SMU is back. You’ve probably heard that one before, but this year, it really seems to be true.
Southern Methodist University once boasted a proud football tradition, including outstanding players like Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker, Jerry LeVias, and the Pony Express of Craig James and Eric Dickerson. But for more than thirty years now, the Mustangs have been best known as the only program ever to receive the NCAA “death penalty.” Any hope that memories of SMU’s history of secretly paying players had faded were dashed in 2010, when ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentary Pony Excess introduced a whole new generation to the scandal.
After accepting the NCAA’s punishment by not playing at all in 1987 and 1988, SMU notched just one winning season in the next twenty. Things finally got a little better under head coach June Jones, who took the team to four bowl games from 2009 to 2012, while Chad Morris did well enough in his three years to earn a bigger job offer at Arkansas.
Now Sonny Dykes, in his second season coaching on the Hilltop, is making history with every game. Led by former University of Texas quarterback Shane Buechele, the Mustangs are 5-0 for the first time since 1983 and ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since the sanctions. Nobody is ready to pencil SMU into a New Year’s Six bowl game yet, but they’re the hottest college football team in Texas. Here are seven things to know as the Mustangs chase the American Athletic Conference title.
They’re the Best Team in Dallas-Fort Worth
After opening with Sun Belt conference power (hey, it’s all relative) Arkansas State, SMU got its season off to a strong start by beating North Texas 49-27 (the Mean Green won in Denton last year).
Then they really let the world know that this season would be different on September 21, when they took the Iron Skillet back from TCU for the first time since 2011. Winning a trophy game on the road against your closest geographic rival is always sweet, and the Mustangs never trailed in their 41-38 win. TCU coach Gary Patterson complained that there was too much red and blue in the stands at Amon G. Carter Stadium. It was an especially ironic gripe considering that SMU itself is known more for “boulevarding” than packing its home, Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
Oh, and did we mention that the Cowboys lost on Sunday?
You Already Know Their Quarterback
The son of a former Texas Rangers infielder, Shane Buechele was in Austin at the dawn of the “Texas Is Back” era. He and Tyrone Swoopes teamed up for the Longhorns’ 2016 double-overtime win over Notre Dame that inspired Joe Tessitore’s premature play-by-play call. Of course, that UT team wound up going 5-7, thanks to three straight season-ending losses that cost head coach Charlie Strong his job.
Buechele remained in Austin for two seasons under Tom Herman, eventually giving way to Sam Ehlinger. Having only played two games in 2018—and having earned his bachelor’s degree—the 21-year-old Buechele was able to transfer to SMU as a graduate student with two years of eligibility remaining. Now installed in Dykes’s Air Raid offense alongside star running back Xavier Jones and wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr., Buechele was especially good last week against South Florida, completing each of his first thirteen passes in a 48-21 win over his old coach, Strong (who may well lose another job this season).
SMU is also winning with defense. The team forced six fumbles against TCU and shut out South Florida in the first half. On an individual level, Patrick Nelson is ninth in the country in sacks, and (as Underdog Dynasty noted) he’s also a defensive back, so that’s even more impressive. His fellow safety Rodney Clemons (who is wearing Jerry Levias’s number 23 this year) is also among the top ten in the country in interceptions per game.
They’re rising up the charts
Given the college football world’s inherent bias against “Group of Five” teams—those from second-tier conferences like the AAC—beating TCU wasn’t enough for the Mustangs to place in the AP Top 25 poll. It took beating South Florida the next week to land them at number 24. It’s the first time SMU has been ranked since October 1986. Needless to say, nobody on the current team was born then. Sonny Dykes was about to turn 17. Mark White, a Democrat, was governor of Texas.
That number 24 ranking puts SMU well behind 3-1 Texas (11) but ahead of 2-2 Texas A&M (25), which was some consolation to the TCU blog Frogs O’ War.
TCU’s only loss of the season is to a team ranked higher than Texas A&M so everything is fine.
— Frogs O' War (@FrogsOWar) September 29, 2019
They want to be Dallas’s team
Fort Worth has TCU. Denton has North Texas. And, of course, Arlington has the Cowboys. Only SMU plays its home games in Dallas (well, technically in the small island suburb of University Park, but let’s not split hairs). The school’s been leaning into its association with Big D, promoting the #PonyUpDallas hashtag, and unveiling alternate uniforms that incorporate the city’s logo and script “Dallas,” which they first wore against UNT and then again at TCU.
— SMU FootbaII (@SMU_Football) September 7, 2019
Sonny Dykes is finally home
Well, close enough. The son of former Red Raiders coach Spike Dykes, Sonny actually played baseball while at Texas Tech, but he eventually became a key branch on the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air Raid football coaching family tree (he worked under Leach at Tech for seven seasons, including two as co-offensive coordinator with Houston coach Dana Holgorsen).
Dykes’s time leading Louisiana Tech made him a hot coaching candidate in 2012, right when Tommy Tuberville left Texas Tech. But then-Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was even hotter. The rest is history: Kingsbury got the job in Lubbock while Dykes went to, of all places, Berkeley, California. Things didn’t go that great for either of them, though they both tutored future NFL QBs (Kingsbury: Davis Webb, Patrick Mahomes; Dykes: Jared Goff, Davis Webb) and landed on their feet.
Who knows, having finally scored a job in Texas, maybe Dykes will even stick around. If I’m an SMU fan, I want new Tech coach Matt Wells to win lots of games for the Red Raiders.
You don’t have to wonder if their players are going to graduate, because so many of them already have.
College football recruiting isn’t just about high school players anymore, especially if you’re not in a top-tier “Power 5” conference. Instead, you win the transfer portal, which delivers Power 5 players to you. Buechele is SMU’s marquee name in that department, but it sure doesn’t stop there: according to the Dallas Morning News’ Kevin Sherrington, the Mustangs have 35 transfers, 11 of whom (including Buechele) are grad students. That makes it a lot easier to go from last year’s record of 5-7 to….?
If a lot goes right, they really could play on New Year’s Day
Okay, if everything goes right.
“SMU is not a national championship contender,” the Associated Press wrote when last week’s poll came out. Because, as SMU’s fellow AAC school Central Florida can tell you, the four national championship semifinalists are almost always teams with much more famous jerseys and big TV ratings.
Still, for SMU to even get to complain about that would mean they’re undefeated and have won the AAC championship. With no Central Florida or Cincinnati on the team’s regular-season schedule, every game looks winnable. On the flip side, every game is also losable, with Houston (in Houston) an obvious challenge (but another chance to break out those Dallas uniforms!), and Memphis the likely competition for the AAC West title.
12-0? 11-1? 10-2? Any of those records would still make for the best SMU team—yeah, you’ve heard this one before—since the mid-1980s.