NOVEMBER 25, 2017

Tulane Football Gameday Preview: at SMU Mustangs

"Are you not entertained?" - Willie Fritz, probably

By JP Gooderham

Not even a month ago, Tulane Football was at a crossroads: the Green Wave had dropped its fourth consecutive Homecoming game, and the latest disappointment came at the hands of the unheralded Cincinnati Bearcats.

Since that 17-16 loss that left the team at a 3-6 record, the team has dug their way back to the surface through two gritty performances.

In Greenville, Tulane secured its first road win over East Carolina in program history -- coming in overtime after losing a late lead, no less.

After that confidence building performance, the Wave returned home to knock off the Houston Cougars despite being a double digit underdog. That marked just the sixth time ever that a Tulane team had beaten the Coogs.

In a program accustomed to teams with unfulfilled potential, a senior-laden squad has produced on the field to keep the dream alive of halting a streak of losing seasons.
That brings us to Dallas, TX, where the Green Wave will face the (6-4) SMU Mustangs in a morning battle, with all their chips at the center of the table.

Where to Watch

TV: CBS Sports Net

This away game will be on national TV @ 11 am (CT). If you don't get CBSSN, head over to Bruno's.
That said, if you are in Texas and can get to Dallas... it looks like you can get tickets close up for just $6 on StubHub.

Who is Predicted to Win

You can see more in this week's Wave of Predictions, but four out of of four prediction models we follow like the Mustangs in this one.

But hey, they liked Houston too! So goes the life of the underdog. The gamblin' line has been SMU -8 this week, and the money is basically even if you care about such things.

What Do We Know About SMU?

Overall, SMU is about on pace with expectations for this year (admittedly, without the signature victory that Mustangs fans were hoping for).

They are 6-5 with a 3-4 mark in conference play mirroring the Green Wave.

Resume Breakdown

SMU's best wins came early in the season against a couple of the more respected G5 teams.

The Mustangs dominated North Texas 54-32 back in September, while the Mean Green would later make a run to reach the C-USA Championship. SMU also took down a good Arkansas State out of the Sun Belt 44-21 soon after.

In league play, SMU slowed down to 3-4 with wins coming against the bottom feeders UConn, @ Cincy, and Tulsa (noting we lost to one of those teams, of course).

Most recently, SMU is on a 3-game losing streak after dropping matchups to UCF (31-24), @ Navy (43-40), and @ Memphis (66-45).

Bill Connelly of SB Nation ranks them as the #58 team in FBS (and we sit at #91).

How's the Offense?

Very, very good. This team is #10 in FBS for Points per Game, and their offensive S&P+ ranking puts them at an impressive #7 across football.

Digging deeper, they have a lethal combination of efficiency (ranked #34) with explosiveness (even better at #20). There isn't a missing link when it comes to the Pony Express this year.

At QB, Ben Hicks has 28 TDs to 7 interceptions this year, and he's moved the ball well with a 58% completion rate. A big factor in that success is a tandem of truly dominant wideouts.

Coming into this year, the known-entity was WR Courtland Sutton who had already attained first-round draft pick attention. Walter Football compares Sutton to a "Dez Bryant-eque player," so that tells you what he brings to the table: play-changing size matched with talent.

While teams have moved coverage to Sutton's side of the field, SMU has developed a two-headed monster using LSU transfer - and Louisiana high school career receiving yards leader - Trey Quinn.

Quinn played meaningful snaps at LSU but had an issue with catching the ball. He's changed that identity at SMU, as Quinn has hauled in over 100 receptions (that's a lot) with a team-high 72% catch rate.

Once teams have tried to acclimate to the Mustang passing attack, running back Xavier Jones has been able to eat. The sophomore has been rock solid with 6.1 yards per carry over 161 rushes this year. He got a little banged up against Memphis, but Jones is expected to be ready to go tomorrow in Dallas.

Summary: This is certainly in the elite class for AAC offenses. Teams that have been able to slow SMU's offense down have done it... by playing smart football against SMU's defense in order to control the ball.

Tulsa is the best example, where the Golden Hurricane relied on their run attack to burn clock while still finding chances to punish the Mustangs' D with deep shots.

How's the Defense?

Very bad. Yeah, hate to be harsh here, but SMU's Defense has been a surprising pain point for this team all year. As such, the Mustangs have embraced a Texas Tech-esque identity in the AAC West, with many games becoming close shootouts.

They give up an average 35.3 points per game (#118 in FBS) and haven't held an opponent under 30 points since the Bearcats back on October 21st.

One thing I really like: SMU struggles with explosiveness, and that's the bread and butter of the Tulane offense. While they have made recent progress, the Green Wave has been boom-and-bust for the most part when they have had the ball, and those Dontrell Hilliard breakaway touchdowns have made the difference in wins like Army. I'm looking to see the Green Wave strike for easy points, especially in the first half.

As noted earlier, the best bet against the SMU Offense is to 1) protect the ball, as they'll punish you on turnovers and 2) find consistency in the running game to keep the clock moving.

They're really not very good at pass defense either, as Bill C. ranks the Mustangs #89 in FBS. That's good news too, as both Jonathan Banks and Terren Encalade are coming off career days against an impressive Houston unit.

How about the Green Wave?

Tulane is coming off an important victory in the trajectory of the program, but it's an all-new season this week as the Green Wave tries to secure the first non-losing season for the program since 2013.

The Wave is obviously coming off an emotional high from a tremendous upset -- one that S&P numbers would suggest is the toughest win for a Green Wave team since at least 2006.

Context: Playing Meaningful Football?

Since 2000, here are the instances in which Tulane was playing meaningful football in the last week of the season with the end result.

2013: 7-4 Record, Lost to Rice, Reached New Orleans Bowl
2004: 5-5 Record, Lost to #7 Louisville, No Bowl
2002: 6-5 Record, Beat Southern Miss 31-10, Won Hawaii Bowl
2000: 6-4 Record, Beat Memphis 37-14, Not Selected for Bowl Game

So yeah, it's pretty significant overall that Tulane is playing relevant games in the last week of the season (just the fifth time in the past 27 years).

That won't comfort anyone if the Green Wave can't pull it off, so worth mentioning now.

Green Wave Storylines

Doing my best not to think about the post-game implications, Tulane has some compelling storylines to watch.

The Banks was Opened

Junior QB Jonathan Banks put up a career best 251 yards against Houston, and a major chunk of that went to receiver Terren Encalade.

Enjoy:

Encalade's 186 yard day was not just a career best but put him the record book for best Tulane games ever right outside the top 10 (186 yards was good for 11th).

The rising tandem of Encalade and Darnell Mooney, who have both been critical assets in this late season stand, will be a key one to watch tomorrow.

(Hopefully) Senior-Centered Defense's Last Last Stand

Going to the postseason is an important goal for the program, sure, but part of the appeal this year for Green Wave fans should be to get another chance to watch some veteran playmakers while representing the mighty Angry Wave.

On offense, that includes the duo of Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie. On Defense, it's a long list, as we saw last week at Senior Day.

Tomorrow will be a matchup against a verifiably dominant offense and this experienced group. Should be a fun battle.

Here's some vintage footage of Parry Nickerson early in his career changing a game against the then-winless UCF Knights:

Podcast

And if you want more analysis, you can check out this week's FTWCast featuring Billy Embody from PonyStampede.com as well as Voice of the Green Wave Todd Graffagnini: