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1. The end comes quickly
Last year's SMU preview centered around the line between consistency and stagnation. Under June Jones, the Mustangs had mastered the art of staying the same. In terms of F/+ ratings, there were some peaks (51st in 2011) and valleys (88th in 2013), but SMU had won either seven or eight games every year from 2009-12, and nearly did the same in 2013.
Jones has boosted SMU's profile. The Mustangs have a pretty, new stadium. They won three bowls between 1949 and 2008, and they've won three since 2009.
At the same time, this reeks of stagnation, and if you stay at the same level for long enough, you risk falling into Glen Mason Territory, in which you raise a fanbase's expectations, then fail to ever exceed them. Eventually fans get bored with seven wins, even if they didn't experience seven wins one time between 1985 and 2008.
It was taking a lot of energy to maintain SMU's 2009-12 pace, and I was looking at SMU's 2013 slippage in the wrong light. Instead of wondering about whether Jones would be able to engineer another breakthrough, we should have been wondering how long Jones was going to avoid collapse.
2013 was the harbinger. Yes, there were close losses, and yes, SMU nearly derailed UCF's AAC title run. But there was also a near-loss to Montana State and losses by a combined 94 points to Texas A&M, TCU, and Houston. The offense was given life by quarterback Garrett Gilbert and offensive coordinator Hal Mumme, but both left. Meanwhile, despite decent recruiting and a solid number of former three-star recruits, the defense had no ready-made playmakers.
When you run out of energy, your attention to detail slips first. Players stop developing, and you either don't notice deficiencies as quickly or can't do anything about them. And in a game with small margins for error, slippage turns into a freefall.
Jones seemed to realize it but couldn't do anything in time. After losing 45-0 to Baylor, then losing 43-6 to what turned out to be an awful North Texas, Jones resigned nine days into the 2014 season.
Tom Mason did what he could, but there was nothing Urban Meyer could have done to salvage the season. SMU rebounded from historically awful to simply bad, and the Mustangs avoided a winless campaign with a victory over UConn in the finale.
The final chapter of Jones' SMU tenure was unfortunate. He inherited a program that ranked in the 80s and 90s in F/+ and hadn't been to a bowl since 1984, and he dragged the Mustangs into the 50s and 60s and produced four consecutive bowl bids. But his final SMU team was far worse than what Phil Bennett had been producing, and while he didn't leave his successor a program worse off than the one he inherited, he didn't leave one that was much better.
When we talk about a program losing energy, we're not speaking about the style of play. We're usually talking about year-to-year momentum, recruiting, facilities upgrades, et cetera.
We don't know that new head coach Chad Morris will reestablish that. But while we wait, it doesn't hurt to play an on-field style that is as energetic as it can be.
We got to know Morris' offense well. A Texas high school head coach from 1994-2009, Morris showed up on Todd Graham's staff at Tulsa in 2010 and boosted the Golden Hurricane's offense from 71st in Off. S&P+ to 15th. He moved on to Clemson, inherited an offense that had ranked 79th, 41st, and 71st over the previous three years and jolted it to 25th, 14th, and 12th. Clemson went from averaging 7.3 wins per season from 2008-10 to 10.5 in Morris' four years.
Morris is committed to tempo über alles. He knows what to do with a mobile quarterback, and he knows the smashmouth spread.
The modern elements added by Morris include spread alignments, the forward pass, motion, and tempo. The brilliance of the triple option is that it's a self-contained concept with built-in answers for any potential problem. Morris doesn't have any single concepts quite that simple or elegant, but in general he emphasizes a similar level of soundness in his offense.
Morris could try to have a million concepts to answer a million problems. But he would rather contain multiple answers within the same concepts. He can still use diversity -- of formations, personnel groupings, or options within a play -- but focuses on fully mastering a few versatile plans of attack.
The description "basketball on grass" is apt, but in a literal sense. It captures how the offense becomes more about getting the ideal matchups and executing options, as in basketball, rather than out-guessing the opponent. The lightning tempo utilized by [Gus] Malzahn and Morris further allows for this simplicity.
