Tulane has been the best team in the American Athletic Conference for the last two seasons.
SMU would like to unseat the Green Wave as AAC champions in its final game before departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference next year.
The No. 22 Green Wave (11-1) and Mustangs (10-2) will meet in the AAC Championship Game on Saturday in New Orleans. The teams did not play during the regular season.
Tulane is the highest-ranked team outside of the Power 5 conferences and poised to play in a New Year’s 6 bowl for a second consecutive season. SMU can strengthen its bowl positioning and perhaps even claim a New Year’s 6 bowl by winning.
The Green Wave have won 10 games in a row and their defense has triggered more comfortable wins in the last two games after a series of one-score victories.
“The defense has really risen to the challenge over the last few weeks,” Tulane head coach Willie Fritz said.
Tulane clinched the host spot in the title game when it defeated visiting Texas-San Antonio 29-16 last Friday. A week earlier, it defeated Florida Atlantic 24-8. In the four games before that, the Green Wave won by a total of 14 points.
Makhi Hughes leads the AAC in rushing (1,246 yards) and quarterback Michael Pratt leads the conference in passing efficiency (164.9). Tulane has the top run defense and the leaders in kickoff returns (Shedro Louis, 31.2 yards) and field goals made (Valentino Ambrosio, 19).
“There have been different ways that we’ve needed to win games, based on availability of players and based on the strengths of the opponent we were playing,” Fritz said.
Pratt has played through leg injuries much of the season on his way to becoming the Green Wave’s career leader in passing yardage and passing touchdowns. He was named AAC Offensive Player of the Year on Wednesday.
“There’s not a whole lot that you can throw at Michael that he hasn’t seen over and over again,” Fritz said.
The Mustangs won’t have starting quarterback Preston Stone, who sustained a season-ending broken fibula in a 59-14 home victory against Navy last Saturday.
Head coach Rhett Lashlee described redshirt freshman Kevin Jennings, who replaced Stone and will start Saturday, as a starting quality backup.
“There probably aren’t a lot of teams if they lost their starting quarterback could feel as good as we do,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got a guy who’s played a lot of football, who won a (high school) state championship just two years ago playing in AT&T Stadium.
“There’s not an environment that’s going to bother him. He’s the same guy every day. He’s been that way ever since he got here. He’s super talented. He can throw it, he can run it.”
Lashlee said SMU has a complete team that can succeed even if Jennings, who has completed 18-of-24 passes for 224 yards with three touchdowns this season, doesn’t match Stone’s productivity.
“He doesn’t have to go win it, he’s just got to be Kevin,” Lashlee said. “I think our team just needs to do what they can do around him and he’ll be just fine.”
The Mustangs perennially have an explosive offense, but this season, they also led the conference in scoring defense (17.7 points per game).
“We were able to play some really good defense this year and that helped us get here,” said Lashlee, who has a 17-8 record in two seasons at SMU and agreed to a multi-year contract extension Monday.