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Chad Morris to SMU made perfect sense. It’s worked out so far.

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Pulling off three straight years of improvement is rare, but it’s pretty likely for Chad Morris and SMU in 2017.

Houston v SMU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This preview originally published April 21 and has since been updated.

On paper, few hires in the history of college football have made more sense than SMU’s signing of Chad Morris in 2015.

  • Ties to Texas and Texas recruiting? Check. Morris is a Texas A&M grad who went to high school in northeast Texas and spent 16 seasons as an increasingly successful Texas high school coach. At Lake Travis High School in Austin, he went 32-0 with two state titles.
  • Symbolism? Check. Morris was an incredibly well-paid assistant at Clemson and had the luxury of waiting for just the right opportunity. Luring him to Dallas took more than simple geography, but SMU, long desperate to again achieve college football relevance, pulled it off.
  • Relevant experience? Check. Morris was regarded as a spread offense maestro — the spread being the official offense of Texas high school football — and cut his teeth at the collegiate level by leading one Tulsa offense (under Gus Malzahn) and four Clemson offenses (under Dabo Swinney). Tulsa ranked 15th in Off. S&P+ in 2010, and Clemson ranked 14th and 12th, respectively, in 2012-13.

Morris’ offense is sound, logical, and reasonably simple. It firmly establishes balance and power to go with what was original a “spread things out and fling the ball” offense.

The Malzahn/Morris school of spread offense is already built around the run game. In fact, it's like a modern wishbone, an attempt to use the classic triple option in a new way.

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 Malzahn and Morris further allows for this simplicity.

Morris-to-SMU was regarded as such a natural fit that I think a lot of us simply assumed success, to the point that, when someone annually mentions that Kevin Sumlin might be in trouble at Texas A&M, Morris is regarded as a natural replacement there.

It might make sense to wait until Morris actually succeeds at SMU, however, before crowning him as a major-conference head coach. He probably will, but he hasn’t yet.

Morris inherited a program with its tank on empty. June Jones’ run of decent success — 30 wins and four bowls from 2009-12 — brought some brief energy to Gerald Ford Stadium, but from a peak of 39th in S&P+ in 2011, the Mustangs fell to 61st in 2012 and 92nd in a 5-7 2013 campaign. When they began 2014 a lifeless 0-2, Jones stepped aside.

When Morris arrived, SMU’s offense had regressed for four straight years, from 43rd in Off. S&P+ in 2010 to 125th in 2014. The defense had held out longer before crumbling but still ranked 108th in 2014. Before Morris could worry about scoring major points or winning games, he had to restock the depth chart.

He’s getting there. The offense surged to 63rd in 2015 and held steady at 72nd in 2016 despite the fact that Morris handed the offense over to a freshman quarterback (Ben Hicks). The defense, meanwhile, fell further in 2015 before improving a hair last fall. After winning just two games in his debut season, the Mustangs won five in 2016, even scoring an ultra-symbolic 38-16 domination of Houston on Oct. 22.

Each of Morris’ two full-year recruiting classes have ranked seventh in the AAC, per the 247Sports Composite. He has signed 25 three-star recruits in that span and has brought in some power-conference transfers. (The most recent batch: Arkansas quarterback Rafe Peavey, LSU receiver Trey Quinn, and Arizona State tight end Raymond Epps.) There’s reason to believe that the offense will erupt this fall with experience and an extra infusion of talent. The defense, then, will determine whether SMU is sneaking into a lower-tier bowl or playing a role in the conference title race.


2016 in review

2016 SMU statistical profile.

SMU’s schedule was incredibly unique in 2016 — the Mustangs played eight games against teams that ranked 55th or better in S&P+, four teams that ranked 100th or worse, and no one in between. Life in the AAC West has a pretty high bar, evidently.

Looking at nothing more than the schedule, then, you’d assume the Mustangs won about four games. That’s certainly what I predicted this time last year. But with an upset of Houston, they did one better.

Put in overly simplistic terms, the Morris offense is based on ruthlessly exploiting favorable matchups. It would make sense, then, that when those matchups existed against lesser teams, SMU dominated. When they didn’t, there was nothing the Mustangs could do.

