Virginia’s bowl game against SMU on December 29th is a unique matchup in a number of ways. Not only is it Bronco Mendenhall’s final game as head coach at Virginia as well as the first ever college football bowl game to be played at Fenway Park, but it is also the first-ever meeting between Virginia and SMU.
With no prior tape between these two football programs, let’s take an early look at UVA’s bowl game opponent: the SMU Mustangs.
SMU finished sixth in the American Athletic Conference this season with a 4-4 conference record and an 8-4 record overall. Midway through the season, though, the Mustangs seemed destined to be the top challenger to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the AAC. SMU began the season with a perfect 7-0 record, which included road wins over TCU and Navy.
The Mustangs were ranked as high as No. 19 in the country before suffering their first loss of the season by just one touchdown (44-37) on the road at Houston, which finished the season 11-2 and ranked No. 20 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
SMU then lost by a field goal at Memphis before crushing UCF 55-28. The Mustangs went to Cincinnati on November 20th and got blown out 48-14 by the playoff-bound Bearcats. In the regular season finale, SMU trailed Tulsa by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Mustangs rallied, but came up just three points short and fell 34-31.
Like Virginia, SMU began the season very strong but stumbled down the stretch with some tough losses against good competition. The similarities between the Cavaliers and the Mustangs go even further than that.
SMU’s strength, similar to Virginia, is in its passing offense. The Mustangs are 16th in the country in passing offense at 304.5 passing yards per game. SMU is tied with Oklahoma for 10th in the country in scoring at 38.4 points per game and is 13th in the nation in total offense at 465.9 yards per game. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai is fourth in the nation in passing touchdowns with 39, which also set a new American Athletic Conference single-season record for touchdown passes.
Most of SMU’s wins have come on the back of a prolific offensive effort in high-scoring affairs, but expect the SMU defense to play a bigger role in the bowl game, since the high-powered offenses of both Virginia and SMU will likely be a little less effective in the cold conditions of late December in Boston.
One last thing to consider is the head coaching situation at SMU. In one last parallel to Virginia, SMU is also undergoing a major coaching transition. Only in SMU’s case, the Mustangs will be without their head coach for the bowl game.
SMU head coach Sonny Dykes, who had been the coach since 2017, left SMU following the conclusion of the regular season to take on the head coaching position at TCU. He also took offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and a few other assistants with him. Although SMU has already hired a new head coach in Rhett Lashlee, an offensive coordinator at Miami who was also a coordinator under Dykes at SMU, it is still unclear who will be the head coach for the team for the bowl game against Virginia. That decision is expected to come from SMU Athletic Director Rick Hart soon.
This is the third-consecutive season that SMU is bowl eligible, but the Mustangs have not won a bowl game since beating Fresno State 43-10 in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl.
So there you have it. Two teams who had great starts, but frustrating endings to the regular season and both with dynamic offenses and distracting coaching situations.
There are plenty of storylines to examine as we approach the inaugural Wasabi Fenway Bowl on December 29th and we’ll be taking an in-depth look at all of them in the coming weeks.