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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

    SMU Football wins the 2023 AAC Championship

    Mustangs take home the first conference championship in three decades after defeating Tulane 26-14.
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    Mark Reese
    Head coach Rhett Lashlee poses with the AAC championship trophy on the field after the game.

    The Mustangs conquered the Green Wave 26-14 in a ferocious battle for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) championship on Saturday in New Orleans. SMU football is now ranked No. 24 in the College Football Playoff polls and is headed to the Fenway Bowl to face Boston College on Dec. 28.

    This is head coach Rhett Lashlee’s last AAC season, first championship and SMU’s first championship in 39 years. Former head coach Sonny Dykes never brought the Mustangs a conference championship during his four years on the Hilltop.

    No. 5 wide receiver Moochie Dixon goes head-to-head with a Tulane player in Yulman. (Mark Reese)

    “We love the American, it has been great to us, and we’re really grateful we could go out winning it,” Lashlee said in a post-game conference.

    No. 23 Liberty University, who sits one rank ahead of SMU in the polls, will take on No. 8 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, a New Year’s Six bowl. Lashlee hoped SMU would get that New Year’s Six invite but when the bowl schedule was announced Sunday, SMU’s hopes were dashed. AAC Commission Mike Aresco issued a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, criticizing the decision.

    “As proud as we were to celebrate SMU’s first conference championship in nearly 40 years last night, we are stunned and disappointed in the College Football Playoff committee’s egregious decision to exclude SMU from a New Year’s Six bowl.”

    Liberty went undefeated this season, but Lashlee and others noted the Mustangs’ schedule was tougher. Its only two losses were to non-conference Big 12 teams, Oklahoma and TCU.

    Even in Saturday’s game, SMU had to play without its starting quarterback, Preston Stone, who traded in his cleats for crutches during the championship match. Stone is recovering from a broken leg injury sustained when the Mustangs played Navy a week prior.

    Backup quarterback Kevin Jennings ran for 203 yards and scored a touchdown for SMU in Yulman Stadium against Tulane.

    Safety Isaiah Nwokobia was picked as the game’s MVP. A rare award to a defensive end, but a fitting one for Nwokobia whose eight tackles and one interception helped secure the championship for the ‘Stangs.

    “It means the world to me,” Nwokobia said on the field after learning he’d been chosen for the award. “Put in the work, and keep your head down.”

    The Mustangs had a rough first half, with three turnovers and a missed field goal following a touchdown from Tulane less than ten seconds into the first quarter.

    Lashlee called a slew of interesting plays in Yulman, with some Mustang fans upset at missed passes and field goal attempts before the half.

    The Tulane defense proved to eventually be weak enough for the Mustangs to score with several field goals. Eventually, SMU led the half 14-7 in New Orleans.

    By the second half each side got more aggressive. Tulane, in an effort to appease more than 25,000 fans, began to play into the offense they lacked in the earlier half.

    The Mustang defense worked harder, proving themselves to be the real backbone of SMU football for this championship game, and why it was a defensive player who earned MVP Saturday night.

    Jennings went for the scramble in several third quarter offensive plays, with most attempts in the Mustangs’ favor. Jennings went 19 for 33 on passes in Yulman Stadium. One of the successful scrambles from Jennings midway through the third quarter landed the Mustangs at the SMU 45-yard line, then to the Tulane 46-yard line for a first down.

    It wasn’t until an SMU interception at 4:28 in the fourth quarter that a hush fell over the stadium. This was the moment Tulane fans began leaving in big, quiet swaths and SMU fans huddled in their small visiting section

    SMU fans cheer on the Mustangs giving the “Pony Up” hand signal from the visitor’s section in Yulman Stadium. (Mark Reese)

    That’s when the SMU football team likely realized the AAC championship was theirs.

    SMU scored one last field goal with 3:15 on the clock to put the scoreboard at SMU 26, Tulane, 14.

    Four field goals were the difference between victory and defeat for SMU. They didn’t score a single touchdown during the entire second quarter against the Green Wave.

    From a missed fumble to slowly inching their way to the top of the American Athletic Conference Championship one field goal at a time, the Mustangs clenched the conference title by being “uncommon,” game MVP Nwokobia said.

    “That’s what makes us different, we’re uncommon because we’re a team, no matter what,” Nwokobia said.

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    About the Contributor
    Ceara Johnson, Managing Editor
    As DC's Managing Editor, Johnson focuses on editorial, political and sports journalism. She covers SMU athletics, local politics and sociocultural issues on campus. Contact her at [email protected].