American Athletic Conference rivals SMU and Tulsa are set to square off for a national television audience Friday night and play in front of a black out at H.A. Chapman Stadium. The Mustangs have already matched their win total from 2015 after beating North Texas and Liberty, and are battle tested, having lost to Big 12 title contenders Baylor and TCU. SMU kicked off league play with a 45-20 loss to Temple last Saturday.
Tulsa comes in hot following one of the largest comeback victories in NCAA Division I history. Running back D’Angelo Brewer racked up a career-high 224 rushing yards and three touchdowns as the Golden Hurricane moved to 3-1 with a 48-41 win over Fresno State two weeks ago. Tulsa trailed 31-0 in the first half but stormed back to cut the deficit to 31-21 by halftime and took a 35-34 lead in the fourth quarter before winning in double overtime. It was the largest come-from-behind win in school history and tied for the second-largest ever at the FBS level.
SMU at Tulsa
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Tulsa -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Offensive Pedigrees
SMU head coach Chad Morris and Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery earned their respective positions following impressive stints as offensive play-callers. Morris was an ultra-successful high school coach in Texas before moving on to become the offensive coordinator at Tulsa and then Clemson.
Even without dual-threat senior quarterback Matt Davis, who was injured in the season opener and hasn’t played since, the Mustangs have shown improvement offensively in 2016. SMU has averaged 416.0 total yards of offense per game and 5.49 yards per play this season, an improvement of 33.2 yards per game and 0.2 yards per play compared to 2015. SMU also is averaging 4.56 yards per rushing attempt this season compared to 3.92 a year ago.
However, there is much room for improvement. SMU ranks 125th in the country in red zone offense (61.9 percent), No. 121 in turnovers (13), No. 120 in completion percentage (49.5 percent), 119th in passing efficiency (103.85), and No. 117 in scoring offense (19.8 points per game). Redshirt freshman QB Ben Hicks has completed 50.6 percent of his passes for 1,026 yards, four touchdowns and nine interceptions in place of Davis and will start again this week.
Montgomery, who acts as his own offensive coordinator with the Golden Hurricane, was an assistant at Baylor and helped the Bears lead the nation in both scoring offense and total offense twice in three seasons as OC and quarterbacks coach. Last season, Montgomery’s first at the helm, Tulsa amassed more than 500 yards of total offense in eight different games and scored more than 40 points six times.
Under Montgomery’s tutelage, Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans threw for 4,332 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2015. Through four games this season, Evans has added 888 yards and eight touchdown passes, which pushed his career totals to 9,200 and 60. The QB has climbed high on Tulsa’s career leaderboards and has a legitimate shot to finish his career with the school record in both categories.
Tulsa has surpassed 40 points in three of four games thus far, but the Golden Hurricane have yet to surpass 500 yards this season. Also, the Tulsa offensive line has allowed an average of 3.25 sacks per game, which ranks 113th in the country.
2. High Risk, High Reward Defenses
The Mustangs also have made improvement on defense under Morris. Though the unit ranks next to last in the conference in total defense (433.4 ypg), SMU leads the nation with 12 interceptions and ranks second with 14 takeaways. Defensive backs Jordan Wyatt and Horace Richardson share the national lead with four picks apiece, including two Wyatt returned for touchdowns. The Mustangs have picked off at least one pass in each of their five games this season and have recorded multiple interceptions four times.
The Golden Hurricane also have made big plays on the defensive side of the ball. Tulsa has forced eight turnovers this season (four fumbles, four INTs), two of which were returned for touchdowns. Safety McKinley Whitfield has an interception, recovered a fumble for a touchdown on special teams and has blocked two punts. Tulsa also came up huge defensively in overtime against Fresno State, forcing a turnover in the first extra period and stopping the Bulldogs on four plays in the second to seal the comeback victory.
3. Big-Play Wide Receivers
Two of the best wide receivers in the league will be on display Friday night. Tulsa’s Keevan Lucas tallied 101 receptions for 1,219 yards and 11 TDs as a sophomore in 2014 but missed the majority of last season due to injury. Lucas has re-emerged as Evans’ favorite target this season with a team-best 24 catches for 395 yards (16.5 ypr) and five touchdowns. He has surpassed 100 yards in three of four games.
SMU sophomore Courtland Sutton has an NFL frame (6-4, 224) and has used it to haul in 22 receptions for 492 yards — a gaudy 22.4 yards per catch — and four scores. Like Lucas, Sutton also has surpassed the century mark three times this season.
Tulsa and SMU share many similarities and are relatively evenly matched. However, the Golden Hurricane are well rested following a bye while the Mustangs must travel across state lines for the second straight game, this time for a Friday night matchup on a short week. SMU also will be forced to start backup QB Ben Hicks for the fifth time this season while Tulsa’s Dane Evans is set to make his 35th career start. Expect the veteran QB to make fewer mistakes and to lead his team to victory.
Prediction: Tulsa 38, SMU 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Photos courtesy of The University of Tulsa)