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Tulane vs. SMU Football Prediction and Preview

Tanner Mordecai, SMU Mustangs Football

SMU looks to keep pace with Houston and Cincinnati in the AAC standings as the Tanner Mordecai and the Mustangs host the Green Wave on Thursday night

The SMU Mustangs look to remain unbeaten this season and stay atop the American Athletic Conference standings as they host the Tulane Green Wave on Thursday evening.

There's still a ways to go, but it looks to be a three-team race at the top of the AAC this year with Houston, Cincinnati, and SMU (6-0, 2-0 AAC) all undefeated in conference play. As is typically the case with a Sonny Dykes-coached team, SMU leads the AAC in total offense (511.0 ypg) and passing yards per game (315.8) but has really made strides on the defensive end, giving up around a touchdown less per game than it did a year ago. The Mustangs defeated Navy last week 31-24.

It was a much-needed bye week for Tulane (1-5, 0-2) as the Green Wave sit in last place in the conference standings while enduring a four-game losing streak. Against Houston two weeks ago, Tulane was blitzed right out of the gate, trailing 14-0, and despite taking the lead in the third quarter, it would not hold up as the Green Wave gave up two touchdown drives late for another double-digit defeat. Thursday is the start of a rough two-game stretch taking for Willie Fritz's team with No. 2-ranked Cincinnati up next.

Tulane at No. 21 SMU

Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: SMU -13.5

When Tulane Has the Ball

You can look at one statistic to see why Tulane is sitting where it is in the standings — turnovers. In just six games, the Green Wave have already turned the ball over more (15) than they did all of last season (14 in 12 games). Unfortunately, second-year quarterback Michael Pratt has been the source of 10 of them with five interceptions and five fumbles. The bright side is that Pratt has thrown 13 touchdowns through six games, so he's on pace to surpass last year's total (20), and he's is up to 227.3 passing yards per game under new offensive coordinator Chip Long. A weapon with his legs last season, Pratt has just 69 rushing yards on 66 attempts in 2021 after averaging nearly 23 yards per game on the ground last year.

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After leading the conference in rushing in 2020, Tulane now sits ninth in the AAC at just 140 yards per game. A true threat hasn't emerged in the backfield as Cameron Carroll, Tyjae Spears, and Ygenio Booker have shared the carries for much of the season, but the offensive line hasn't really done its job either. The Green Wave are 103rd in Stuff Rate, 109th in Line Yards, and 96th in Rush Play Success Rate this season, according to SMU has allowed just five rushing touchdowns in 2021 — the best mark in the AAC.

When SMU Has the Ball

It's been a seamless transition at quarterback for the Mustangs from last year's starter Shane Buechele to Tanner Mordecai, who is tied for first in the country in touchdown passes (26) in just six games, averaging more than 315 yards a contest. It helps when you have one of the best wide receiver corps in the country with Danny Gray, Reggie Roberson Jr., and Rashee Rice, who have combined for 64 percent of the team's production and 17 total touchdowns between them. The portal also benefitted SMU at the tight end position, where former Oklahoma transfer Grant Calcaterra is fourth on the team with 19 receptions and three scores.

A pregame storyline to monitor will be the injury status of starting running back Ulysses Bentley IV, who sat out against USF a couple of weeks ago was then limited to just two carries on Oct. 9 against Navy. Should Bentley be unavailable or limited, former North Texas transfer Tre Siggers has filled in admirably with a rushing touchdown in each of the last two games. Regardless of who starts in the backfield, SMU should find success against a Tulane rushing defense that is 10th in the conference, allowing 197 yards per game and 16 scores on the ground.

Final Analysis

Both teams had an extra week to prepare for this matchup so no added advantage there. Limiting turnovers and finding some way to run the football successfully, keeping the SMU offense off the field, will be the key for the Green Wave in their attempt at an upset. Tulane just hasn't proven it can stop teams on defense yet this season, and on the road at SMU isn't the spot to fix any woes that have plagued the Green Wave all year. The Mustangs win their seventh straight against Tulane and remain in a tie atop the AAC standings.

Prediction: SMU 41, Tulane 24

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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF