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Jennings, dominant defense carry No. 25 SMU to AAC title over Tulane

SMU Tulane Kevin Jennings (front) Bailey Despanie - The Canadian Press

NEW ORLEANS -- — Kevin Jennings threw a touchdown pass and accounted for 266 yards from scrimmage in his first career start, Collin Rogers kicked four second-half field goals and No. 25 SMU beat No. 17 Tulane 26-14 on Saturday in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The Mustangs (11-2) also turned in a stifling defensive performance, limiting Tulane (11-2, No. 22 CFP) to a touchdown during the final 59 minutes to snap the Green Wave's 10-game winning streak and dethrone the defending league champs.

SMU sacked Michael Pratt seven times. Defensive back Isaiah Nwokobia's interception in the fourth quarter all but sealed it, sending numerous fans to the exits of Yulman Stadium, where the Wave had celebrated their first AAC title a year ago.

The game was played amid reports that Tulane coach Willie Frtiz is Houston's top candidate following the Cougars' firing of Dana Holgorsen. Fritz declined to confirm his intentions after the game and said, “No,” when has if he had an agreement already in place with Houston.

“I put everything into this game this week to make sure there wasn’t any distractions,” Fritz said. “I‘ve got to process some things. ... Just want to take a step back here.”

Had Tulane won, it could have returned to a major New Year's Day bowl game for a second straight year, having defeated USC in last season's Cotton Bowl. Now either Conference USA champion Liberty or SMU — which ever team winds up higher in the final College Football Playoff rankings — will play in a New Year's Six bowl.

Liberty entered the weekend at No. 24 in the CFP and SMU was not in the CFP's top 25, but could potentially move past Liberty after topping Tulane on the road.

SMU's league title was its first since winning the Southwest Conference in 1984. It'll also be the Mustangs' last in the AAC. They move to the ACC next season.

Tulane led 7-0 just two plays after SMU received the opening kickoff.

Playing in place of injured Mustangs starter Preston Stone, Jennings was stripped on SMU's first offensive play by edge rusher Devean Deal, who also recovered and returned the ball to the 1. Pratt scored on a keeper on the next play.

SMU tied it on Jaylan Knighton's 6-yard run in the first quarter.

The Mustangs punted only once in the first half, but a missed a field goal and turned the ball over twice more before finally taking at 14-7 lead on Jennings' 17-yard pass to Key'Shawn Smith with 1:32 left in the first half.

Tulane tied it at 14 when SMU bit on Pratt's play-action fake on third-and-1, leaving Yulkeith Brown wide open for a 42-yard touchdown pass.

Rogers' 48-yard field goal gave SMU the lead for good at 17-14.


SMU: Jennings' inexperience showed on his turnovers, but his potential to be the Mustangs' QB of the future was evident in the way he escaped pressure to extend plays and made clutch throws on third and fourth downs, highlighted by his third-down scoring pass to Smith, who was covered by top Tulane cornerback Jarius Monroe, on a well executed back-sholder throw.

Tulane: Tulane was fortunate to be down by only one TD at halftime, having been outgained 249 yards to 82. Interceptions by Cam Pedescleaux and Monroe — both in Tulane territory and one near the goal line — kept Tulane in the game. SMU also missed an early field goal. That allowed the Wave to stay within one score into the fourth quarter. But the offense — hampered by injuires that sidelined starting receiver Lawrence Keys and reduced the role of fellow starter Jha'Quan Jackson — struggled most of the game.

“We’ve got some really good players that weren’t able to play down the stretch — and that’s difficult,” Fritz said.


After cracking the AP Top 25 last week, SMU could move up a few spots. Tulane will fall, but peraps not entirely out of the rankings.


Both teams await bowl invitations Sunday.