Jennings, dominant defense carry No. 25 SMU to AAC title, 26-14 over Tulane

SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee hugs defensive tackle Jordan Miller (6) during the second half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Tulane, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. SMU won 26-14. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee hugs defensive tackle Jordan Miller (6) during the second half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Tulane, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. SMU won 26-14. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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.

THE TAKEAWAY

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.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

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.

UP NEXT

Both teams await bowl invitations Sunday.

photo SMU quarterback Kevin Jennings (7) passes during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game against Tulane, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo SMU defensive end David Abiara (10) celebrates on the field after defeating Tulane in the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. SMU won 26-14. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo Tulane head coach Willie Fritz watches from the sideline during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game against SMU, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo SMU wide receiver Key'Shawn Smith (9) pulls in a touchdown reception against Tulane defensive back Jarius Monroe (2) during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) scrambles as the pocket collapses during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against SMU, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo Tulane defensive end Devean Deal (90) returns a fumble to the 1-yard line during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game against SMU, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo SMU running back Jaylan Knighton (4) carries against Tulane linebacker Tyler Grubbs (13) for a touchdown during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game , Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo Tulane defensive back Jarius Monroe (2) intercepts a pass near the end zone intended for SMU wide receiver Jake Bailey (12) during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
photo Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) scores a touchdown on a keeper during the first half of the American Athletic Conference Championship NCAA college football game against SMU, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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