25 team. We’re the only one who went on the road and played a top 12 team. We beat a 9-3 Memphis team on the road. What message does it say to schools going forward as we go to a 12-team playoff if you don’t even schedule a ‘Power’ school. You don’t even schedule one. Yeah, you play who’s on your schedule, but you didn’t schedule one. Why would you if just going undefeated is enough? We went out and played OU and TCU. Tulane played Ole Miss. Our league is substantially better and we both went undefeated in the league. I hate that I have to sit here and do this because I don’t want to, but I believe in this team. We’ve proven we can play with teams ranked in that top 12. We did it on the road, not even in a neutral environment and that was Week 2. We’re a different team now. I hope they get rewarded. If they don’t, we got the ultimate team goal of the championship and that’s what our No. 1 goal was. But it would be a real shame to not let, who I think, most people in the country believe, especially after today, is the best team from a ‘Group of Five’ conference. It’s earned, and I hope we get what we earned.”