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SMU vs. UCF Prediction: Mustangs, Knights Meet in Delayed AAC Opener

Teams set to meet on Wednesday night after game was rescheduled due to Hurricane Ian.

After a few schedule changes due to Hurricane Ian, SMU and UCF are finally set to meet on Wednesday night in Orlando for a key battle in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati appears to be the heavy favorite once again to repeat as AAC champs, but the second spot in the conference is up for grabs with preseason favorite Houston struggling. The door is open for both the Mustangs or Knights to make a run in 2022.

After winning nine games in his UCF debut last year, coach Gus Malzahn is off to a 3-1 start in '22. The Knights easily dispatched FCS South Carolina State (56-10) in the opener but fell 20-14 to Louisville the following week. However, UCF rebounded with back-to-back wins over Florida Atlantic (40-14) and Georgia Tech (27-10). After Wednesday's game versus SMU, the Knights play Temple (Oct. 13) before a key stretch of AAC matchups - at East Carolina, Cincinnati, at Memphis, and at Tulane.

New coach Rhett Lashlee started his tenure at SMU with back-to-back wins over North Texas (48-10) and FCS Lamar (45-26). However, the Mustangs ran into tougher competition the following two weeks and stumbled against Maryland (34-27) and TCU (42-34). Lashlee's squad is 2-2 heading into Wednesday night's matchup, but there's no shame in losing by one score to two Power 5 teams with a combined record of 8-1.

UCF holds an 8-2 all-time edge over SMU. The Knights are 4-1 over the Mustangs as members of the AAC, but SMU easily won 55-28 in Dallas last year. One-sided games have been the norm in this series recently, as three of the last four games between these two programs were decided by 27-plus points.

SMU at UCF

Date: Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: UCF -3
Tickets: As low as $12 on SITickets.com*

When SMU Has the Ball

The scoring average is relatively similar when comparing SMU and UCF, but the method of attack is a little different. The Mustangs have attempted 173 passes compared to 141 runs this year, helping the offense average a robust 38.5 points a game so far in '22. This group is tied for first in the AAC with completions of 50-plus yards (four) and has passed for 1,412 yards compared to 613 yards on the ground. SMU also ranks at the bottom of the league in time of possession and rushing attempts.

Considering the numbers above, the game plan on offense for SMU is pretty simple: Run the offense through quarterback Tanner Mordecai. After throwing for 3,628 yards and 39 touchdowns in his first year with the Mustangs last season, the Oklahoma transfer has connected on 97 of his 166 attempts for 1,385 yards and 12 touchdowns to five picks so far this year. Of note: Mordecai's completion percentage has dropped to 58.4 (67.8 in '21).

Rashee Rice (34 grabs) is Mordecai's clear No. 1 target, with Jake Bailey (12) and freshman tight end RJ Maryland (seven) up next in the list of key weapons on the outside. TCU was the only team to hold Rice under 100 receiving yards this year, but he still managed to catch six passes for 74 yards and a score. Stopping Rice and forcing the other playmakers to win this game for SMU is a priority for a UCF secondary that ranks first in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed just three scores through the air. However, the Mordecai-to-Rice connection is also the best passing game the Knights have played this season.

UCF's defense has been a bit more vulnerable on the ground (144.3 yards a game allowed), with Louisville and FAU both averaging more than five yards per carry against this unit. Tre Siggers (200 yards) is the team's No. 1 back, but Velton Gardner, TJ McDaniel and Camar Wheaton could all see time on Wednesday night. For the season, the Knights are allowing only 4.98 yards per snap and have not allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points in a game.

When UCF Has the Ball

In contrast to SMU, the Knights lean to more of a ground-oriented approach on offense (199 rushing attempts vs. 141 for the Mustangs), with Malzahn's squad leading the AAC in yards per carry (5.5). Although UCF leads the conference in scoring defense, being able to control the pace of the game with its rushing attack would certainly alleviate some of the pressure on the other side of the ball.

Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee leads the ground game and he enters Wednesday night's matchup with 404 yards and four scores over 69 attempts. The Ole Miss transfer has rushed for more than 100 yards in three out of the team's four games in '22. Malzahn will also turn to Isaiah Bowser (228 yards), Johnny Richardson (218), and RJ Harvey (123) on the ground to test a SMU front allowing 180.5 rushing yards a contest. All four of the Mustangs' opponents have topped 100 yards on the ground against this unit, with two (North Texas and Maryland) reaching 200.

The strength of Plumlee's game is to hurt defenses on the ground with his legs, so getting UCF into third-and-long situations is crucial. Plumlee ranks eighth in the AAC in quarterback rating and averages only 7.1 yards per attempt so far in '22. Kentucky/Alabama transfer Javon Baker (18 catches) is Plumlee's favorite target, but Ryan O'Keefe (15) and tight ends Kemore Gamble and Alec Holler will play a key role in the passing game.

SMU's defense came into the season as a question mark and remains a concern after four matchups. The Mustangs allowed 7.4 in two games against Power 5 opponents and surrendered 180.5 rushing yards a contest in '22. SMU needs to win on early downs by stuffing UCF's ground game and forcing Plumlee into obvious passing downs. 

Final Analysis

Whichever style wins out should claim victory on Wednesday night. Both teams average more than 80 plays a game, so there could be plenty of fireworks and offense in this one. Will UCF's ground game led by Plumlee and Bowser control the pace and keep Mordecai and Rice on the sidelines? Or will the Mustangs jump ahead and force the Knights to get away from their comfort zone and throw the ball more? Turnovers are an x-factor to watch. UCF has lost seven so far, but SMU has been worse with 10 giveaways. The guess here is these two teams trade scores for four quarters, but UCF has the better defense and is at home. That's hard to pick against here.

Prediction: UCF 34, SMU 31

*Price as of publication.