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SMU vs. Tulane Prediction: Mustangs, Green Wave Meet on Thursday Night for Critical AAC Matchup

Tulane needs a win to stay atop the standings while SMU can keep its long-shot title game hopes alive with an upset in New Orleans.

Tulane came down to earth last week with a hard-fought 38-31 loss to UCF in the Green Wave's first home game featuring ranked teams since 1949. Tulane, however, is very much in the American Athletic Conference race, part of a three-way tie (at 5-1) for first with Cincinnati and UCF. It's a short turnaround for the Green Wave this week as SMU comes to town for Senior Night in New Orleans.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 12

SMU (4-2, 6-4 overall) is mathematically alive in the AAC race but would need a ton of help to get to the title game. What the Mustangs can do is finish strong. Since a 2-3 start, SMU has won four of five games, with its lone loss being a 29-27 decision against Cincinnati.

SMU has won the last seven meetings in the series, including a 55-26 drubbing last season. During the Mustangs' winning streak over Tulane, four contests have been decided by four points or fewer. It has been more than a decade since the Green Wave's last win in the series in October 2012.

SMU at No. 21 Tulane

Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Tulane -3
Tickets: As low as $6 on SITickets.com

When SMU Has the Ball

Points have not been hard to come by for SMU this season. Entering Thursday's contest, the Mustangs rank ninth nationally in points per game and 11th in total offense. Interestingly enough, SMU is 6-0 this season when scoring at least 40 points. It is 0-4 when it falls short of that total. Senior quarterback Tanner Mordecai is a big reason for that success. Mordecai enters Thursday's contest ranking in the top 20 nationally in yards, touchdown passes, and passer rating. He finished with 427 yards passing and four total touchdowns in last season's rout of Tulane.

While the Mustangs can sling it around with the best of them, they also make a conscious effort to stay balanced. Five different running backs have at least 190 yards on the ground this season. Tyler Lavine is the top ball carrier with 405 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns. The player to watch, however, is out wide: Rashee Rice. Rice leads the nation with 1,167 receiving yards and also ranks in the top 10 nationally in receptions (77) and touchdown catches (9). Jordan Kerley has also had a nice season out wide for the Mustangs. In the red zone, SMU likes to use its big tight ends. RJ Maryland, who stands at 6-foot-4, and 6-foot-5 Ben Redding each have four touchdown catches this season.

For the second time in five days, Tulane will try to slow down a high-powered attack. Tulane allowed a season-high 38 points against UCF last time out. Tulane held its first six opponents to 27 points or fewer, but three of the last four have eclipsed that total. Tulane isn't a great pass-rushing team — ninth out of 11 AAC teams with 14 sacks — but does just about everything else well. Linebacker may be where Tulane is best. Dorian Williams leads the team with 84 total tackles and four sacks. He also has an interception, forced fumble, and a team-leading six passes defended.

Fellow linebacker Nick Anderson and safeties Larry Brooks and Macon Clark are all hard-hitting playmakers. Brooks and Clark are tied with cornerback Jarius Monroe for the team lead with two interceptions. Defensive end Patrick Jenkins and linebacker Darius Hodges are also solid. The Green Wave lead the AAC in both total defense (323.4 yards per game) and scoring defense (19 points per game allowed). In addition to the 38 points last week, UCF also finished with 468 yards of offense. SMU finished with 612 yards of offense in last season's contest in Dallas.

When Tulane Has the Ball

Tulane is headlined by its defense, but the Green Wave offense has been more than serviceable. A big reason for the improvement has been the play of quarterback Michael Pratt after a largely disappointing sophomore season. For the season, Pratt has 23 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. He ranks third in the conference in passer rating (153.9) and yards per attempt (8.3) while passing for 2,079 yards for the season. Out wide, Jha'Quan Jackson, Shae Wyatt, and Duece Watts have all put up similar numbers. Jackson leads the team with 421 receiving yards. Wyatt averages a team-best 17.3 yards per catch while Watts is the team leader with 27 catches and six touchdown grabs.

In the red zone and on third down, tight end Tyrick James must be accounted for. He has five touchdown catches this season and is a solid run blocker. Running the ball will be the primary goal of the Tulane offense on Thursday night. Tyjae Spears may be the best player on the Tulane offense. While averaging 6.2 yards per carry, Spears ranks second in the AAC with 875 yards on the ground and 10 rushing touchdowns. He also has more than 200 yards receiving on better than 12 yards per reception.

Stopping the run — or the pass for that matter — isn't something that SMU has done well this season. The Mustangs rank just ninth in the AAC in scoring defense and 10th in total defense. One thing that SMU can do is get after the quarterback. With 24 sacks on the season, SMU is tied for fourth in the conference. Defensive end Nelson Paul leads the team in that category with five sacks while fellow end Isaiah Smith and defensive tackle Elijah Chatman each have three.

While SMU hasn't done well statistically on defense, there is no shortage of talent. Linebacker Jimmy Phillips Jr., the first player in NCAA history to execute an NIL deal, leads the team with 58 tackles this season. Safety Nick Roberts, a South Florida transfer, is making a strong case for All-AAC. Roberts leads the team with three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Jahari Rogers, a Florida transfer in his second year at SMU, might be the team's best cover corner. Both teams have a lot to like on special teams. Jackson and Lawrence Keys III are a stellar return duo for the Green Wave. SMU kicker Collin Rogers is one of the AAC's best. He's 12-for-15 on field goals this season with all three of his misses coming from beyond 40 yards.

Final Analysis

Dallas to New Orleans isn't a particularly long trip, but after playing in Tampa over the weekend, SMU will be arriving on short rest. Last week, UCF showed what a high-powered offense could do against the Tulane defense. SMU is also capable of lighting up the scoreboard, but for the Mustangs, it will come down to whether or not they can get stops. That's something the Green Wave do much better. Having the better defense, being at home, and having SMU travel for the second time in five days will all be factors on Thursday night. A Tulane win would also set up a virtual AAC semifinal next Friday at Cincinnati.

Prediction: Tulane 41, SMU 35

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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.

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