The 2019 version of SMU did something no Mustangs team had done in 35 years. They got to double digits in wins with a 10-3 record. Now before anyone starts getting visions of Dickerson, and James, and the Pony Express, we live in a “what have you done for me lately” college football world. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are all preparing for a new world on an almost daily basis.
SMU Looks To Double Down
That having been said, head coach Sonny Dykes has a combination of experience and talent that could put the Mustangs in contention for the AAC title again this season.
As with most teams, the season will be only as good as the quarterback makes it. SMU has one of the more underappreciated quarterbacks in the country. Senior Shane Buechle threw for 3,929 yards last season to go with 34 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. Those numbers, along with his nearly 63% completion rate would have him being called a Heisman contender if he had stayed at Texas. His upside is very apparent. Look no further than the East Carolina game last season when he lit up the Pirates for a 72% completion rate to go with 414 passing yards and five touchdowns.
He has the outside weapons, even with the loss of James Proche. Reggie Roberson Jr. returns after an injury shortened 2019. Even though he only appeared in eight games, his 803 receiving yards were a hair better than his 10-game performance the previous year. He also has Kylen Granson at tight end. At 6-3, 235 pounds, Granson is more of the new age of college football tight ends, in that he can go in the slot or at the end of the line. He is coming off a 43-catch, 721-yard, nine-touchdown season, and with the loss of Proche, he is likely to be more of a target for Buechele.
The biggest news, besides Beuchele, is that four starters return on an offensive line that led the conference in fewest sacks given up. Left tackle Jaylon Thomas being back to protect Buechele’s blind side is significant. The 6-3, 312-pound senior is on the Outland Trophy watch list for the second consecutive year.
The elephant in the room on offense is the lack of depth and experience at running back. With Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman gone, there is 1,800 rushing yards gone with them. T.J. McDaniel is the heir apparent. The sophomore had 41 carries for 236 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. Three of those touchdowns and 159 of the yards came in the blowout win over Texas State. He has the quick feet at the line and the outside cuts. He needs to be able to carry the brunt of the workload over a full season.
The offense is likely to pick up a step or two in terms of pace. New offensive coordinator Garrett Riley tends to run a quick hitch/quick release offense. It relies on shorter slants and putting the ball in the receivers’ hands quicker to allow for yards after catch. The offense averaged 41 points per game, good enough for seventh in the country. If Riley can get production from the running back position, the offensive totals are likely to go up.
The Mustangs are likely to have to put up a lot of points. The defense was a major liability in 2019 and is suffering from a lack of experienced depth in 2020. Sure, they got tons of sacks from the edges, (they were fourth in the country). But up the middle they got little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and gave up way too many yards on the ground. Over the last third of the season, they were routinely giving up 500 yards per game.
So really it is an either side of the coin conversation. The Mustangs’ lack experience in the middle of the defensive line. But that was the same middle that lacked productivity last year. Most importantly, SMU returns defensive ends Turner Coxe and Gary Wiley. Coxe had 49 total tackles last year including seven-and-a-half for loss.
The leading tackler from 2019, linebacker Richard McBryde, actually got a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, after posting 99 total tackles last year. The linebacking group also gets back Richard Moore, who was the leading tackler in 2018, but missed most of 2019 with a knee injury.
The defensive backfield is a mystery. It is brimming with experience, but they gave up far too many big plays last year. The corners are set with Ar’mani Johnson and former UCLA transfer Brandon Stephens. But the safeties are in a state of TBD.
The schedule also is not going to do SMU any favors. The first three games are on the road, although they don’t leave the state of Texas. Road games may not be as daunting in the COVID era. But with the lack of Spring camp and a compressed Fall camp, every team goes in with some unresolved issues. If the Mustangs can keep a viable defense that gets off the field faster, there is likely to be enough offense to produce a high win total again.