SMU wins first conference title since 1984... with a backup redshirt freshman QB

SMU Football

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NEW ORLEANS -- The Pony Express derailed with the NCAA's Death Penalty in the late 1980s. SMU's 26-14 win over Tulane on Saturday punctuated four decades of repairs necessary for a conference championship to reside on the Hilltop again.

After the game, SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee spoke on how hard it is to erect a true team mentality in college football's current NIL and transfer portal landscape. Yet SMU fostered that uncommon team character on a squad built by the transfer portal and a program ascending to the Power Five behind donor backing. Over 65 of the current SMU players weren't on the roster when Lashlee took over just two years ago.

Tulane was the reigning AAC champ who hadn't trailed in a football game by more than seven points since last year's storybook comeback against USC in the Cotton Bowl. The SMU roster Lashlee pieced together walked into enemy territory and punked them with its backup quarterback.

Tulane's conference player of the year, Michael Pratt, spent his afternoon picking himself off the turf from seven sacks. One of their two touchdowns came when Tulane was gifted the ball on the one-yard-line. AAC Rookie of the Year Makhi Hughes entered the night with 1,246 rushing yards and got stymied to 44.

And Kevin Jennings stepped in on the biggest stage possible and delivered.


Kevin Jennings outduels Michael Pratt


Jennings's first snap as a starting quarterback resulted in a strip fumble on an offensive line bust that allowed Tulane to take a 7-0 ten seconds into the game.

Later in the first quarter, he made the correct read but threw a ball behind his receiver that got picked off near the red zone. A couple of drives later, he threw another interception into double coverage, his first actual mistake. By the time there were 10 minutes left in the second quarter, the young signal-caller had three turnovers. It was the first time since September that SMU had more than one turnover in a game.

Jennings didn't flinch.

He finished 19-of-33 with 203 yards and a touchdown, adding a crucial 63 yards on the ground to extend drives and pad SMU's 34 minutes of possession. It was almost like he'd previously played in a state championship game in front of 42,000 fans. 

"Kevin Jennings is a stud. He balled out," Lashlee said. "But man, if winning a conference title with your backup quarterback doesn't scream, 'Team,' I don't know what else does."

He was poised. He was electric. During the week, Lashlee said they just needed Kevin to be Kevin, and he was just that. They had the team to back him up.

The difference is in the defense

Pratt didn't play poorly; he never had much chance. 

If he had enough time to throw, his wide receivers couldn't shake SMU's secondary. If his receivers managed to find a coverage hole, his offensive line allowed a protection hole of its own. That resulted in a measly 12 first downs and Tulane's second-lowest scoring output on the year.

College football's biggest open secret is SMU's elite defense. Gone are the days of SMU struggling to seven and eight wins behind a lucrative passing offense and porous defense. Since week five, SMU and Texas have led the nation in third-down defense, and that trend continued Saturday when Tulane converted just two of 15 third-down attempts.

It's a testament to defensive coordinator Scott Symons's rebuild and Lashlee's roster building. Transfer linebacker Kobe Wilson racked up 11 tackles. Half of the six guys who registered a sack were former transfers.

"We got into fall camp, and for so many years our offense has dominated in practice," Lashlee said. "And it was back and forth. We couldn't pass protect our D-Line. We couldn't beat our corners one on one. We knew we had something different."

But multiple guys who dominated Saturday have been on the Hilltop their entire careers. Defensive end Isaiah Smith notched two-and-a-half sacks. Safety Isaiah Nwokobia, repping the special No.23 jersey, continued his breakout campaign with an interception in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory.

SMU's Case for a New Year's Six Bowl

One Group of Five team gets the honor of competing for a New Year's Six Bowl. SMU's been the most complete G5 team all season.

The Mustangs are the AAC's top-ranked defense. They're fourth in the nation in total offense, and proved Saturday they don't fall off with Jennings at the helm for an injured Preston Stone. In a resume battle between SMU and undefeated Liberty, the Mustangs might be knocked for their two non-conference losses. But they shouldn't.

SMU's two losses are to the Big 12's Oklahoma and TCU. Their September matchup with the Sooners was 14-11 deep into the third quarter, and since the 34-17 loss to TCU they've reeled off nine-consecutive wins. They've gone undefeated in the AAC, a tougher conference than Conference USA, and they're 20th in ESPN's football power index compared to Liberty's 48th.

The committee has some big decisions to make for the College Football Playoff. They also need to pick between SMU and Liberty.

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