It was only a matter of time until Chad Morris got plucked by a Power Five program. It turns out that Arkansas was the one that came calling and it is the SMU Mustangs who feel the brunt of the college football coaching food chain this time around. Fortunately, a coach with a ton of experience was there to take the reins, as Sonny Dykes begins his third FBS head coaching stint. The former head coach at Louisiana Tech and Cal just seems like a perfect fit for this program and the blueprint that Morris left behind.
While expectations aren’t particularly high for the Mustangs this season, this team could very well be on the top-10 list of most fascinating programs to follow. Morris did a good job of recruiting in the Lone Star State and neighboring states, so SMU has a ton of talent. On the other hand, that talent now has new systems and schemes to learn and will have to run an up-tempo offense with two NFL-caliber receivers now in the NFL. Oh, yeah, and a defense that hasn’t allowed less than six yards per play since its first season in the AAC.
SMU is in the middle of the pack for the AAC crown with a price of +2500 at BetOnline and +2700 at 5Dimes. Bowl eligibility is the goal for over bettors on the season win total, as 5Dimes lists SMU at 5.5 with -115 on both sides. BetOnline has 5.5 with -110 on both sides. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|Date||Opponent||BangTheBook Line||Expected Wins|
|9/1||@ North Texas||+5||.36|
Expected Wins: 4.36
Sonny Dykes certainly a pedigree when it comes to developing offense and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee had a pretty good teacher in Gus Malzahn with Auburn. Lashlee moves from UConn, where he had very little to work with. There is a lot more to work with in Dallas, to say the least. Incumbent starting quarterback Ben Hicks completed 58.5 percent of his tosses with a 33/12 TD/INT ratio last season. Unfortunately for Hicks and Lashlee, Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton combined for 25 of those touchdown receptions, 182 catches, and 2,321 receiving yards. For those that play college fantasy football, James Proche is a must-draft, as he had 40 grabs for 20.4 yards per catch and six touchdowns last season. SMU’s offense will still put up some numbers, but those are two elite (by AAC standards) receivers that moved on.
We’ll have to see if Air Raid connoisseur Sonny Dykes is willing to let the running backs eat. Rhett Lashlee’s background is in running the football, so it would make sense to let 1,000-yard rusher Xavier Jones keep eating. Jones, Braeden West, and Ke’Mon Freeman combined for nearly 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns. SMU returns three of its five starting linemen from last season, but loses a four-year starter at center and has to learn a new system.
Any regression from the SMU offense will make things very difficult. This is a defense that did improve in the two seasons under Morris and departed DC Van Malone. Improvement, though, is a relative term. SMU still allowed 36.7 points per game and 477 yards per contest. The Mustangs allowed over 200 rushing yards per game for the fourth straight season. They were also lit up through the air. SMU allowed more yards per play last season than in 2016. Former Northern Illinois DC Kevin Kane has been tabbed as the guy expected to bring this group up to respectability.
SMU loses its best defensive player in defensive end Justin Lawler. Lawler was taken in the seventh round by the Rams. There are eight returning starters on defense, but how valuable are returning starters for a group that was this bad? SMU was a rather aggressive defense last season, as they pressured the quarterback a lot and left the corners on an island. Will a more conservative approach under Kane be what this group needs to keep games closer?
There is no “easing into the season” for SMU. They draw a battle for recruiting bragging rights in the opener against North Texas. Then they’ll play TCU, Michigan, and the triple-option of Navy. The schedule does lighten up considerably in the back end with the majority of the winnable games coming after the bye. At least that gives SMU time to smooth out what are sure to be a lot of rough edges.
Pick: Under 5.5 (-110, BetOnline)
Look, if Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton hadn’t left early and were part of the Sonny Dykes-inspired Air Raid offense, things might be a lot different in Dallas. The Mustangs have a great stable, pardon the pun, of running backs and Lashlee will be able to maximize and utilize them to their fullest potential. This defense is still bad and SMU will be chasing six wins deep into the season. After all, SMU will probably be 1-5 heading into the bye. They’ll need to go 5-1 after it in order to cash an over ticket and head for a bowl game. That seems rather unlikely.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
The SMU Mustangs are definitely on the right track. This will be the third season under former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and an influx of talent into the program has paid dividends in short order. SMU had two cracks at getting to a bowl game for the first time since 2012, but ran into South Florida and Navy in the last two weeks of the season and finished 5-7. That was still a three-game improvement from the 2-10 showing during Morris’s first year in 2015.
