On the brink of bowl eligibility, can the Mustangs ride past USF?


when: 11 a.m. Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida

Records: SMU (5-4, 3-2 in AAC play), USF (1-8, 0-5 in AAC play)

Last meeting: SMU defeated USF 41-17 in University Park, Texas, on October 2, 2021.

Television: ESPNU

What is at stake?

A two-game winning streak brought SMU to the brink of bowl eligibility with three more games to play. The Mustangs can punch their bowl ticket with a win over a South Florida team that, on paper, looks like an easy win. One caveat, though: USF fired head coach Jeff Scott this week, and teams with interim head coaches have a winning record the first game after losing their head coach. It is a unique factor that SMU will have to face on Saturday.

When Smu has the ball

Okay, the odds of SMU posting 77 points and shattering records in back-to-back weeks is probably pretty low, but the Mustangs do look like they’re hitting their stride offensively. There are several reasons for that, starting with the health of quarterback Tanner Mordechai. He said he felt healthy after missing his first game at SMU due to a concussion, and boy did he ever look that way against Houston. His 10 touchdowns set school and conference records. Speaking of health: Senior wide receiver Rashee Rice also looked back to normal after dealing with a turf toe for the better part of a month.

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The biggest turning point for the SMU offense, however, may be Taylor LaVine taking over as the feature back. The 215-pound road grader was a force for the Mustangs. In the last two games, he forced a combined 12 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Coaches said the Cowboy-wearing running back from Cedar Park has brought a comeback mentality to the SMU attack. He is a ball carrier no player wants to tackle, helping SMU become an offense no defense wants to face right now.

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SMU should also have its chances against USF’s defense. The Bulls allowed 54 points to Temple last week, which was a new season high for Temple by 26 points.

When USF had the ball

The USF offense, for the most part, hasn’t been the problem this season. The Bulls have scored at least 27 points in every game but two this year. They also played Cincinnati and Tulane hard, but that was mostly when they had Baylor transfer Gerry Bonhanon at quarterback. He was injured against Tulane and will miss the rest of the season.

In Bohannon’s place, USF used Katravis Marsh. He has six touchdowns and one interception in four games and two starts. Running back Brian Battie and wide receiver Xavier Weaver are two playmakers the SMU defense — a group that allowed 63 points to a talented Houston offense last week — should keep an eye on.

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Under Sonny Dykes, SMU was known for starting hot and fading in November. The past two weeks, SMU has looked perhaps its best all season. Under Rhett Lashlee, are the Mustangs a team that is actually playing its best ball late in the season? That’s what the coaches are hoping to see.

The SMU coaches also expect USF to come out with punches it hasn’t thrown before, backed by the fighting spirit of a team that just lost its head coach. Ultimately, I don’t think this will be enough to bridge the gap.

Score: SMU 52, USF 24

On Twitter: @JoeJHoyt

Find more SMU coverage from the Dallas Morning News here.

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