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Sonny Dykes’ SMU should be an AAC contender by 2019

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Sonny Dykes inherits a program on the rise, but it will take him a little while.

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

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In a recent episode of Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, around the six-minute mark, my co-host Steven Godfrey laid out why SMU nailed it with its hire of former Louisiana Tech and Cal head coach Sonny Dykes.

I think they made an amazing hire in terms of fit. Sonny Dykes was a P5-quality who got into a situation that — like, he made a bad move in going to Cal and just sort of didn’t know it.

I think it works really well for his connections in Texas, the offense he runs, the coaches he can attract, and his ability to recruit. I think for SMU it makes really, really good sense. And he also doesn’t have to go through the grittier part of the rebuilding process because his predecessor did all that.

I was initially resistant to the word “amazing” there, but there’s no question that certain hires make perfect sense from the perspective of fit.

If we omitted the last item on Dykes’ résumé, this would feel just about perfect. Dykes is a Texas Tech product who landed a graduate assistant job for Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach in 1997, becoming one of the first branches on the air raid tree. He followed Leach back to Tech in 2000, then landed the Arizona offensive coordinator job in 2007 and the Louisiana Tech head coaching gig in 2010.

From there, he landed the Cal job, and that blurred things. Cal is extremely tricky — the school supports a ton of sports, football doesn’t necessarily get the same preferential treatment it does in Texas, academic standards are higher than for some of Cal’s Pac-12 North rivals, etc.

Dykes by no means did poorly in Berkeley. After razing the program with a 1-11 Year Zero season, he improved to 5-7 in his second year and 8-5 in his third. He lost star quarterback and No. 1 pick Jared Goff, his shaky defense turned horrible in 2016, and his final Cal team slipped back to 5-7 before he and the school appeared to accept that the marriage wasn’t going to work. After spending a year as a TCU analyst, he pounced on the perfect opening.

SMU is at once a tantalizing job and a heavy boulder to push up the hill. Since reinstating football after its late-1980s death penalty, it has built and struggled to maintain.

Phil Bennett went from 0-12 in 2003 to 6-6 in 2006 and then 1-11 again in 2007. June Jones took over and went 1-11 in his first season but broke through with an 8-5 year and Hawaii Bowl win in 2009. He proceeded to win either seven or eight games over the next three years but lost steam — the Mustangs fell from a peak of 39th in S&P+ in 2011 to 61st in 2012 and 92nd in 2013. In 2014, it was so obvious there was nothing in the tank that Junes resigned after just two games. SMU would finish 1-11 and rank 127th, ahead of only EMU.

Chad Morris had to start over just like Jones did. He did have a pretty, new stadium to sell and an offense that made a lot of sense in Dallas, and after going 2-10 and ranking 103rd in 2015, his Mustangs improved to 5-7 and 90th, then 7-6 and 67th.

Well, 7-5, actually. Morris took the Arkansas job, and Dykes was in town early enough to coach the bowl game. It didn’t go well, but whatever, it was a bowl game.

Dykes should know what to do with the personnel. Junior quarterback Ben Hicks threw for more than 3,500 yards last season, and a trio of returning running backs combined to rush for nearly 2,200 yards behind a line that remains mostly intact. The defense hasn’t been good in a while, but, well, that’s not an unfamiliar concept for Dykes.

Dykes with a seasoned spread quarterback? Yeah, that’ll probably play.

Offense

Morris didn’t see the rebuild all the way to completion. He got the Mustangs back to a bowl, but his defense never ranked higher than 91st in Def. S&P+. Last year, it ranked 119th.

But the offensive rebuild was indeed complete. SMU ranked 11th in Off. S&P+ in 2017, its best since the 1981 Pony Express team saw Eric Dickerson and Craig James combine for 2,575 rushing yards.

The balance was immaculate. SMU ranked in the top 30 in overall success rate, IsoPPP (an explosiveness measure that looks at the magnitude of your successful plays), and points per scoring opportunity. They produced efficiency through the air and big plays on the ground. They played at a top-35 tempo and forced you to make solo tackles in space.

These are all things Dykes and Lashlee are quite familiar with. Lashlee is a Gus Malzahn protege who spent 2017 attempting to bring some semblance of spread and tempo to UConn, improving the Huskies from 127th to 74th in Off. S&P+.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Memphis
Ben Hicks
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

One has to figure Dykes and Lashlee will like Hicks. The junior from Waco has two years remaining but has already thrown for 6,499 career yards and 52 touchdowns.

Granted, nearly half of those yards went to Courtland Sutton and LSU transfer Trey Quinn, who both declared for the NFL draft. Sutton and Quinn combined to absorb nearly 60 percent of SMU’s pass targets last year, leaving James Proche as the only other receiver to hit 20 receptions. Proche is awesome, mind you — he was a solid possession man and No. 2 option behind Sutton in 2016, then transitioned into a big-play role as last year’s No. 3 and caught 40 balls for 816 yards.

Junior Myron Gailliard has 14 career catches for 223 yards, junior Alex Honey has three for 70, and sophomores Tyler Page and Brandon Benson had one catch each last fall. (Benson’s went for 72 yards and a touchdown.) They’ll all need to prove they can take on larger roles; that goes double for Honey and Benson, the only two members of this quintet listed taller than 6’.

