By: Ryan Token
It's BOOMTOWN SHOWDOWN time baby. And for Homecoming nonetheless. I love it. I am never letting this rivalry name die even though it's abundantly clear that neither Tulsa nor SMU want anything to do with it anymore.
For posterity, here is the final official reference to that rivalry name. All the way back from 2016. Tulsa won this game 43-40 in overtime.
If anything killed this rivalry name, it's the fact that TU put SMU's 2-10 record from 2015 on the graphic. Absolute savages on that social media team.
Regardless, after two straight road games separated by the bye week, Tulsa football returns home this Saturday for the first time in nearly a month sitting at 3-4 after a win at Temple. Knocking on the door are the 3-4 SMU Mustangs, who have had nearly as much of an up-and-down season as the Hurricane.
Let's get into what the Mustangs are all about before the Homecoming game kicks off at H.A. Chapman Stadium on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. central.
We can't start a discussion about SMU's offense without some insight into the Ponies' current head coach and former offensive coordinator: Rhett Lashlee.
Lashlee spent two years as SMU's OC during the 2018 and 2019 seasons before leaving for the same position with Miami (FL). After two years of watching Miami flounder about, Lashlee returned to The Hilltop to become SMU's head coach - a position that opened because Sonny Dykes pulled the ultimate about-face on the Ponies and became head coach of their cross-town rival, TCU.
Lashlee has spent the vast majority of his football career tied to Gus Malzahn and takes much of his hurry-up, no-huddle offensive philosophy from that relationship. Though also like Malzahn, Lashlee prefers to keep things balanced. A good quote from him is the following: "I've always believed that you've got to run the ball to win, but you've got to throw the ball to score. It's a fancy way to say balanced".
SMU's offensive coordinator by title is a first-year guy in Casey Woods, formerly Mizzou's tight ends coach, but in practice it feels like this SMU team is still led by Lashlee on the offensive side of the ball.
As balanced as Lashlee and Woods might want to be, they haven't been as balanced as they were likely hoping to be this year.
Senior QB Tanner Mordecai and senior WR Rashee Rice have been a dynamic combination in the passing game at SMU for two years now (Rice for four), but the rushing game this season has been a weakness.
The weakness in the running game has led the Mustangs to stick with what they're good at, which is Mordecai throwing the ball to Rice. SMU currently owns the #8 passing offense in the country, and nearly all of that production has come from Mordecai and Rice.
Tanner Mordecai spent three years at Oklahoma before transferring to SMU after he lost the Sooners' starting job to Spencer Rattler in 2020.
If ever there was a poster child for the word "gunslinger", Tanner Mordecai is that. He can be pretty fast and loose with the ball, but I'm still of the opinion that he's an extremely effective quarterback. Last season, Mordecai completed 68% of his 454 passes for 3,628 yards, 39 TDs, and 12 INTs. Talk about slinging it around. He led the AAC in just about every QB category last season but lost out on AAC Player of the Year honors to Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder.
Whether it's because of the new coaching staff, the new scheme, different personnel, a combination of each, or something else, this year has been a bit of a different story so far for Mordecai. They're still passing the ball like crazy, but he's only completing 60% of his passes this year, and his TD:INT ratio is 16:7 compared to 39:12 last season.
The twist though is that Moredecai is coming off a concussion against Cincinnati and is questionable to play. Regardless of whether he's healthy or not, though, some SMU fans would prefer to see his backup after Mordecai's relatively rocky start and SMU's current 3-4 record.
Nipping on Mordecai's heels is freshman QB Preston Stone, a 4-star high school recruit from Dallas and the highest-rated commit ever for SMU.
Stone is a redshirt freshman and has primarily been behind Tanner Mordecai so far this season, so we haven't seen many true game reps from him so far. He's currently completing 55% of his passes for 169 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT.
Who starts at QB on Saturday may come down to a game-time decision, but whoever it is will have a true game-breaker at wide receiver to throw to.
