AAC Championship Picks & Predictions: Best Bets for Tulane vs. SMU Over/Under & Spread
Getty Images. Design by Cyriel Klitsie/Action Network. Pictured (left to right): SMU’s Jaylan Knighton and RJ Maryland. Tulane’s Michael Pratt and Lawrence Keys III.
ACC Championship Odds
The Preston Stone injury sucked a lot of the intrigue out of this AAC Championship.
This could’ve been the Group of Five championship matchup to watch.
The American Athletic Conference has represented the Group of Five in six consecutive New Year’s Six Bowls, and either 11-1 Tulane or 10-2 SMU looks poised to continue that trend.
Stone and Tulane’s Michael Pratt are arguably the two best quarterbacks in the Group of Five. The two combined for over 5,000 yards passing and 57 total touchdowns this year, and it would’ve been more if Pratt hadn’t taken a brief injury hiatus.
Stone also ranked first among Group of Five quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’s passing grades, while Pratt ranked sixth.
Two great teams led by two great quarterbacks fighting for one of college football’s ultimate prizes. It was supposed to be brilliant.
Now, it’s hard to see how SMU keeps up without its superstar signal-caller under center. Can backup Kevin Jennings, a former three-star recruit, outplay Pratt? It seems doubtful on the surface.
However, we polled our college football staff writers on this game, and half of them are taking SMU and the points.
We can still expect an epic, hard-fought, tight AAC Championship game with loads on the line Saturday afternoon. Let’s discuss why.
Tulane vs. SMU Spread
By Cody Goggin
Our staff is split 50-50 on this one, and with so much uncertainty around this game, I can see why.
At this number, our staff likely would have been all over SMU prior to the injury to Mustangs quarterback Preston Stone last weekend. Stone suffered a broken leg in the win against Navy, ending his impressive season.
With Stone playing, SMU ranks 32nd in Success Rate this season and 14th in Finishing Drives. It runs more than it throws and rank 28th in Rushing Success Rate.
The SMU passing game sits 45th in Success Rate but is the third-most explosive in the country, bringing it up to ninth in PPA. Without Stone under center, it remains to be seen how good this SMU offense can be.
Luckily for them, Tulane’s passing defense may not provide too much resistance. The Green Wave rank 94th in Passing Success Rate and 70th in Passing PPA.
Where this could cause issues is that Tulane’s rushing defense is stout, which may force SMU into a lot of obvious passing situations with a backup quarterback, which is less than ideal. Tulane’s defense ranks 26th in Rushing Success Rate Allowed this season and 24th in Rushing PPA Allowed.
On the other side of this matchup, Tulane is one of the most run-heavy teams in the country, running at the 17th-highest rate in FBS but ranking 113th in Success Rate on the ground.
Tulane has been successful when it throws the ball, ranking 12th in Success Rate and 23rd in PPA. This isn’t an overly explosive offensive unit, as it sits at 73rd in passing explosiveness and 97th in explosiveness overall.
SMU’s defense had been its main strength this year. The Mustangs rank fourth in Defensive Success Rate, 14th in Havoc Rate and 57th in Finishing Drives. Their rushing defense is ninth in Success Rate and 16th in PPA, while the passing defense ranks sixth and fourth in these two categories, respectively.
While there may be uncertainty from the SMU offense, it appears that the Mustangs will have an obvious advantage on the defensive side of the ball.
When voting the poll, I had voted for Tulane due to Stone’s injury, but I’m going to be the tiebreaker after taking a deep dive into this game.
Instead, I believe the market is overvaluing the loss of Stone and SMU will be able to keep it within this number and possibly even win the matchup with redshirt freshman Kevin Jennings starting at quarterback.
Tulane vs. SMU Over/Under
Our staff is almost evenly split on how to play the total in this contest, and deservedly so, as we need to digest the absence of SMU starting quarterback Preston Stone.
Not to beat a dead horse, but this throws a monkey wrench into the line and creates a situation where the science of line-making gets tossed out the window and the art of handicapping takes over.
First, let’s start with what we know, and that's the fact that Tulane will be coming into the game at nearly full strength.
The Green Wave are the 26th-ranked team in PFF's power rankings and feature a well-balanced attack on both sides of the ball. They rely on the run but don’t particularly stand out on offense, ranking 58th (167.3 YPG) and 71st (221.1 YPG) in rushing and passing offense, respectively.
Where Tulane does stand out is in the rushing defense area. The Wave rank sixth in the nation in rushing defense, giving up just 86.0 yards per game.
Given that SMU is missing its star quarterback, it would be logical for the Mustangs to pivot to a run-heavy game plan, but that wouldn't be wise given the success that Tulane has had against the run all season.
The Green Wave have been underwhelming against the pass, ranking 100th in the nation in passing defense by allowing an average of 242.2 aerial yards per game.
Even though they've been bad against the pass, this hasn’t necessarily led to adverse outcomes. The defense still ranks 17th nationally and second in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing just 18.3 points per game.
Lastly, we know that the SMU defense is equally good, if not better. The Mustangs rank 13th nationally and first in the AAC in points per game allowed, giving up just 17.7.
They're very well-balanced on defense, but they're still slightly better at defending through the air. This should lead the Tulane game plan to be heavy on the ground-and-pound game plan.
What we don’t know is what kind of quarterback play we're going to see from SMU backup Kevin Jennings. Jennings was formerly a three-star recruit and state champion in high school, but he's attempted only 24 passes this season.
Perhaps Jennings will surprise, but this is a very difficult first start for the redshirt freshman given the gravity of the game and lack of playing time this season.
All indications point to this game being a defensive struggle between these two top-ranked AAC defenses. Expect Tulane to keep the ball on the ground, whereas SMU will try to establish the run game but will have to look to pass at times with Jennings taking over for Stone.
As the line continues to drop, there's definitely value to be had on the over if you feel that Jennings can surprise for SMU. However, the market is telling us that betting on defense is likely the smart play.
Plus, our PRO Report has tracked Sharp Action on the under this week.