Clemson's offense trailed off in 2014 thanks to severe turnover. Still, he proved all he could as a coordinator.
Now we find out if he's also a good head coach. He has said and done all the right things, and lord knows he should find more than enough pieces to complement his spread offense in the birthplace of the spread, but being a successful college head coach requires a specific set of skills, and we never know who doesn't possess those.
It should be fun finding out, though.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 1-11 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk: 127|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|6-Sep||at North Texas||125||6-43||L||9%||-31.4||0%|
|4-Oct||at East Carolina||61||24-45||L||32%||-10.9||1%|
|22-Nov||at Central Florida||60||7-53||L||5%||-39.2||0%|
|Points Per Game||11.1||128||41.3||127|
3. Technically, it got better
The SMU of September was as bad as any college team has been in recent times. A brutal schedule didn't help -- the Mustangs faced Baylor, Texas A&M, and TCU before October 1 -- but only opponents' mercy kept them as close on the scoreboard as they were ... and they were not close on the scoreboard.
It got better, though!
- Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 6% (average score: Opp 51, SMU 3)
- Average Percentile Performance (next 4 games): 20% (average score: Opp 43, SMU 16)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 4 games): 30% (average score: Opp 31, SMU 14)
By November, SMU was playing at something approximating a top-90 or top-100 level. The Mustangs still lost to bad teams (Tulsa, USF) and got smoked by UCF, but a) improvement is improvement, whether you're good or not, and b) SMU played well in the finale. That's something, right?
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||35.8%||118||Succ. Rt. +||86.3||117|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||37.1||128||Def. FP+||92.9||127|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||2.9||127||Redzone S&P+||88.8||98|
|Q1 Rk||126||1st Down Rk||126|
|Q2 Rk||113||2nd Down Rk||128|
|Q3 Rk||126||3rd Down Rk||126|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Matt Davis||6'0, 209||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9452||89||164||855||3||5||54.3%||19||10.4%||4.1|
|Garrett Krstich||6'3, 215||Sr.||NR||NR||99||181||855||2||7||54.7%||15||7.7%||4.1|
|Neal Burcham||6'3, 213||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8405||27||48||158||0||2||56.3%||6||11.1%||2.0|
|Darrel Colbert, Jr.||5'11, 196||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8242|
|Ben Hicks||6'2, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8560|
4. Who leads?
How quickly can a new staff change the relationship between potential and production? Because while SMU's personnel seems to have the former (at least, if you think recruiting rankings hold merit, and they do), there's almost none of the latter.
Four SMU quarterbacks threw at least 37 passes. Three return, and two boasted strong recruiting rankings in high school. All of them stunk. Matt Davis, a former four-star Texas A&M signee, showed the most potential, rushing for 8.1 yards per (non-sack) carry and producing passing stats that were at least no worse than anybody else's. But of the four QBs, none averaged more than 4.2 yards per pass attempt. (Anything under about 6.0 is pretty bad; 4.2 is horrendous.)
Davis emerged from spring ball as the likely starter, fending off well-regarded freshman Ben Hicks. (Neal Burcham, another of last year's starters, missed most of 2014 with an elbow injury, then tore his ACL in February.) And in theory, Davis has tools Morris will know how to employ. His mobility is a strength, and Morris will likely give him a lot of easy pitches to the sidelines.
June Jones' passing game was never particularly efficient, and that should change under Morris. But Davis' talent is unclear, and while his receivers come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of athleticism, SMU's success will be derived from whether they're actually any good.
