Saturday's American Athletic Conference Championship clash with Tulane is the biggest game the SMU program has undertaken since 1984. It will rely on a quarterback making his first career start to guide them to a victory, a New Year's Six Bowl and a launch pad into the Atlantic Coast Conference for 2024.
Preston Stone's dynamic first season as the starting quarterback ended in the second quarter of SMU's 59-14 romp over Navy when he broke his left fibula. The highest-rated recruit in program history was also peaking at the right time. His second-half heroics guided the Mustangs to a statement win over Memphis. Stone's 275 first-quarter yards against Navy were the most by an FBS quarterback this season.
SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee made no qualifiers. It's a damn shame Stone's season is finished. But the job isn't.
"Fortunately for us, there's probably not a lot of teams that if they lost their starting quarterback, could feel as good as we do," Lashlee said.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Jennings has risen to the occasion in every instance he has been called upon through two years on campus. He spelled an injured Stone in a gutsy 36-31 win over Rice. Last year, when Tanner Mordecai went down against Memphis, Jennings piloted a 92-yard scoring drive that proved the winning edge.
But none of those moments were as monumental as Saturday will be. How will the young quarterback handle it?
"He's played in a championship game in the state of Texas at AT&T Stadium," Lashlee said. "There's not an environment that's going to bother him."
Jennings is seeking to deliver SMU its first conference championship since 1984. Two years ago, he delivered the first state championship to a Dallas ISD school since 1958 when he captained South Oak Cliff to a 23-14 win over Liberty Hill in the Class 5A DII State Championship Game. 42,275 people watched with bated breath as Jennings threw for two touchdowns, was named the game's Offensive MVP and produced a once-impossible feat for the inner city.
Jennings is no deer in the headlights.
And the SMU offense is not dependent on quarterback heroics. Frankly, it's not dependent on anyone's heroics. Kelvontay Dixon's 125 yards against Navy last week was the first time an SMU wide receiver cracked the 100-yard mark all season. Five players are sitting at 400 yards receiving on the year. Jaylan Knighton, LJ Johnson and Camar Wheaton each have over 75 carries in the backfield. Everyone has a role. SMU needs Jennings to play his.
SMU is the fourth-best scoring unit in the nation, but they've consistently churned out high-octane offenses. Scott Symons's defensive makeover in his second season as coordinator is why the Mustangs are in the conference championship.
"If we wanted to have a chance to compete for a championship, we couldn't just have top-ten offenses," Lashlee said. "We had to have a championship-caliber defense."
Before the season. the coaching staff consistently told the players that SMU had yet to finish a season top 40 in total defense in 40 years. Right now, they're at 13th. The difference between this year's SMU team and the 2019 squad that won ten games and missed out on the championship is that 2023 SMU is first in the AAC in pass defense, allowing just 184 yards per game. In 2019, when Lashlee was the offensive coordinator, SMU was 121st in the nation.
It's also been a total team effort on that side of the ball. SMU has 16 players with at least 20 tackles. Safety Isaiah Nwokobia leads the team with three interceptions in the backend, but he's been aided by a bevy of transfers, including Jonathan McGill and Charles Woods. The defensive resurgence is a modern transfer portal success story.
With a win on Saturday, that story is still being written.
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