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Game Preview: SMU Mustangs at Cincinnati Bearcats

Homecoming is going to be a real challenge.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a minute since the Cincinnati Bearcats have faced off with the SMU Mustangs on the football field. While the two programs have created a budding rivalry in basketball recently, football has not led to many epic matchups or many matchups of any kind at all.

That will change, at least to an extent, on Saturday, as the Bearcats host the Mustangs in American Athletic Conference play at Nippert Stadium. This will be a rematch three years in the making, with the Bearcats winning 41-3 in Dallas back in 2014.

It is highly unlikely a similar result will unfold this weekend. That 2014 UC team won nine games. This year’s squad might lose that many. Currently 2-5 overall and 0-3 in league play, they have lost four-straight games by an average margin of 18.75 points.

Just like UC is on the other end of the pendulum compared to its 2014 self, the Mustangs are headed back up after the 1-11 debacle of that final season under June Jones (and Tom Mason). The Mustangs are 4-2 through the first half of the season, riding high on an offense that Chad Morris has humming along from the sidelines.

Offensive Outlook

With Hayden Moore not playing well and dealing with an elbow injury, the quarterback controversy machine is back up and running. Moore did not play in the fourth quarter of last week’s blowout loss to USF, which meant we finally got to see Ross Trail out there. The sophomore did not amaze by any means, completing 5-of-9 passes for 31 yards, but he deserves to get a shot since Moore has been serviceable at best, and terrible at worst. Moore is still the projected starter for this game, and that’s fine, but Trail should continue to push him for playing time or else the QB situation is even worse off than we know.

No matter how you slice it, or who plays quarterback, its clear that the offense is in shambles. A lot of that has to do with a lack of a running game. UC has rushed for the fewest yards of any team in the AAC (708) and some teams haven’t even played seven games like the Bearcats. In fact, UCF, which has 1,127 yards, has only played five.

Inconsistent play on the offensive line has really kept the rushing game from taking off, as has a constant deficit on the scoreboard, necessitating more passes than runs. The line will be tested heavily on Saturday, as SMU is tied for the AAC lead in sacks (21).

But back to the running game,. Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren have gotten plenty of chances to prove themselves for the future, but Mike Boone is still the top rusher when he’s healthy, even if he has averaged a disappointing 3.8 yards per carry. At the least he has helped the passing game, with 13 receptions for 108 yards.

The offense may get a chance to light the scoreboard up a bit more than usual against SMU, which has been held back by its defense, which ranks 96th in the country in S&P+. While an acceptable group against the run, the Mustangs have had trouble when teams take to the skies. They have allowed 308.8 passing yards per game, which is better than only East Carolina and UConn among AAC teams. Calling plays for Kahlil Lewis, Devin Gray, Thomas Geddis as well as the tight ends (Tyler Cogswell and Josiah Deguara) should be a priority.

Defensive Outlook

Morris has proven to be an excellent offensive coach, lifting SMU to a No. 12 ranking in offensive S&P+ this season. The passing game is what the Mustangs rely on the most and for good reason. They have Courtland Sutton. The key to the 16th-best passing offense in the nation, Sutton has caught 31 passes for 489 yards and seven touchdowns. But even though Sutton is the NFL talent, Trey Quinn has actually led the team (54 receptions, 587 yards, five touchdowns), ranking second in the conference in receptions.

Hoping the UC secondary can disrupt one elite receiver is a lot to ask, let alone two. While the Bearcats are allowing an AAC-low 197.3 passing yards per game, that stat doesn’t really tell the whole story. Opponents are averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, completing 59.4 percent of their pass attempts and posting a QB rating of 155.28. The simple fact is that because games have not been competitive, there has not been as much of a need to throw the ball.

If SMU does go up big through the air early, it has the running backs to close things out. Xavier Jones (467 yards, three touchdowns), Ke’Mon Freeman (335 yards, seven touchdowns) and Braeden West (277 yards) can all eat up yards out of the backfield. Expect plenty of work for Jaylyin Minor and Perry Young, UC’s best linebackers and top tacklers.

Players to Watch

Cincinnati - Kahlil Lewis, WR

For what seems like the thousandth week in a row, I’m here to say if the Bearcats are going to win, they’ll need to be effective on offense. The defense just isn’t good enough to grind out a low-scoring victory. With that said, UC’s best chance is through the air and Lewis is the top option there. Lewis could have a big game and the Bearcats could still lose, but they certainly won’t win if he’s kept quiet.

SMU - Ben Hicks, QB

Sutton is the most watchable player in this game, but Hicks runs the SMU offense. If he feels comfortable in the pocket and is throwing in rhythm, it won’t matter if Sutton decides to take the day off, the Mustangs will cruise.

Numbers That Matter

6.0 - If UC’s goal is too disrupt SMU’s passing game, they need to improve on their league-low sack total.

23 - SMU has what you’d call a big play offense. Their 23 plays of 30 or more yards leads the AAC.

43.8 - That’s SMU’s points per game average. It is twice as much as UC’s (20.0).

Prediction Time!

Since the Mustangs don’t have a defense like USF or UCF, the Bearcats should finally be able to score a respectable amount. The problem is, SMU’s offense is built to pick up yards and points at a ridiculous pace. Even at their best, the Bearcats aren’t capable of that. With a defense that still needs lots of work, UC will allow another big number on the scoreboard.

SMU 48 Cincinnati 34