|Matt Davis||QB||6'0, 209||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9452||89||721||4||8.1||6.0||59.6%||8||5|
|Prescott Line||RB||6'0, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8245||78||256||4||3.3||2.5||23.1%||1||0|
|K.C. Nlemchi||RB||6'0, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8200||47||149||1||3.2||4.4||23.4%||1||1|
|Garrett Krstich||QB||6'3, 215||Sr.||NR||NR||25||142||0||5.7||3.4||52.0%||3||2|
|Luke Seeker||RB||5'11, 200||Sr.||NR||NR||24||75||0||3.1||3.5||16.7%||0||0|
|Darius Durall||RB||5'9, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7611||12||-2||0||-0.2||3.9||8.3%||1||1|
|Daniel Gresham||RB||5'10, 228||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8662|
|Xavier Jones||RB||5'10, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8026|
|Braeden West||RB||5'10, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Darius Joseph||WR-Y||5'11, 202||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7891||86||54||379||62.8%||21.1%||52.3%||4.4||-277||4.4||39.9|
|Deion Sanders, Jr.||WR-H||5'7, 174||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7829||35||23||188||65.7%||8.6%||65.7%||5.4||-89||5.5||19.8|
|Nate Halverson||WR||5'10, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859||28||17||165||60.7%||6.9%||39.3%||5.9||-43||5.1||17.4|
|K.C. Nlemchi||RB||6'0, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8200||20||16||131||80.0%||4.9%||65.0%||6.6||-55||6.4||13.8|
|Cedric Lancaster||WR-X||5'9, 169||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8094||20||12||93||60.0%||4.9%||60.0%||4.7||-54||4.6||9.8|
|Prescott Line||RB||6'0, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8245||17||10||41||58.8%||4.2%||41.2%||2.4||-82||2.7||4.3|
|Shelby Walker||WR-H||6'0, 165||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8277||16||7||68||43.8%||3.9%||43.8%||4.3||-24||4.2||7.2|
|Jeremiah Gaines||TE||6'2, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8610||15||4||97||26.7%||3.7%||53.3%||6.5||36||6.2||10.2|
|Ryheem Malone||WR-Y||5'8, 172||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7611||14||5||37||35.7%||3.4%||64.3%||2.6||-33||2.7||3.9|
|Darius Durall||RB||5'9, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7611||6||4||15||66.7%||1.5%||50.0%||2.5||-33||2.1||1.6|
|Luke Seeker||RB||5'11, 200||Sr.||NR||NR||5||3||6||60.0%||1.2%||20.0%||1.2||-31||1.1||0.6|
|Courtland Sutton||WR||6'4, 215||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8326||2||2||27||100.0%||0.5%||100.0%||13.5||4||NR||2.8|
|Arrius Holleman||WR||6'3, 215||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000|
5. Who catches?
We know Darius Joseph can be an efficient piece in the right system; he caught 103 balls with a 72 percent catch rate in 2013. We know Deion Sanders Jr. has a return man's skill set and could be a fun weapon out of the slot. We knowredshirt freshman Courtland Sutton had a nice spring and brings a solid recruiting pedigree.
We know there are four other receivers who were deemed three-star recruits by either Rivals or the 247Sports Composite.
And we know that Davis can make plays with his feet, and that running backs Prescott Line, K.C. Niemchi, and 2014 star recruit Daniel Gresham bring girth.
We also know that the potential is theoretical. In theory, it could be strong, and in theory, Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock (Morris' graduate assistant at Clemson) should be able to figure out how to employ them. But it takes a leap of faith; these players were either on the sidelines in 2014 or doing no damage on the field.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Taylor Lasecki||C||6'2, 294||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||36|
|Kris Weeks||RT||6'5, 314||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8057||25|
|Chauncey Briggs||LT||6'6, 310||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7951||19|
|Evan Brown||RG||6'3, 300||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8111||10|
|Daniel McCarty||LG||6'3, 284||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8032||9|
|Seaver Myers||LT||6'5, 306||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8559||5|
|William Barns||C||6'1, 284||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7948||1|
|Christian Chamagua||RT||6'5, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7908||1|
|Travis Fister||OL||6'2, 270||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8124||0|
|Braylon Hyder||OL||6'2, 335||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8191|
|Bryce Wilds||OL||6'7, 305||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8026|
|Marcus McNeil||OL||6'3, 300||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7995|
6. You can build around this line
Relatively -- and we're speaking quite relatively here -- the offensive line was an SMU strength. It wasn't particularly good, but SMU did rank 36th in Adj. Line Yards, 32nd in Power Success Rate, 60th in Stuff Rate, and 55th in Passing Downs Sack Rate. When you compare these stats to those of the offense as a whole, they're magnificent.
