No. 24 Memphis has moved one step closer to a third-straight AAC Championship Game after beating No. 15 SMU 54-48, handing the Mustangs their first loss of the season. The Tigers now have a claim to first place in the AAC West, and with Saturday night's win, have become strong contenders in the race for a New Year's Six bid.
Even though both teams have some of the best running backs in the conference with SMU's Xavier Jones and Memphis' Kenneth Gainwell, the wild back-and-forth shootout was dominated by the quarterbacks and their wide receivers creating explosive plays after the catch. SMU quarterback Shane Buechele threw for 456 yards and four touchdowns, and even though Memphis continued to extend its lead in the second half, Buechele kept the pedal down and continued to lead touchdown drives to put pressure on the Tigers.
Memphis quarterback Brady White threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns, and he delivered some dimes under duress in key situations. After the offense had settled for a couple of field goals in scoring opportunities in the first half, White found a favorable matchup on the outside and connected with Antonio Gibson for a beautiful 50-yard go-ahead score.
Though the lead changed hands often prior to that point, Memphis never gave up control of the game after that score.
Gibson (six catches, 130 yards, one touchdown) and fellow wide receiver Damonte Coxie (seven catches, 143 yards, two touchdowns) were the favored targets for White, who has now thrown for 350 yards or more in three of Memphis' last four games. White has 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions on the season, and Saturday night's game showed a step up in performance that could be a difference-maker in guiding this team to a New Year's Six bid.
Just because Memphis got the head-to-head win does not mean it is in the clear for the AAC West; it definitely still has work to do to make sure it is the top-ranked Group of Five champion in the College Football Playoff Rankings on Selection Sunday. The Tigers get next week off but return to action with back-to-back road games at Houston and South Florida followed by a short turnaround heading into the regular season finale against No. 17 Cincinnati.
SMU will have its opportunity to leapfrog Memphis should the Tigers take one more conference loss and the Mustangs win out. SMU's final regular season schedule includes a home date against ECU next week, a week off and then a road trip to face Navy -- also in the AAC West title race but with a loss to Memphis -- and then a home date against Tulane. The Mustangs didn't lose everything on Saturday night, but achieving the goals that came with a historic 8-0 start is going to much tougher after falling short in the game of the year in the AAC.