The lone game between 10-win teams this bowl season outside of the New Year's Six takes place in sunny South Florida, where Florida Atlantic will have a de facto home game against SMU in the Boca Raton Bowl on Saturday.
For a while, it looked like SMU might be this season's Group of 5 representative in the New Year's Six, but late-season losses to eventual American Athletic Conference champion Memphis and Navy by a combined 13 points derailed that endeavor. What the Mustangs could do under second-year head coach Sonny Dykes, however, is get to 11 wins for the first time since 1982, the days of the infamous Pony Express.
Lane Kiffin is on his way to Oxford to become the new head coach of Ole Miss, but FAU will look to tie a school record by earning its 11th win. The Owls overcame blowout losses to Ohio State and UCF to open the year before winning 10 of their final 11 games and a second Conference USA title in three years. Florida Atlantic blasted reigning conference champion UAB 49-6 in the Conference USA Championship.
FAU doesn't have the richest of football histories, but it is 3-0 all-time in bowl games. The Mustangs will aim for their first bowl victory since the 2012 Hawaii Bowl under June Jones.
Boca Raton Bowl: SMU (10-2) at Florida Atlantic (10-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: FAU Football Stadium (Boca Raton, Fla.)
Spread: SMU -3
When SMU Has the Ball
SMU enters the Boca Raton Bowl ranking in the top 10 nationally in both scoring and total offense. In 12 games this season, the Mustangs scored fewer than 34 points just once and hit the 40-point mark eight times. Texas transfer Shane Buechele led the AAC this season with 33 touchdown passes — good for sixth nationally — while passing for more than 3,600 yards. Buechele passed for at least 400 yards three times this season. He threw nine interceptions.
There is no shortage of talent around Buechele. SMU was among fewer than 15 teams nationally to have a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver. Xavier Jones rushed for nearly 1,250 yards this season and a conference-high 21 touchdowns. SMU also had the conference's leading touchdown catcher in James Poche, who finished the regular season with 1,139 yards and ranked second nationally with 102 catches and third nationally with 14 touchdown grabs. Fellow receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and tight end Kylen Granson combined for more than 1,400 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns.
Despite allowing 93 points in its first two games, Florida Atlantic ranked third in Conference USA in scoring defense, allowing just over 22 points per contest. Over their last 10 games, the Owls have yielded fewer than 17 points per game. The linebacker duo of Akileis Leroy and Rashad Smith may be the best in Conference USA. The two combined for 199 stops and 11 sacks. Leroy has 101 tackles, 7.5 sacks, three interceptions, and five forced fumbles. Leighton McCarthy, a junior, has six sacks from his defensive end position and is very good off the edge.
The strength for the FAU defense this season has been takeaways. The Owls have forced more turnovers, 31, than any other team in the country. Senior cornerback Meiko Dotson leads the country in interceptions with nine on the year. The Owls were 6-0 this season when Dotson came away with a pick.
When FAU Has the Ball
At more than 35 points per contest, Florida Atlantic was the highest-scoring team in Conference USA and was behind only Louisiana Tech in total yardage. A big reason for that was the play of the reliable Chris Robison. Robison struggled early, but he comes in with nearly 3,400 yards passing, 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Like Buechele at SMU, Robison has a deep corps of skill players around him.
The Owls had four different receivers with at least five touchdown receptions in the regular season, but the supporting cast is going to look different on Saturday afternoon. Harrison Bryant, a senior, leads all tight ends in the nation with 1,004 yards receiving to go with seven touchdown grabs. He was named the recipient of the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's best tight end. In what is a huge blow to FAU's passing game, Bryant and receivers Pico Harrison and DeAngelo Antoine won't play due to an academic suspension. FAU was 5-0 this season when Bryant, a 6-5 target, caught a touchdown. John Mitchell (35 catches), Willie Wright (12) and tight end John Raine (31) will assume a bigger workload in the passing game for Robison. In the backfield, the Owls had three different backs rush for at least five touchdowns. Freshman Malcolm Davidson led the way with 711 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on a stellar seven yards per carry average. He's also expected to miss this game, which leaves James Charles (359) and Larry McCammon III (324) as the top options at running back.
It's safe to say that defense wasn't SMU's bread and butter this season. The Mustangs are yielding more than 31 points and nearly 440 yards per game. Seven of their 12 opponents hit the 30-point mark. What SMU does do well defensively, however, is get to the quarterback, posting 50 sacks on the season. Only Ohio State had more, and no one averaged more sacks per game.
The leader in that category probably wasn't who most would have guessed coming into the season. Senior safety Patrick Nelson led SMU with 12 sacks this season, good for second in the AAC. Fellow safety Rodney Clemons is also very good, as he leads the team with four interceptions. Up front, senior defensive end Delontae Scott tallied 10 sacks for the season. SMU and Wisconsin are the only two teams in the country that currently have multiple players with at least 10 sacks. Scott is tied for the AAC lead in tackles for a loss this season with 18 — one more than teammate Nelson.
With an over/under currently greater than 70 points, fans are expecting to see scores and lots of them. Saturday's contest could come down to how well FAU can protect Robison against a vaunted SMU pass rush. In its three losses this season, the Owls allowed 16 sacks as opposed to 11 total in the 10 wins. SMU has had the longer rest, but whether that proves to be a difference-maker remains to be seen. Motivation shouldn't be a problem for either team, but Kiffin leaving for Oxford makes FAU's situation more of a wild card — even though this contest is at home.
Prediction: SMU 42, FAU 38
(Top photo courtesy of @SMU_Football)