The AAC’s final week did not disappoint. While all eyes focused on UTSA and Tulane on Black Friday, that wasn’t the American’s only game, nor was it the only game that delivered. Two teams punched their tickets to the Conference Championship, and two more reached bowl eligibility. And somehow, the games with the least implications became arguably the week’s biggest thrillers.
Tulane Reaches Its Second Straight AAC Championship Game
UTSA at Tulane served as a de facto AAC playoff game with the winner clinching a spot in the Conference Championship. Following their 16-point win last week, Tulane continued to silence doubters with a 13-point victory over UTSA. The Green Wave dominated throughout, generating fully *5* turnovers and leading by as much as 19 in a 29-16 win.
Tulane RB Makhi Hughes continued to make his case for AAC Offensive Player of the Year. He put up 166 yards rushing, bringing his total to 1246 rushing yards on the year. With that, Hughes helped pick up the slack for Green Wave QB Michael Pratt. Pratt finished just 9/22 passing overall for a mere 125 yards through the air. Despite that stat line, though, Pratt threw a pair of crucial touchdown passes.
And so the Green Wave continue their quest for back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls. The UTSA win strengthened their resume significantly. Pending an unlikely change of heart from the Playoff Committee, a win in the AAC Championship Game will send them back to the New Year’s Six.
Tickets for the @American_Conf Championship are on sale now! Get your tickets before they're gone and let's #PackYulman to help @GreenWaveFB win back-to-back championships! 🏆— Tulane Green Wave (@TulaneAthletics) November 26, 2023
🎟️ https://t.co/Z8j3jIAOht#RollWave | #NOLABuilt pic.twitter.com/PHbIHui3sp
SMU Dominates Navy to Clinch AAC Title Spot
SMU also had a “win-and-in” scenario, and they left no doubt that they deserved a spot in the championship. QB Preston Stone threw for an unfathomable 297 yards in the first quarter against Navy before going out with a gruesome-looking leg injury on an ill-advised scramble up 42-0 in the second. Even so, the ‘Stangs led 52-14 at halftime. They then put it on cruise control, finishing up 59-14.
Alas, Stone’s injury spells trouble. He broke his leg at exactly the wrong time and will now have to miss the AAC Championship and the rest of whatever remains of this college football season. Thankfully, QB Kevin Jennings didn’t have to do much in relief, attempting just four passes while preserving a huge lead. Still, no one knows how SMU’s offense will recover, though Jennings has performed well when called. On the year, he’s gone 18/24 passing for 224 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Start fast, finish strong.— SMU Football (@SMUFB) November 27, 2023
Started fast, finished strong. pic.twitter.com/w8owZaTYDd
Memphis Strengthens Bowl Prospects
Memphis easily disposed of Temple in the Black Friday appetizer, 45-21. The Tigers raced out to a 28-6 halftime lead and never looked back. Memphis QB Seth Henigan threw for four touchdowns, while RB Blake Watson’s 95 yards rushing helped him exceed the 1000-yard mark on the year.
In a recurring storyline, Temple’s porous defense overshadowed an admirable performance by QB E.J. Warner and the Owls’ offense. Warner threw for 330 yards, and WR Amad Anderson dazzled the sparse Philadelphia crowd with 169 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns.
Memphis now looks poised to face a Power Five opponent in their bowl game, while Temple Coach Stan Drayton’s seat looks hot after back-to-back 3-9 seasons.
Rice and USF Reach Bowl Eligibility
USF Head Coach Alex Golesh’s remarkable turnaround deserves more attention nationally. A year removed from a 1-11 finish, Golesh has the Bulls bowling. USF dominated Charlotte this past weekend, winning 45-14. USF QB Byrum Brown became the first USF quarterback to throw for 3000 yards in a season with a 253-yard performance. Senior RB Michel Dukes’ first 100-yard game of his career complimented Brown’s performance, as did two interceptions by the Bulls’ defense.
Rice had considerably more trouble reaching the six-win plateau than USF. The Owls staved off a late comeback by FAU to hold on for a 24-21 win. Rice backup QB A.J. Padgett performed well in place of an ailing J.T. Daniels, throwing for 255 yards and 3 touchdowns. After his brother Christian shined on the national stage on Thanksgiving, Rice RB Luke McCaffery caught 12 passes for 141 yards, including his 12th touchdown of the year, and added 31 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, the Rice defense held FAU WR LaJohntay Wester to just four catches on the afternoon. Wester came into the game with over 100 receptions on the year.
Ultimately, it was the Rice defense who made the play of the game. They forced a late turnover on downs and punched the team’s ticket to a bowl game.
✅ Breaking records— USF Football (@USFFootball) November 27, 2023
✅ Making program history
Now @byrumbrown17 picks up his 6th @American_Conf honors of the season!
All the details: https://t.co/5HDxKOSV12#ComeToTheBay | #StayInTheBay pic.twitter.com/cWPuJfAlhM
Last-Second Field Goals Highlight Cellar-Dweller Clashes
The two best games did not come from the league’s upper echelon but from the four worst teams. North Texas overcame a 14-point deficit to win, 45-42, on K Noah Rauschenberg’s field goal as time expired.
This game was wild. Both teams featured balanced, talented attacks. North Texas QB Chandler Rogers threw for 404 yards; RB Ayo Adeyi ran for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Blazers QB Jacob Zeno threw for 285 yards; RBs Jermaine Brown Jr. and Lee Beebe each ran for over 100 yards for UAB.
A last-second field goal also decided East Carolina-Tulsa. WRs Chase Sowell of East Carolina and Kamdyn Benjamin of Tulsa each eclipsed 100 yards receiving, but K Chase Meyer’s 37-yard field goal gave Tulsa a 29-27 win. Golden Hurricanes QB Kirk Francis made the difference in this one, though, throwing for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns in a win that might give Tulsa fans some hope for the future.
Current Bowl Projections
Tulane vs. Alabama
Memphis vs. Virginia Tech
UTSA vs. Syracuse
First Responder Bowl
SMU vs. West Virginia
Rice vs. Boise State
USF vs. UCF
Go Army! Beat Navy!!!
Cover image via SMUMustangs.Com.