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2023 Week 4 Iron Skillet Game Preview: SMU Mustangs @ TCU Horned Frogs

The Iron Skillet is nearing an end. This is the third-to-last meeting scheduled between the metroplex rivals.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 TCU at SMU Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 12:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: FS1
  • Location: Amon G. Carter Stadium — Fort Worth, TX
  • Spread: TCU (-6.5)
  • Over/under: 63.5
  • All-time series: TCU leads, 52-42-7
  • Last meeting: TCU 20, Houston 13 — September 24, 2022
  • Current streak: TCU, 1 (2022)

Setting the scene

The Iron Skillet is nearing its end.

TCU and SMU have settled it on the gridiron all but seven seasons since 1915, battling for both the Skillet and superiority in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. But one month ago, the series was placed on hiatus, with no future meetings scheduled after the 2025 matchup in Fort Worth — becoming the latest rivalry to vanish in this age of conference realignment.

NCAA Football: SMU at Texas Christian
TCU leads the all-time series in the Iron Skillet, 52-42-7, currently riding a 1-game win streak into Saturday’s matchup.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Horned Frogs are the current owners of the Iron Skillet, claiming the rivalry trophy in a 42-34 shootout last September in one of the more closely-contested games during their College Football Playoff run. This year, both programs enter 2-1, hungry to improve to 3-1, vault into the rankings, and hoist the frying pan during the twilight years of an iconic rivalry.

SMU Mustangs outlook

While the Iron Skillet farewell tour doesn’t transpire until 2025, this season is a farewell tour in itself for SMU. After 10 seasons of holding membership in the AAC, the Mustangs will transition to the ACC in 2024. This will be their final non-conference matchup before AAC play commences, and so far, they’ve pieced together a 2-1 record with a closer-than-it-looks, 28-11 loss to an Oklahoma team that has otherwise outscored FBS opponents 139-17 this year.

The Mustangs are fresh off a 69-0 shellacking of an FCS opponent, with their high-functioning offense operating at its usual level last Saturday. SMU has posted top 15 scoring offenses in four consecutive seasons, and head coach Rhett Lashlee aims to sustain that tradition with a first-year starting quarterback in Preston Stone. Stone has fired for 798 yards and nine touchdowns thus far, completing passes at a 62.7 percent clip with only two interceptions. Like TCU, SMU ranks in the top 25 of the FBS in passing attempts per game, so Stone’s arm serves as the true foundation for this offense.

SMU QB Preston Stone is coming off a career performance, setting new highs in passing yards (300) and passing touchdowns (5).
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year, Rashee Rice was the overwhelming preferred target for the passing game, but without Rice on campus, SMU has implemented a “pick your poison” philosophy through the air. Jake Bailey is the current receptions and yards leader with 13 and 136 on the season, but Jordan Hudson, Roderick Daniels Jr., Jordan Kerley, and Moochie Dixon have all provided significant contributions through three games. Speed is the prevailing theme among these receivers, and SMU utilizes a diverse route tree, delivering quick screens in space as well as launching deep shots on a recurring basis.

The Mustangs will mismatch hunt with 6’4”, 233 pound tight end RJ Maryland, who is one of the better receiving tight ends in college football. Maryland ranks second on the team with nine receptions and is capable of going vertical in addition to working as a red zone threat.

Although SMU favors the air, its running back stable is as deep as its been since joining the AAC. Transfers LJ Johnson Jr. (Texas A&M) and Jaylan Knighton (Miami (FL)) are the primary backs guiding the run game which ranks 61st in the FBS. Johnson piled on 128 yards in the opener, while Knighton — who missed Week 3’s action due to suspension — posted 140 yards through his first two games with the Mustangs. Camar Wheaton is a third name to watch in that group, accumulating 75 yards as the most utilized back last Saturday.

The most promising development of SMU football this year has been the arrival of a relentless defense. Defense has plagued the program from reaching the AAC title game, failing to finish better than 75th in scoring defense since 2013. But this year’s transfer-laden squad is on pace for a different trajectory. So far, SMU has yielded 42 points on the season and 24 were courtesy of offensive juggernaut Oklahoma. The defense was the unit which kept that matchup closely contested into the fourth quarter at 14-11, providing fits in the Oklahoma run game for the majority of the game.

SMU DT Elijah Chatman was the team’s lone All-AAC defensive selection in 2022.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SMU’s strongest defensive asset is its line which ranks 12th in the country in sacks per game at 3.7, racking up 7.0 tackles for loss in total. Miami (FL) transfer defensive end Elijah Roberts and Oklahoma transfer defensive tackle Kori Roberson have provided firepower to a unit which already featured veteran talent such as Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston.

The defense is already trained for TCU’s tempo after facing Oklahoma, and once again, the unit will be pitted against a very multidimensional offense. The Horned Frogs not only rank in the FBS top 25 in the run game, but they also excel through the air. In a promising transformation from prior years, SMU is currently 18th in fewest passing yards allowed and safeties Jonathan McGill and Bryan Massey will play vital roles in shutting down TCU’s quick passing game.

