For the first time since 2012, the SMU Mustangs are in a bowl game. The man who had the biggest part in making it possible, head coach Chad Morris, will not be with them as they take the field on December 20 for the DXL Frisco Bowl against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. The Bulldogs are in a bowl for the fourth straight year under Skip Holtz, but they are a five-point underdog to the Mustangs per the lines at Bovada Sportsbook with a total of 70.
It really wasn’t a great year for either Conference USA team that lost a ton of offense. Western Kentucky struggles and Louisiana Tech did the same. The Bulldogs went 6-6 straight up and against the spread The losses of Ryan Higgins, Trent Taylor, and Carlos Henderson were a lot to overcome and being in a bowl game is a pretty special accomplishment in and of itself. SMU went 7-5 straight up and 6-6 against the spread. The defense was still a problem, but the offense propelled the team to its first bowl berth as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
Sophomore quarterback J’Mar Smith walked into a really tough situation. He still had senior running back and leader Jarred Craft to rely on, but the Bulldogs lost two receivers in Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson that caught 218 passes for 3,358 yards, and 31 touchdowns last season. The majority of those touchdown passes came from Ryan Higgins, who graduated with a 41/8 TD/INT ratio. Smith did the best he could with a retooled WR corps and had a 55.4 percent completion percentage and a 13/5 TD/INT ratio. Craft wasn’t as effective as a runner or a pass catcher, with just 4.6 yards per carry after 5.6 yards per carry last season and only 13 catches. Boston Scott usurped Craft’s role with 5.7 yards per carry. Louisiana Tech ran the ball fairly well with 4.6 yards per carry as a team, but the Bulldogs went from 7.5 yards per play to just 5.7 yards per play. The Bulldogs went from 44.3 points per game to 28.7 points per game and really struggled in second halves after the opposition adjusted with just 13.2 points per second half. The extra practices should help all involved with this young offense as we head into next year.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were basically on par with last season, but got to that overall rate in a very different way. Last season, Louisiana Tech was really stout against the run with just 3.9 yards per carry allowed. The pass defense was abhorrent with 275 yards per game allowed and a 65.4 percent completion percentage against. This season, the Bulldogs held the opposition to a 58.6 percent completion rate, but allowed 4.8 yards per carry. Jaylon Ferguson, who had 14.5 sacks last season, only had six sacks this season in 11 games. The Bulldogs had 44 sacks last season, but only had 20 this season. By blitzing less aggressively, the Bulldogs did better at defending the pass, but also ran fewer run blitzes and that hurt at the point of attack. Third-year defensive coordinator Blake Baker’s change of heart was probably the smart move with an offense that was far less explosive, but it did have its downside as well.
We’ve got another instance where we have to handicap the interim head coach. Jeff Traylor, SMU’s associate head coach and running backs coach, will take over for Chad Morris. Players took to Twitter to voice their support for Traylor, as we wrote about here, so we should get a motivated SMU team, at least on the offensive side. Ben Hicks developed really nicely in his sophomore season for the Mustangs with a 32/9 TD/INT ratio and over 3,400 passing yards. He had a 58.7 percent completion percentage. Surprisingly, NFL prospect Courtland Sutton had a quiet season, at least as quiet of a season as you can have with over 1,000 yards. LSU transfer Trey Quinn led the team with 106 receptions for 1,191 yards. Sutton and James Proche, who is questionable for the bowl game, were the home run hitters and Quinn was the possession guy. That means that the LA Tech defense is going to have its hands full figuring out which guy to cover. SMU also had five yards per carry, as star back Xavier Jones had over 1,000 yards and Braeden West, expected to be the starter coming into the season, had 7.9 yards per carry on his 65 attempts. This SMU offense racked up 6.6 yards per play and over 40 points per effort. With a lot of explosive plays and three bona fide receivers, this is a force to be reckoned with.
What kept SMU from really taking a Bigfoot-sized step in the AAC is that the defense was still awful. It’s hard to average 40.2 points and 494 yards and still only be +4.7 in points per game and +7 in yards per game, but SMU did it. Third-year defensive coordinator Van Malone thought he had something going after the Mustangs held opponents to 6.0 yards per play last season, but the team regressed again this season back to 6.7 yards per play. The Mustangs allowed 7.1 yards per play in Malone and Morris’s first season. SMU allowed a ton of big passing plays, with nearly nine yards per pass attempt allowed, and couldn’t stop the run with five yards per carry allowed. The AAC has some really good offenses, and SMU did draw Memphis and UCF, plus TCU and North Texas out of conference, but still.
College Football Free Pick: SMU Mustangs -5
The Mustangs should have a motivational edge with their first bowl game since 2012 and are also simply the better team. SMU played a much tougher schedule in the AAC with TCU and North Texas than Louisiana Tech with Conference USA foes. My raw power ratings number here is SMU -8 and even with the motivational factors and probably one point worth of home field advantage, this line is still well below my number. SMU is the side here.
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