No. 17 Tulane, No. 25 SMU meet in AAC title battle rife with subplots

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — No. 17 Tulane and No. 25 SMU have yet to lose a game in the American Athletic Conference this season.

Something has to give on Saturday when the Green Wave (11-1, 8-0 AAC, No. 22 CFP) tries to defend last year’s conference crown and the Mustangs (10-2, 8-0) seek their first AAC title in what is also their final season in the league before moving to the ACC.

This game has no shortage of subplots.

Several power conference programs have coaching openings to fill, and Tulane coach Willie Fritz looks like an increasingly attractive candidate after leading the Green Wave to more than 20 victories in a two-season span for the first time since the program’s founding in 1893.

Meanwhile, Fritz is trying to motivate his team by highlighting their opportunity to do something few Green Wave fans have seen in their lifetimes. Tulane has not won consecutive league titles since finishing atop the Southern Conference in 1930 and 1931.

“I don’t think anybody in the room was here for that. I certainly wasn’t, so this is big,” Fritz said. “These opportunities don’t come around that often.”

There’s also the matter of how SMU will fare in the wake of a season-ending injury to the quarterback who led them to this point.

Preston Stone broke his leg during SMU’s 59-14 victory over Navy last week. He had passed for 3,197 yards and 28 TDs this season. Now the Mustangs will go with backup Kevin Jennings, who has looked promising in mop-up duty, completing 18 of his 24 passes for 224 yards and three TDs without an interception.

While SMU coach Rhett Lashlee said his team would miss Stone, he added, “There’s probably not a lot of teams that, if they lost their starting quarterback, could feel as good as we do.”

“You can’t replace the experience and the production of how Preston was playing, but that’s not what we’re asking Kevin to do,” Lashlee continued. “We feel like we have a good team, and if Kevin will just show up and be Kevin, that he’s more than enough.”

Tulane and SMU are two of the AAC’s best defensive teams. So, Fritz suspects the experience of Green Wave starting quarterback Michael Pratt — who also is the program’s all-time leader in yards and touchdowns passing — will be a factor.

“It’s huge,” Fritz said. “You always want to have experience there if you can. There’s not a whole lot you can throw at Michael he hasn’t seen over and over and over again. … It’s nice to have a guy that’s been in a bunch of battles and understands what we’re doing.”

The winner likely heads to a New Year’s Day bowl, as Tulane did last season, beating USC in the Cotton Bowl.

A season ago, Tulane celebrated the program’s first AAC title with students and other fans who had poured onto the field at Yulman Stadium after a victory over UCF.

Now Pratt, a Senior Bowl invitee, has a chance to experience that once more.

“This is what we’ve been working for,” Patt said. “Being at home, I think, gives us a big advantage.”


SMU’s two leading rushers, Jaylan Knighton and L.J. Johnson, didn’t play against Navy because they were dealing with what Lashlee called “minor injuries.”

Lashlee said Knighton and Johnson were available to play against Navy, if needed.

“We were fortunate enough to get a lead pretty early, so we didn’t put those guys in,” Lashlee said. “Hopefully a week of rest will help them be as close to 100 percent as a running back can be in week 13.”


SMU visited Tulane last season and lost 59-24.

“They whipped us in every facet,” Lashlee said. “And on top of it, we just didn’t play very well. It was a really bad combination.”

But Lashlee seemed eager to revisit it, perhaps to play up the revenge factor leading into SMU’s chance to win a first league title since it was in the Southwest Conference in 1984.

“Fortunately, we were able to go 4-0 on the road in the league this year,” Lashlee said. “Hopefully, we’ll give them a better game this time.”


Pratt has had to manage Tulane’s passing game without starting receivers Lawrence Keys (599 yards, seven TDs) and Jha’Quan Jackson (421 yards, four TDs) in recent weeks.

Fritz said he doesn’t expect Lawrence to be back, “but we feel pretty good about Jha’Quan being able to play this weekend.”

Since those two receivers went down, Chris Brazzell has emerged as Tulane’s leader in yards receiving with 670 to go with five TDs.


A season ago, Fritz brushed aside reports that he was close to taking the Georgia Tech job in the days before Tulane’s conference championship victory over UCF. So he was ready for questions about his future in the days leading up to this season’s title tilt.

“You kind of hope you’re in this position, I guess, every year. It means things are going pretty well,” Fritz said. “I just take on the task at hand, and that’s all I’m concerned about.”

“As I tell my kids and players and coaches at the beginning of the year, I will never be a distraction to Tulane football,” Fritz continued. “The only thing I’m concerned about is the game at 3 o’clock on Saturday.”


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