  • SMU vs. S&P+ top 55 (1-7): Avg. percentile performance: 34 percent (offense 38 percent, defense 43 percent) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.5, SMU 5.0 (minus-1.5) | Avg. score: Opp 42, SMU 22 (minus-20)
  • SMU vs. No. 100-plus (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 57 percent (offense 59 percent, defense 38 percent) | Avg. yards per play: SMU 6.5, Opp 5.0 (plus-1.5) | Avg. score: SMU 38, Opp 24 (plus-14)

In terms of the opponent-adjusted percentile ratings, the SMU defense was about the same no matter the opponent. The offense, though, was very dependent on level of opponent; it was particularly dominant against bad teams and particularly ineffective against good ones. (It was also breaking in a new quarterback.)

At first glance, there might be more opportunity for the offense in 2017. The Mustangs’ offense should be better, and they play five teams projected 83rd or worse and only two projected 61st or better. There could be more opportunities for big output.


Offense

SMU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The future began early for SMU in 2016. Senior quarterback Matt Davis played just one game before tearing his ACL, which thrust Hicks into the starting lineup. He was not ready to handle a series of good opponents over the first half of the season, but beginning in Game 7 against Houston, his development went into third or fourth gear.

  • Ben Hicks, first six games (2-4): 52 percent completion rate, 11.6 yards per completion, 4.2 percent INT rate, 103.1 passer rating
  • Ben Hicks, last six games (3-3): 59 percent completion rate, 13.4 yards per completion, 2.9 percent INT rate, 140.5 passer rating
NCAA Football: Navy at Southern Methodist
Ben Hicks
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Hicks and the offense were awful in a 51-7 loss to Memphis but still managed to average 32 points per game over those last six games, 37 without the Memphis game. Still, it battled the inefficiency that tends to come with asking a freshman to lead your offense.

SMU offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Hicks’ development was exciting, but he won’t head into 2017 as an obvious starter. Morris brought in Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey last summer, and while Hicks remained QB1 at the end of spring practice, the gap wasn’t large.

Competition should produce a pretty strong QB either way. And wow, will the starter have some weapons at his disposal. Last year’s top eight targets all return, including junior Courtland Sutton, who caught 76 balls at 9.6 yards per target last year. James Proche was a solid No. 2 as a freshman (709 yards, 8.0 per target), Xavier Castille and Kevin Thomas are experience former three-star prospects, and LSU transfer and former four-star Trey Quinn is eligible this fall, as well.

Quinn looked the part this spring, and in the name of creating matchup advantages — both in terms of his own skill and his potential for creating advantages for others against teams’ lesser cornerbacks — his addition could be enormous.

NCAA Football: Houston at Southern Methodist
Braeden West
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, this offense is not just about the pass. Those matchup advantages might come in the ground game. Hicks himself isn’t much of a runner (not including sacks, he rushed just 19 times in 12 games), which limits the options in the ground game, but the trio of Braeden West, Ke’Mon Freeman, and Xavier Jones appears to have potential, at least from an efficiency standpoint.

West and Freeman carried nearly 30 times per game and gained at least 5 yards on 39 percent of their carries. West showed some explosiveness to boot, albeit while fumbling five times. Jones, meanwhile, carried 11 times for 115 yards in the season opener against North Texas, missed three games with injury, returned to carry four times for 25 yards against Temple, and got hurt again. They’ll be running behind a line that returns basically 3.5 of last year’s starters and six players who have combined for 81 career starts [update: and adds former Oregon State backup Will Hopkins, eligible as a grad transfer]. If the run game grows more efficient with experience, I’m guessing the passing game does, too.

Defense

SMU defensive radar

Van Malone’s defense was in a lot of ways what we’ve come to expect of a unit attempting to complement a heavy-pace offense. It was aggressive and fast, hoping to force mistakes that allow it to break serve a couple of times in shootouts.

It wasn’t particularly good at playing this style, but there was undeniable improvement in 2016, especially in the first two months of the season. Late in the season, when depth and attrition became issues in the front seven, the defense faded. Still, this was the first time in three seasons that SMU ranked in double digits in Def. S&P+.

  • First four games: 450 yards per game, 5.4 yards per play, 27 points per game
  • Next four games: 406 yards per game, 5.3 yards per play, 34 points per game
  • Last four games: 503 yards per game, 7.5 yards per play, 48 points per game

At first, I thought the fade might have something to do with SMU’s offense finding more success (and therefore scoring quickly) and leaving the defense on the field more. But over the last four games, opponents averaged just 67 plays per game as opposed to 80 for the first eight games.

(That Navy managed to score 75 points in just 57 snaps is absolutely astounding.)