Rashee Rice is the leading receiver for the Ponies, and it isn't close. Rice has 37 more receptions than the 2nd leading receiver on the team (Moochie Dixon), and his 53 total receptions are good for 3rd in the country in receptions per game. However, Rice has been battling turf toe since the TCU game - so he may be a bit hobbled on Saturday. He certainly looked that way in their most recent game against Cincinnati.
After watching a few SMU games, though, it's clear that Mordecai has a bad habit of only looking Rice's way in many of the games this year. Rice is clearly the best receiver on that roster, but SMU would probably be smart to spread the ball around a bit more.
SMU has 22 wide receivers on their roster this year. Tulsa has 15. There are a ton of receivers on this roster. 9 of them have multiple receptions on the year. The biggest names outside of Rashee Rice are sophomore Texas transfer Moochie Dixon, freshman RJ Maryland, senior Rice transfer Jake Bailey (apparently out for the season), junior Jordan Kerley, and senior UNC transfer Beau Corrales (also may be out for the season). Again, though, the strength has not come from their numbers. It's been the Rashee Rice show all season.
Rushing has been a weakness for SMU this year. The Ponies currently hold the #96 rushing offense in the country. For comparison, Tulsa's rushing offense is now #86 after Deneric Prince's breakout game of 2022 last week against Temple.
Senior RB (and UNT transfer) Tre Siggers has been the primary rusher for the Mustangs, but he and other running backs have been dealing with injuries throughout the year. Siggers' 60 carries are the most on the team by 23, but he is 2nd on the team in rushing yards after junior Kansas transfer Velton Gardner. The other main name to know here is TJ McDaniel, who has 34 carries on the year and is tied with Siggers for most rushing TDs this season with 4.
Siggers is generally the main man here, but he hasn't been the most productive. Though he has 4 touchdowns this season, 3 of those came against TCU. And despite being their lead back, his average yards per carry number (3.8) is the smallest of those three primary backs. Gardner averages 6.2 ypc and McDaniel averages 5.0.
Unfortunately for the Ponies, both Tre Siggers and Velton Gardner have missed the last two games with an injury.
As you can see, it's been a bit of a mess for the running back room in Dallas this year. It remains to be seen whether Siggers and Gardner will be back against Tulsa. If they're not, keep an eye out for TJ McDaniel, Tyler Lavine, and freshman Camar Wheaton - but mostly watch out for an extremely heavy passing attack from the Mustangs if the primary rushers are out.
As is tradition for SMU teams, the defense can't live up to the offense. SMU is in the bottom half of the country in nearly every defensive stat, and they're 120th in rushing defense.
Their defensive coordinator is Scott Symons. Symons joined Lashlee's staff after three seasons as the DC at Liberty and employs a 4-2-5 scheme on that side of the ball. Like Tulsa's 3-3-5, SMU will have a 5th defensive back (also called the nickel), which is typically a hybrid back that flexes between playing cornerback and safety.
SMU's leading tackler is senior LB Jimmy Phillips Jr., who's been at SMU for five years now. Phillips Jr. also leads the team in passes defended with four.
Leading the Mustangs in sacks with four on the season is another senior in Nelson Paul - a four-year player for SMU who's recorded at least one sack in each of his four seasons.
Other names to know on SMU's defense include senior LB Isaac Slade-Matautia, senior safety Nick Roberts, senior LB Shanon Reid, senior DT Elijah Chatman, who's second on the team in sacks with three, and senior CB Ar'Mani Johnson, who's tied with Jimmy Phillips Jr. in passes defended with four on the year.
The main takeaway from those guys: they're all seniors. Yes, this defense has been underwhelming, but they're an experienced group looking to go out on top. Don't expect SMU's defense to roll over, especially against Tulsa.
The special teams unit has been consistent throughout the year.
Their kicker is true freshman Collin Rogers, who's 9 for 10 on FGs this season with his lone miss coming on a 40+ yarder against Maryland.
Their punter is your classic Australian punter, a senior transfer from UT-Austin named Ryan Bujcevski. He's averaged 42 yards per punt throughout his career and is averaging 45 so far this season for SMU.
