clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Wasabi Fenway Bowl Preview: SMU Mustangs vs. Boston College Eagles

SMU plays its final game as an AAC member against a soon-to-be ACC rival.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Football Championship-Southern Methodist at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Thursday, December 28 at 11:00 a.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Fenway Park — Boston, MA
  • Spread: SMU (-10)
  • Over/under: 47.5
  • All-time series: SMU leads, 1-0
  • Last meeting: SMU 31, Boston College 29 — October 4, 1986
  • Current streak: SMU, 1 (1986)
  • SMU last bowl: 2022 New Mexico Bowl, 24-23 loss to BYU
  • Boston College last bowl: 2019 Birmingham Bowl, 38-6 loss to Cincinnati
  • 2022 Fenway Bowl matchup: Louisville 24, Cincinnati 7

Setting the scene

This isn’t the usual result for an AAC champion.

Every year since 2017, the AAC champion qualified for a New Year’s Six bowl. But the six-year streak shockingly snapped the first week of December when SMU lost the bid to Conference USA champion Liberty — in a move which sparked plenty of debate throughout the college football universe.

SMU cruised through its AAC schedule, dismantled a ranked Tulane team for the conference crown, but was spurned of the Fiesta Bowl bid. Now, the 11-2 Mustangs — which depart for the ACC in 2024 — play their final game with the AAC logo on their chest against an opponent they’ll see each of the next three seasons in conference play.

SMU hopes to finish the job and further prove their New Year’s Six worthiness against future ACC foe Boston College in the programs’ first and only meeting since 1986. The Eagles are playing less than four miles from their on-campus stadium in the second annual Fenway Bowl, making a short trek while SMU flies over three hours for a trip to Boston.

There is also one other shared commonality between the two teams. SMU and Boston College are two of the only three teams in the FBS to have multiple bowl games canceled this century. The Mustangs missed the 2020 Frisco Bowl and 2021 Fenway Bowl due to COVID-19, while the Eagles missed the 2018 First Responder Bowl due to weather conditions and the 2021 Military Bowl due to COVID-19.


SMU Mustangs outlook

SMU (11-2, 8-0 AAC) is one of the hottest teams in college football. Only five teams — Washington, Florida State, Liberty, Michigan, and Alabama — tote longer streaks than the Mustangs’ nine consecutive victories.

Rhett Lashlee’s team dominated the majority of its competition too. SMU enters Thursday with 11 wins and nine featured margins of victory by 12+ points and eight featured margins of victory by 18+. The Mustangs haven’t trailed in the second half of a game since their Sept. 23 loss to TCU, outscoring opponents by an average score of 44 to 17 since that Saturday in Fort Worth.

SMU is typically known for its explosive offenses, and with 40.6 points per game, the team ranks in the FBS top 15 in scoring for the fifth consecutive year. But what separates this Mustangs squad — the first to capture a conference championship since 1984 — from its predecessors is the defense. SMU hadn’t ranked better than 75th in scoring defense since 2012, and this year’s defense led by second-year coordinator Scott Symons wasn’t just average — they were elite.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Football Championship-Southern Methodist at Tulane
SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee celebrates with the AAC Championship Game trophy after defeating Tulane, 26-14.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

SMU held eight opponents to 17 points or fewer this season, exhibiting the nation’s 12th-best scoring defense at 17.4 points per game. Last year the Mustangs let up 34 points per game and in 2023, not a single opponent exceeded 34 points on this defense. Just like the offense thrived in both the air and ground departments, the defense exuded multidimensionality as well. SMU boasts a top 25 run defense and top 25 pass defense, holding status as one of 11 teams to surrender fewer than 300 yards per game this year.

For the second time this year, the Mustangs will operate without All-AAC quarterback Preston Stone, who suffered a season-ending fibula fracture in the regular season finale. Lashlee’s offense will turn to Kevin Jennings, who started and won the AAC Championship Game in his first career start. The former high school state championship winning quarterback shined under the bright lights in New Orleans, upending Tulane behind 203 passing yards and 63 rushing yards, overcoming three turnovers to lead the Mustangs to a double-digit victory.

Jennings is supported by an offensive line with three First Team All-AAC selections which only yielded 1.15 sacks per game this year — ranking top 15 in the FBS. He also receives support from an incredibly deep skill position group. Lashlee said preseason he wanted SMU to be an “uncommon team” in terms of its depth, and the Mustangs embody that to the fullest extend. Their receiving corps doesn’t have a clear No. 1 option, but eight different players have between 319 and 518 receiving yards this year — with star tight end RJ Maryland leading the pack with 518 yards and seven touchdowns. The running back corps also boasts similar depth. SMU rotates between Jaylan Knighton, LJ Johnson, and Camar Wheaton at the position but all three backs average between 45 and 66 yards per game with at least 5.0 yards per carry.

That “uncommon team” moniker is evident within the defense as well. The Mustangs don’t have a single player ranking in the top 16 of the AAC in tackles, but 17 different players on the unit have at least 20 tackles to their name this season. As stated before, the defense shines in all areas, but the engine behind all of the success is the commanding front four.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 North Texas at SMU
SMU DE Elijah Roberts ranks second in the AAC in sacks with 10.0 on the year. Roberts recorded 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble in the AAC title game.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive end Elijah Roberts is second in the conference with 10 sacks on the year and the Miami (FL) transfer is perfectly complemented by longtime defensive tackle Elijah Chatman who cracked First Team All-AAC honors with 4.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss. With the Elijahs leading the charge, SMU features the second-best pass rush in the nation generating 3.6 sacks per game — and this was evident in the AAC title game when sacking Tulane on seven occasions.