Considering the line returns everybody from last year's two-deep, including three-year starting center Taylor Lasecki and eight players with starting experience (106 career starts), this could move from "relative strength" to "strength." And if Davis (or the quarterback of choice) has a clean pocket, Morris should figure out how to get the ball to playmakers.
This probably won't be a good offense, but the combination of Morris and competence at quarterback and offensive line should result in significant improvement.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||49.5%||124||Succ. Rt. +||82.0||124|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.4||119||Off. FP+||100.0||65|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||92||Redzone S&P+||85.5||120|
|Q1 Rk||113||1st Down Rk||112|
|Q2 Rk||126||2nd Down Rk||104|
|Q3 Rk||72||3rd Down Rk||127|
7. Insanely bad
Van Malone spent the last three seasons at the helm of a mean Oklahoma State secondary. He has been an FBS defensive backs coach since 2004 -- mostly with teams known for up-tempo spread offenses -- and he coached with Morris at Tulsa in 2010. He will likely bring the same type of mentality to this defense that Phil Bennett has at Baylor: be aggressive and efficient and try to force turnovers.
Greedy defenses are natural complements to up-tempo offenses; if you can break serve a few times, it doesn't matter if you are giving up big plays along the way.
We don't know how long it will take Malone to find weapons on this defense. Lord knows there weren't any impressive pieces on last year's D, a horrific unit that redefined the concept of "relative strengths."
SMU's defense ranked 35th in Def. S&P+ in 2012. It fell in 2013 following the loss of Margus Hunt and other difference-makers, then the bottom fell out. The pass rush was the closest thing to a strength, as it was only bad and not one of the nation's worst, but the secondary couldn't stop anybody, and the run defense was indeed one of the nation's worst.
Youth and injuries can explain part of this -- there were three freshmen and three sophomores among last year's top nine linemen, and quite a few linebackers and defensive backs missed time with injury -- but SMU had the fifth-worst Success Rate+ and fourth-worst IsoPPP+ ranking in the country. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Zach Wood||DE||6'3, 260||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8104||12||29.0||4.0%||6.0||4.0||0||0||0||1|
|Mason Gentry||DE||6'6, 292||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8256||12||28.5||3.9%||2.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Justin Lawler||DE||6'3, 254||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7901||12||17.5||2.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Andrew McCleneghen||NT||6'5, 265||Sr.||NR||NR||12||17.0||2.3%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Zelt Minor||DE||6'2, 282||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8387||8||9.0||1.2%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jarvis Pruitt||DE||6'3, 254||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7959||10||7.5||1.0%||1.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Spencer Hollie||DE||6'4, 340||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8052||7||6.0||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Elie Nabushosi||DE||6'3, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8227||6||5.0||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cameron Smith||DE||6'2, 249||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8057||11||5.0||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Michael Scott||DE||6'4, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8381|
|Chris Biggurs||DT||6'3, 245||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8217|
|Hunter Thedford||DE||6'7, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7979|
|Delontae Scott||DE||6'5, 200||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jonathan Yenga||MLB||6'1, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8457||12||49.0||6.8%||4.5||2.0||0||3||0||0|
|Robert Seals||WLB||6'3, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7819||12||34.5||4.8%||5.5||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Derek Longoria||SLB||6'1, 232||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||12||14.0||1.9%||1.0||0.0||0||1||2||0|
|Caleb Tuiasosopo||BUCK||6'2, 246||Sr.||NR||NR||11||13.0||1.8%||1.0||0.0||0||1||1||0|
|Jackson Mitchell||LB||6'0, 215||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7644||12||11.5||1.6%||1.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Nick Horton||BUCK||6'2, 245||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||6||8.0||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Rhone||LB||6'0, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859||12||7.5||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|RC Cox||LB||6'1, 215||So.||NR||NR||5||2.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dylan Dickman||LB||6'0, 222||So.||NR||NR||1||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Carlos Carroll||LB||6'2, 230||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8219||3||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Inoke Ngalo||LB||5'11, 225||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8187|
|Jordon Williams||LB||6'1, 195||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7926|
|Mitchell Kaufman||LB||6'3, 217||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826|
8. Injuries + garbage time = everybody plays!
Seven linemen, 13 linebackers, and nine defensive backs made at least 7.5 tackles last year. And of those 29, 21 return, including all but one lineman and defensive back. There is turnover at linebacker, but that's where the most people got playing time.