For a program that went 3-21 over 2014-15, a 5-7 season showed just how far things have come in Dallas. Morris has done a good job of enticing talent to come and be part of the rebuild and could be on the verge of getting those highly-coveted extra practices prior to a bowl game and then the subsequent bowl game experience. Unfortunately, the AAC West is a beast of a division. If SMU were in the East Division, the hopes and dreams for this program would be a bit higher than they actually are. That’s not Morris’s fault, it’s just a harsh reality of being in the best division in the Group of Five conferences.
With that tough schedule and some other question marks, 5Dimes Sportsbook has a line of 5 up for SMU, with the juice on the over at -150. Clear improvements from 2015 to 2016 seem to have the attention of the sports betting community. Keep in mind that the win total odds are only for the regular season and do not include conference championships or the postseason.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|9/2||Stephen F. Austin||N/A||1|
Total Expected Wins: 5.42
It may not have shown up on the scoreboard, but the SMU offense was better last season than it was in Chad Morris’s first season. The Mustangs gained 427 yards per game, up from the 383 that they managed in 2015, but scored 0.1 fewer points per game. Inopportune turnovers had a lot to do with that. Morris has the luxury of trying three different quarterbacks this season. Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey, former Wisconsin recruit and JUCO transfer DJ Gillins, and last year’s starter Ben Hicks. Hicks took over when Matt Davis was knocked out for the season in Week 1 and looked like a freshman, but one with some upside. He had 19 TD passes against 15 picks while throwing for 2,930 yards on a 55.5 percent completion percentage. Whether a higher-upside talent like Peavey or Gillins grabs the job or Hicks, who already knows the offense, gets the nod, better quarterback play should definitely happen.
Because it’s SMU and because the school is overshadowed by all of the other football programs in the state of Texas, people may be sleeping on just how good the skill position talent is. Braeden West was a 1,000-yard rusher with 1,036 yards on 5.1 yards per carry. The next two leading rushers are also back. Courtland Sutton will be catching balls on Sundays when he decides to leave. The 6-foot-4 junior caught 76 balls for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had 862 receiving yards during his freshman season. If he stays for four years, he could very well break Emmanuel Sanders’s program record with 3,791 yards. Four starters return on the offensive line and nine starters return overall on the offense.
There was nowhere to go but up for the Mustangs defense last season. After allowing 45.7 points per game in 2015, as the team got acclimated to the offense and the tempo, the Mustangs defense shaved off 9.4 points per game in 2016. The defense still gave up too many yards, but did go from 7.1 yards per play allowed to 6.0 yards per play allowed. The cupboard was so bare here when Morris took over that defensive coordinator Van Malone didn’t have a whole lot to work with.
The hardest part for Malone this season will be replacing the production of two studs in the secondary. Both Darrion Millines and Horace Richardson were conference first teamers at their respective positions. The Mustangs held opponents to a 58.6 percent completion percentage, but still gave up some huge plays. The run defense got better, but allowed over five yards per carry for the third straight season. Only five starters are back on defense and the recruiting classes have been much stronger on offense than on defense over the three years that Morris and his assistants have been scouring the country for talent.
SMU’s lack of depth has been pretty clear over Morris’s first two seasons. People don’t realize that building up a program like this doesn’t just mean impact starters, it means filling out the two and three-deep in the event of injuries. The schedule will keep the Mustangs in the Lone Star State until October 21, so that is a nice little boost for the program as they try to iron out the early-season kinks. Neither of the top two teams from the East Division, South Florida or Temple, are on the schedule.
Win Total Pick: Under 5
SMU hasn’t been favored in four or more games since 2013. That’s what my numbers have. The concern that I have is that SMU needs to prove to me that they can put together a culture of winning. A line of 5 over -150 is virtually a line of 5.5, so my numbers are basically right on the current market price. Ultimately, that makes this a no play, but every team write-up has a pick, so looking at the +130 on the under makes some sense. SMU has some work to do and needs a quarterback to emerge. Again, even if the record doesn’t show it, improvement should be pretty clear in Year 3 with a big push towards making some noise in Year 4.