Forcing turnovers was one of the rare areas where SMU wasn’t elite defensively this season. The Mustangs only recovered five fumbles and just one defender corralled more than one interception this season. That was strong safety Isaiah Nwokobia, who became the first defensive player to win the AAC Championship Game MVP in history. Nwokobia is a playmaker on the back end with four interceptions and 58 tackles this year, and he’ll be joined by other adept defensive backs like Jonathan McGill and Cale Sanders, who combine for 16 pass breakups.


Boston College Eagles outlook

Boston College (6-6, 3-5 ACC) entered the second week of November with a 6-3 record and a manageable schedule ahead. The Eagles won five consecutive games around the midseason point and looked bound for their first season featuring more than seven wins since 2009. However, they dropped three-straight contests to Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Miami (FL) to revert to .500 entering bowl season.

However, Boston College has a massive opportunity ahead of it. In the first bowl game of the Jeff Hafley era, the Eagles will be pitted against a ranked 11-win SMU team that many thought was destined for the New Year’s Six. Boston College is 1-27 in its last 28 games against ranked competition, and Thursday presents an opportunity for the the team’s most important signature win in a decade.

In order to generate a trajectory-altering victory, the Eagles need more input from the offense. Boston College scored below 23 points in each of its final five regular season outings, and the team only broke the 30-point barrier once against FBS competition this year. But the unit comes with immense potential as long as No. 1 operates under center.

NCAA Football: Miami at Boston College
Boston College QB Thomas Castellanos is third in rushing among quarterbacks this season, sitting 43 yards away from hitting 1,000 yards.
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

That is former UCF quarterback Thomas Castellanos, who ranks third among all quarterbacks in rushing this year with 957 yards. The talented and electrifying scrambler is closing in on 1,000 this game and he doesn’t even need designed runs to add to that total. Castellanos is among the best improvisers in college football, and this shows on a weekly basis. He exceeded 120 rushing yards three times this year and was only held below 40 once. Best of all, Castellanos doesn’t take many sacks and Boston College ranks fourth in the ACC with 1.58 allowed per game — with star guard Christian Mahogany as the line’s anchor.

Castellanos is the team’s leading rusher, but Boston College also gets good production from its running backs. WKU transfer Kye Robichaux emerged as the No. 1 tailback throughout the year, surpassing 100 yards three times during the latter half of the season to get his 2023 total to 691. Pat Garwo will miss this game due to the transfer portal, but Robichaux should receive support from Alex Broome who ranks third on the team in the yardage department.

The Eagles’ passing offense is hit-or-miss, ranking 106th in the country with 189 yards pre game. Castellanos is certain to deliver spectacular throws on a game-by-game basis, but the true sophomore is also a well-documented risk taker with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions on the year. Boston College didn’t pick up more than 180 passing yards in its final five contests, so in order to ramp up the offense, greater aerial production is a must. Lewis Bond is the clear No. 1 option in this regard, as the receiver owns 611 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 48 catches this year — and no other Eagle has more than 25 receptions.

It’s been a very mixed bag for Boston College from a defensive perspective. The run defense is shaky, allowing 194 yards per game to rank 124th in the FBS. But the pass defense is in excellent shape, checking in at 28th in the country in yards allowed while holding teams a 59.4 completion percentage. Unfortunately for Boston College, the team must operate without its lone First Team All-ACC defender in cornerback Elijah Jones, who suffered a season-ending injury after hauling in five interceptions this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Miami (FL) at Boston College
Boston College DE Neto Okpala is tied for the team-lead in sacks (2.0) and tackles for loss (5.0).
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unlike SMU, the Eagles don’t thrive as a pass rush and not a single player on the roster has more than two sacks on the season. Boston College is tied for third-to-last in the FBS in sacks per game with 1.0, so the front seven certainly needs to ramp that up to give itself a chance in Boston. Defensive end Neto Okpala will be one player aiming to improve that standing, entering this Military Bowl matchup against a stout SMU offensive line with a team-high five tackles for loss.

Other aspects of the defense Boston College must hone heading into its 2023 finale are fourth down defense and red zone defense. The Eagles are second-to-last in stopping teams in critical fourth down situations, allowing a 78.6 conversion percentage this year. Generating stops in the red zone is a difficult ask as well, as Boston College is sixth-to-last in this category, surrendering points on 92.7 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line — yielding 33 touchdowns on 41 opponent red zone possessions.


Prediction

SMU entered bowl season with a New Year’s Six caliber résumé, throttling its conference competition en route to its first-ever AAC title. Instead of booking a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, the Mustangs must continue to prove their worthiness against a 6-6 team they’ll face in Dallas during ACC play in 2024.

In terms of key contributors, SMU returns the whole cast of characters, save for starting quarterback Preston Stone who remains out with an injury. That being said, the Mustangs trot an elite offense and elite defense into Fenway Park and should be definitive favorites.

But it might be closer than expected. Thomas Castellanos is an electrifying playmaker, and SMU hasn’t faced a quarterback with these rushing capabilities this year. If the Mustangs can bottle him up in the pocket, they’ll cruise to victory. But Castellanos’ dynamic playmaking could give SMU’s high-caliber defense a run for its money and keep the Eagles in this one. Still, the Mustangs exhibit enough talent on both ends to emerge with their first bowl trophy since 2012.

Prediction: SMU 31, Boston College 21