A Dykes offense spreads the ball around. In his last year at Cal, one guy caught 90-plus passes, three caught between 40 and 50, and another six caught between 15 and 25. That probably means opportunities for TCU transfer Armanii Glaspie, three-star redshirt freshman Judah Bell, and at least one true freshman — perhaps high-three-star signee Treveon Johnson?

Maybe it’s the Malzahn influence, but Lashlee showed at UConn that he didn’t mind leaning on the run. It will be nice having that card, if the receiving corps hasn’t gelled by the start of the year. Xavier Jones, Ke’Mon Freeman, and Braeden West were an excellent combination last fall, helping SMU rank 37th in rushing success rate and 21st in rushing IsoPPP. Jones and Freeman are shaped like feature backs (around 5’10 and 205 pounds), while West combined 73 rushes with 24 pass targets and could play a variety of roles.

Jones went for 146 yards in a blowout of Arkansas State, and in back-to-back track meets against Navy (a 43-40 loss) and Memphis (a 66-45 loss), he went for a combined 38 carries and 281 yards. He mixes solid efficiency and solid explosiveness, while Freeman appears to be a decent short-yardage option.

They should have a sturdy, if undersized, line. SMU ranked 24th in Adj. Line Yards and 39th in Adj. Sack Rate last fall, and while two starters are gone (center Evan Brown and guard Will Hopkins), five players with at least five career starts are back, including two-year starting left tackle Chad Pursley. These five average only 6’5 and 281 pounds, and only one returnee is listed heavier than 288. But they opened some holes last year, so hey, size must not be everything.

NCAA Football: Houston at Southern Methodist
James Proche
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

The Mustangs really wanted to get aggressive. They were damn near reckless in rushing the passer (22nd in Adj. Sack Rate), and they ranked 11th in power success rate and a decent 32nd in line havoc rate and 65th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).

They didn’t nearly make enough plays to offset the ones they were giving up, though. Despite the aggression, they ranked just 104th in success rate, and the successful plays they allowed were among the biggest big plays in the country. They gave up 16.9 gains per game of 10-plus yards (120th in FBS) and 3.2 per game of 30-plus (124th). As good as Hicks may have been, opposing QBs produced a passer rating 10 points higher.

There’s plenty of growth opportunity for coordinator Kane, in other words.

The former Kansas linebacker is only in his mid-30s and already has a rebuild on his résumé: under his guidance, the NIU defense improved from 94th to 14th in Def. S&P+ last year. Compare this radar to the one above:

It would be unfair to assume immediate improvement — consider this a defensive Year Zero — but it might not take him too long. Part of SMU’s problem in 2017 came from youth; among the 22 defenders to make at least 10 tackles last year were 13 freshmen and sophomores. Plus, some key expected senior contributors like end Dimarya Mixon and linebacker RC Cox both missed half the season.

NCAA Football: Houston at Southern Methodist
Kyran Mitchell (11)
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

There could be as few as three or four seniors in the rotation this year, so whatever gains Kane can generate should be sustainable into 2019. And there’s at least a little bit of star power here. Linebacker Kyran Mitchell combined 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks with four passes defensed, and safety Rodney Clemons and corner Jordan Wyatt combined for 8.5 TFLs and 23 PDs. Junior ends Delontae Scott and Tyeson Neals combined for 14.5 TFLs and seven sacks, as well.

Throw in Utah linebacker transfer Gerrit Choate, three-star JUCO corner Robert Hayes, a batch of redshirt freshman ends, and maybe a freshman like tackle Shabazz Dotson, tackle Darren Brown, or safety Preston Ellison, and you’ve got some disruptive options. But with a defense as bad as SMU’s was last year, let’s not assume Kane figures things out too quickly.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Southern Methodist
Rodney Clemons
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

SMU was bad at kickoffs and mediocre at everything else. Josh Williams was decent at place-kicking (10-for-11 under 40 yards, albeit with five missed PATs) but bombed five kickoffs out of bounds before partially losing that job to Kevin Robledo, who gave up a larger kick return average but mostly stayed inside the lines.

Both are back, as is punter Jamie Sackville. There’s nothing inspiring about this unit, but it probably won’t be terrible.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at North Texas 86 0.2 50%
7-Sep TCU 22 -9.8 29%
15-Sep at Michigan 10 -21.8 10%
22-Sep Navy 85 4.9 61%
29-Sep Houston Baptist NR 44.9 100%
6-Oct at UCF 17 -17.3 16%
20-Oct at Tulane 98 3.1 57%
27-Oct Cincinnati 88 5.5 63%
3-Nov Houston 59 -0.5 49%
10-Nov at Connecticut 124 11.3 74%
16-Nov Memphis 42 -3.5 42%
24-Nov at Tulsa 108 5.7 63%
Projected S&P+ Rk 74
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 29 / 112
Projected wins 6.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -8.4 (108)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 84 / 77
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 0.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (58%, 80%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.6 (0.4)

S&P+ isn’t projecting anything surprising from SMU this year. Offense: good (projected 29th). Defense: bad (112th).

The schedule features three projected top-25 opponents (Michigan, UCF, and TCU) and a sure win against Houston Baptist (plus a pretty sure win at UConn), but there are lots of relative tossups, so this could go in a lot of different ways, depending on how quickly the offense gets up to speed (I’m not too worried about that) and how quickly Kane can make something, anything, of the defense.

If he gains immediate traction, then 8-4 or 9-3 is on the table. But simply making a bowl and sustaining gains is the primary goal, and it’s a pretty reachable one.

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