Malone ended up playing a lot of guys last year, both by necessity and choice. Ten linemen, seven linebackers, and eight defensive backs made at least six tackles in 2016, and while that’s often a sign of a massive run of injuries, 14 of those 25 players played in all 12 games. There were injuries, sure, enough to assist in the late-season fade. But at the least, last year’s “everyone plays!” approach should help in 2017; five starters are gone, but 16 of the 25 contributors are back. So is senior defensive end Nick Horton, who has starting experience but played in only two games last year.

SMU’s defensive strength last year was pass defense; the Mustangs ranked 52nd in Passing S&P+ and 67th in Adj. Sack Rate, and I would be surprised if they didn’t maintain form or exceed it.

Three of last year’s top five linemen are gone, but the two that return — end Justin Lawler and tackle Demerick Gary — combined for 22.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. [Update: SMU also adds Dimarya Mixon, a 37-game contributor at Tennessee, as a grad transfer.] Corner Jordan Wyatt and sophomore safeties Rodney Clemons, Kevin Johnson, and Mikial Onu are back, as well. That SMU was tremendous at preventing big pass plays despite playing a trio of freshmen in the back (along with then-senior Darrion Millines) is impressive.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Southern Methodist
Justin Lawler
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The pass defense could indeed be strong. The run defense, however? I have some concerns. Tackles Deon Green and Zelt Minor combined for nine non-sack tackles for loss and carried more heft than Gary, who was listed at just 268 pounds last fall. Their departure hurts, as does that of linebackers Jackson Mitchell and Carlos Carroll.

Linebacker returnees Kyran Mitchell and RC Cox are good blitzers, but they were both carrying under 220 pounds last year and might be asked to take on more blockers if there’s regression at tackle. That puts pressure on DTs like seniors Mason Gentry and J.T. Williams, sophomore Chris Biggurs, and redshirt freshmen Ken McLaurin and Patrick Jones. A couple of them need to emerge as solid threats, or else a solid pass defense will simply have to offset a failing run defense.

Temple v SMU
Jordan Wyatt
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Special Teams

You can win some games with a strong offense and solid pass defense, but you can win even more if your special teams unit isn’t openly sabotaging you. SMU ranked 126th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to almost perfectly awful play. The Mustangs were 102nd or worse in every special teams category.

Now, at least part of this awfulness was because of youth. Punter Jamie Sackville and punt returner James Proche were freshmen, while kickers Josh Williams and Michael Armstrong were sophomores. Williams did make most of his shorter kicks, so maybe that’s a good start, but wow, does this unit have a long way to go.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Stephen F. Austin NR 27.3 94%
9-Sep North Texas 106 8.7 69%
16-Sep at TCU 21 -20.3 12%
23-Sep Arkansas State 83 3.0 57%
30-Sep Connecticut 125 14.1 79%
7-Oct at Houston 49 -11.8 25%
21-Oct at Cincinnati 75 -5.1 38%
27-Oct Tulsa 77 0.1 50%
4-Nov Central Florida 78 0.2 50%
11-Nov at Navy 71 -6.3 36%
18-Nov at Memphis 61 -10.4 27%
25-Nov Tulane 94 5.7 63%
Projected S&P+ Rk 81
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 60 / 105
Projected wins 6.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -8.3 (99)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 77 / 77
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / -0.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 77% (94%, 59%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.6 (0.4)

Morris is a unique figure. He was a math major at A&M and got a late start at the college level. He made sensible coordinator hires — he brought in one of his Clemson graduate assistants (Joe Craddock) as offensive coordinator, and Malone is a former Texas A&M and Oklahoma State defensive backs coach who very much knows Texas — and found immediate effect with his tactical changes. The ball is moving in Dallas. It just hasn’t gotten to the end zone yet.

It’s hard for me to see the Mustangs failing to improve further in 2017, though. Ben Hicks is exciting, and he’s going to get stiff competition to keep his job. SMU brings a ton of skill corps talent to the table, and the defense should at least be deeper than it was last year. The pass defense could be legitimately good.

There are more potential wins on the table, as well. S&P+ projects SMU 81st overall and gives the Mustangs basically three likely wins (win probability of 69 percent or higher) and six games that fall between 36 and 63 percent. Split those, and you’re bowling. Improve into the 60s or 70s overall, and an eight- or nine-win season is on the table.

Whether that’s all it takes for Morris to get further mention for a big-time local job, we’ll see. But we’ll save the speculation for after the success. SMU’s awesome hire should begin to pay off this fall; that’s all that matters for now.


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