TCU Horned Frogs outlook

TCU quietly took care of business two weeks in a row after Week 1’s defensive debacle against Colorado, which caused the reigning No. 2 program in the nation to slip outside the AP Poll. But the Frogs are possibly one win away from climbing back into the picture after starting 1-0 in Big 12 play with a decisive 36-13 road victory at Houston.

The most impressive part about that commanding 23-point win? TCU’s defense displayed marked improvement to the point where it didn’t allow an offensive touchdown for the second consecutive week. The Horned Frogs were plagued by early turnover issues in a slow offensive start, but the defense responded to every tough situation it was thrown in, dominating the line of scrimmage to record six sacks and stifle the Cougars to 1.5 yards per rushing attempt.

TCU’s assertiveness up front essentially made Houston one-dimensional, and Joe Gillespie’s drop-eight defense countered the passing game with near-perfection, causing a sub-50 percent completion rate and picking off a pair of passes. Much of the credit belongs to the ample pressure provided by defensive end Paul Oyewale and outside linebacker Johnny Hodges, who combined for four tackles in an all-around spectacular showing for the unit.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU
TCU OLB Johnny Hodges currently has 21 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks on the season.
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Hodges leads a stellar linebacking corps which will need to be on its coverage game Saturday, eating up SMU’s screens and underneath routes. The 2022 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year ranks second on the team with 21 tackles, and he’s complemented by outside linebacker Namdi Obiazor and middle linebacker Jamoi Hodge, who are some of the other supreme tacklers on a defense filled with national championship pedigree.

Coverage will be of utmost importance this week, so a lot falls onto the shoulders of cornerbacks Josh Newton and Avery Helm, as well as free safety Bud Clark. Mainly due to the Colorado game, TCU exhibits the eighth-to-last ranked passing defense in yards per game, and this Preston Stone-led SMU offense can present similar challenges to the ones encountered against the Buffaloes. Clark, who added an interception Saturday to his five picks last year, will be the main force in zone coverage preventing SMU from explosive playmaking, while the aforementioned corners (who combine for five pass deflections) hope to contain the boundaries.

TCU’s offense — the unit replacing the majority of starters from 2022 — is the unit which has displayed much more consistency through three games, averaging 39.7 points per contest. The one element the fast-paced Horned Frogs offense must eradicate is turnovers, as the Horned Frogs have coughed the ball up six times this season, including three inopportune interceptions in the 15-yard line.

After a few early turnovers, quarterback Chandler Morris settled into the best version of himself in the Houston game. He eclipsed the 300-yard mark for the first time this season, delivering two 30+ yard deep shots for touchdowns in the Big 12 opener. Morris is also growing as a runner with 116 yards in the last two weeks, and quarterback mobility was a significant part of TCU’s offense with Max Duggan last year.

TCU v Houston
TCU RB Emani Bailey ranks sixth in the FBS in rushing yardage after his second 125+ yard performance of 2023.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

But TCU’s run game, which is 19th in the FBS at 214 yards per game, is primarily spearheaded by Emani Bailey. The physical downhill runner posted 164 yards in the opener with a slew of breakaway scampers, and he excelled with 126 last Saturday. Bailey is sixth in the FBS in rushing yards, and two of the running backs ahead of him have participated in four games. The budding star will be supported by Trey Sanders, a reliable short-yardage threat with four touchdowns on the season.

The Horned Frogs’ receiving corps has been severely banged up this season with starting receivers Savion Williams and Dylan Wright both missing time already. Wright’s status for Saturday is still unknown after missing back-to-back games, but the receiver group is very balanced just like SMU’s and there isn’t a clear-cut No. 1 option like a Quentin Johnsotn. JP Richardson and Warren Thompson are the only receivers with over 100 yards this season, but Williams and Jaylon Robinson both have the potential to take over games. Lastly, TCU incorporates a hint of tight end into the offense, and the Horned Frogs aim to make 6’7”, 260 pound tight end Jared Wiley a matchup problem for SMU’s defense.


After the level of execution SMU’s defense has witnessed all season, and the vast improvement TCU’s defense has demonstrated in the past two weeks, this Iron Skillet doesn’t seem destined for its typical shootout nature.

But both teams unleash a diverse set of talent at the skill positions, and the new starting quarterbacks Preston Stone and Chandler Morris have shown enough promise to keep these offenses rolling this September. The overall expected result should be a score in the mid-20s with both offenses and both defenses earning their fair share of victories.

The determining factor will be TCU’s ability to run the ball, and Emani Bailey will break countless tackles en route to another stellar rushing performance. On the other side of the action, TCU’s linebackers should provide enough counter to SMU’s run game to cause a string of punts, keeping the Horned Frogs one step ahead the entire time at The Carter.

Prediction: TCU 31, SMU 24