This is a young coaching staff. Malone graduated from Houston in 2002, linebackers coach Archie McDaniel from Texas A&M in 2005, and secondary coach Jess Loepp from Central Oklahoma in 2000. Only defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt has major experience. Morris went for hungry over seasoned, and while that can work (the quintessential example: Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff), there might be a bit of a learning curve.
But if Malone and company want to be aggressive, they might have a few pieces: end Zach Wood had four sacks, linebackers Jonathan Yenga and Robert Seals combined for 10 tackles for loss and four pass break-ups, and safety Darrion Richardson combined three tackles for loss with five passes defensed. Plus, youngsters and reserves like cornerback Jesse Montgomery and end Zelt Minor hinted at potential. And the incoming recruiting class might produce a couple of early contributors.
Still, almost none of these players was successful in an SMU uniform last year. This will take a while.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Darrion Richardson||FS||6'0, 203||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8079||12||56.5||7.8%||3||1||1||4||1||0|
|Horace Richardson||CB||6'0, 202||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7900||9||25.0||3.5%||1||0||2||3||0||0|
|Ajee Montes||CB||5'11, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7968||6||22.5||3.1%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|JR Richardson||CB||5'10, 186||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7844||9||16.5||2.3%||1||0||0||2||0||0|
|Jesse Montgomery||CB||6'0, 180||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7600||11||16.5||2.3%||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|Troy Castle||CB||5'11, 205||Sr.||NR||NR||12||14.5||2.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Shakiel Randolph||CB||6'4, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8453||9||14.0||1.9%||0||0||1||8||0||0|
|A.J. Justice||SS||6'1, 217||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||12||12.5||1.7%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jackson Koonce||6'1, 170||So.||74||40.8||3||14||14||37.8%|
|Deion Sanders, Jr.||KR||5'7, 174||Jr.||37||20.5||0|
|Cedric Lancaster||PR||5'9, 169||So.||3||-4.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||102|
|Field Goal Efficiency||115|
|Punt Return Efficiency||127|
|Kick Return Efficiency||42|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||92|
9. Building around Deion Jr.
Deion Sanders Jr. wasn't incredibly explosive as a kick returner, but he was able to break past the 25-yard line on kickoffs. That's the only known positive for this special teams unit other than what appears to be a pretty good kick coverage unit.
Jackson Koonce should probably improve at punter, but we don't know much about punt returns or place-kicking. The best Morris can hope for is a unit that treads water and doesn't make things worse. And maybe a huge Sanders return or two.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|24-Oct||at South Florida||123|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-12.8% (82)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||86 / 73|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-14 / -10.7|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-1.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (8, 7)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||1.2 (-0.2)|
10. Better? Maybe. More fun? Yes.
The offense will be better and infinitely more fun. The defense won't be worse. That means SMU will be ahead of where it was for most of last year.
Even if Morris doesn't turn out to be as good a head coach as he is a coordinator, he has an energetic staff that should recruit well by AAC standards, and his own prowess should ensure some ticket sales and shootout wins here and there.
But "ahead of where it was last year" might mean an F/+ ranking in the 100s or 110s. Energy can make a difference, but I struggle to see a major turnaround.
Luckily for SMU, there are still opportunities. North Texas won't be much better, and two 2014 opponents, Tulsa and USF, have pulled off similar nosedives. When you only won one game, two wins represents improvement, and I think SMU will reach or eclipse that. Just don't set the bar higher than four.