The returners haven't been quite as consistent. For the first half of the season, sophomore Jayleen Record was returning kicks and junior Jordan Kerley was returning punts; but for the last two games it's been a mixture of folks including junior Brian Massey and Camar Wheaton on kickoff returns, and sophomore Roderick Daniels Jr. returning punts.
We'll see who's out there against Tulsa on Saturday. Fortunately for the Hurricane, none of them have returned any for touchdowns. * knocks on wood one billion times *
On the flip side, SMU's coverage teams haven't given up a punt return or a kick return for a touchdown yet this season. The Ponies also haven't had a punt or a kick of their own blocked, while they've blocked two kicks themselves.
SMU's special teams have been a relative strength for them this season. With a bright young kicker in Rogers, an experienced veteran punter in Bujcevski, and generally solid returners and coverage teams, I don't expect Tulsa to get the edge over the Mustangs in this phase of the game.
Unlike in 2019 when we recovered a kickoff in SMU's end zone for a TD and then still lost the game in triple OT. Related: this was the worst game of my life. Moving on.
Before we wrap up, let's compare both teams' greatest strengths and weaknesses and how those fare against each other.
Unusually similar stats between these two teams. Both of us can throw the ball well, neither of us can defend the run whatsoever.
The biggest discrepancies in my opinion are 1) Tulsa's strong passing offense vs SMU's average passing defense, and 2) SMU's weak rushing defense vs Tulsa's average rushing offense.
If Deneric Prince keeps running with the fire he ran with against Temple, we could again see Prince decimating the opposing defense.
While Tulsa's passing defense has been much improved compared to the beginning of the year, I don't think we have the eighth-best passing defense in the country. It's been solid of late, but we've also been playing teams recently who just don't pass the ball well at all. Navy only attempted 8 passes against us and completed just 2 for 35 yards. Temple is not a good team offensively in any capacity. That makes our ranking look better than we are, but it's a marked improvement regardless.
An area we haven't covered yet but always need to consider with this Tulsa team: the offensive line. They were noticeably better in run blocking last week, but pass protection was still atrocious. Temple sacked Davis Brin 7 times in the first half. They were able to shore things up in the second half, though, and didn't give up another one.
SMU isn't particularly great at getting sacks (58th in the country) or tackles for loss (66th). Let's hope the OL found some rhythm in that second half against Temple and can keep the opposing defense off of Brin for a game.
Let's cap off this comparison with some SP+ rankings:
Tulsa and SMU always play each other close. The two teams have played every year since 2014, and it's been a one-score game in every matchup but two (TU won by 10 in 2014 and by 9 in 2015).
Tulsa has won the last two matchups by a combined seven points, and the last seven games total have had a combined score of Tulsa: 203, SMU: 200.
In the last three years, it's looked like this (shouts to @PonyHype for the reminder):
It's going to be a close game. These two teams can't avoid it. They're both 3-4, they both have much better offenses than defenses and eerily similar stats, and both have had very up-and-down seasons. The difference is that Tulsa is at home, on Homecoming, with an experienced coaching staff and a revamped home atmosphere.
SMU, however, is favored by two points on the road. I honestly think that's a pretty fair spread based on how each team has looked so far this season.
It's going to come down to the wire, but I think the combination of Deneric Prince's continued burst onto the scene against SMU's poor rushing defense, the uncertainty at QB for SMU, and the home atmosphere for Tulsa on Homecoming ultimately gives the Hurricane the edge in a nailbiter.
SMU owns the all-time series lead 15-13, but I think we inch one closer after this one.
Final score: Tulsa wins 31-28 over SMU on Homecoming
Side note: Matt and I will both be "celebrity judges" for TUTailgators' annual Chili Cook-Off for the Homecoming game! Former TU DE Kolton Shindelar will be there as a celebrity judge as well. It starts at about noon over at The Wesley Foundation on campus at 4th/Florence. You can see the full timeline for the cook-off here. Come hang out, try some tasty chili, and say hey!