Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 6 SMU.
I want to talk about 2017 SMU; given this whole shindig is reader-based, you want to read about 2017 SMU. But the fact is that the moment someone says SMU football, the callback that first creeps from the back of your mind will forever be “death penalty,” so we might as well address this outright and move on.
When folks found out David Stanley was paid $25,000 as a signing bonus and earned a weekly salary of $750—two items that, when you write them down for what they were and don’t couch it in the language the NCAA would like you to, sound, actually, like reasonable compensation—fans, the university, and the NCAA acted as if the school and its administration were guilty of ignoring years of sexual assaults or had attempted to cover up a pay-for-play scandal by sullying a dead player’s name (sidenote: pretty amazing that Baylor’s still allowed to compete in Division I sports, huh!) This was a time when the NCAA’s amateurism argument was hardly challenged in public, when TV deals were starting to earn schools ludicrous amounts of cash, when talk of the economic rights of college athletes would have brought more laughs than nods. So it makes sense that SMU, being a tiny school (cue the always-relevant Jerry Tarkanian Cleveland State line) that was no more guilty than Miami, USC, Ohio State, etc., would face the full wrath of the NCAA.
That was nearly 40 years ago; despite all the time that’s passed and opportunities that have arisen, the NCAA still has no fucking clue how to reconcile the fact that the one thing its members allow and encourage it to prosecute is the single dumbest facet of college sports. They also neutered themselves by pulling the season cancellation for such a simple reason as boosters paying players, a reaction that’s since been branded as overly harsh, thus scaring the NCAA from implementing it on programs actually worthy of it. But, alas, here we are, stuck with never-ending appeals processes over fake classes and pointless scandals concerning the damn YouTube page of a UCF kicker, while the real problems that plague college campuses and college sports go ignored by the one body with the sway, money, and connections (minus its top administration, the NCAA and all its useless councils are literally made up by folks from member schools) to actually make a difference.
Anyway, SMU seems to be in a good place now, or at least a better one than what they were just a couple years ago—I know, I know, that’s been said multiple times during the reigns of the five head coaches the Mustangs have had since the cancelled season, but in Chad Morris, the SMU brass seem to have found someone that gets how to run a college program (and also actually wants to do it).
Morris is in his third year of what is turning out to be a nice little rebuilding project, one that I’m sure he’ll stick out for another year or two, maybe even taking SMU to a bowl game, before Texas cans Tom Herman and hires him away with an offer that even the Mustang administration won’t match. Hopefully, he’ll leave the program on a better note than his predecessor—give June Jones his credit, the man took a program that went 1-11 his first season (and the year before that) to four bowl games; his 2008 team that finished 8-5 was the first SMU team in 11 seasons to finish above .500. But as much as Jones deserves the praise for bringing the Mustangs from bad to middling, it’s impossible to review his time in Dallas without looking at the state he left the program in.
SMU finished 5-7 in 2013 (not terrible!) but consecutive sessions of shitty in-state recruiting led to a dismal 2014 season that opened with a 43-6 Week 2 loss to North Texas—not even a good North Texas, either, as the Mean Green finished 4-8—that was abruptly followed by Jones announcing he would be stepping down for “personal issues.” Tom Mason did would he could as the interim head coach, but the end result was a 1-11 finish that dropped SMU’s piece all the way back at Start.
Morris came over from Clemson, where he ran the offense so well that the Tigers made him the highest paid assistant among all public school programs in the nation. Before that, he was a winning machine of a Texas high school coach; given Jones’s late struggles with signing the Lonestar State’s top talent, having a coach that has both successful college experience and a couple decades worth of high school connections was more than enough to make SMU snap him up. So far, he’s delivered—Morris improved the Mustangs to 2-10 in his first season, before leading them to a 5-7 finish last season despite fielding an offense that had exactly one player worth knowing about.
This season, SMU’s off to a 2-1 start, which includes a revenge victory over North Texas and a fun but futile shootout with TCU that ended in a 56-36 loss. The Mustangs spread it out on offense, with quarterback Ben Hicks currently running the show. The sophomore entered the season after having started 11 games last year as a rookie; he was decent in his freshman year, tossing 19 scores to 15 picks and completing 55.5 percent of his passes. Going into the fall, it was expected that Wisconsin transfer D.J. Gillins would challenge him for the opening, but a toe injury has kept Gillins on the sideline.
Regardless of who’s taking the snaps, SMU can rely on its incredible receiving corps, headlined by a 1-2 punch that could be cut-and-paste into any Power Five’s starting lineup. Courtland Sutton is a professional receiver trapped in the college game—the 6-foot-4 man-child was the team’s leading wideout last season, going for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns. But as good as he is, he was no match for Gary Patterson’s defensive gameplan, as he was held to one catch and no yards in last weekend’s loss to the Horned Frogs.
No worries, though. In his stead, redshirt junior Trey Quinn, an LSU transfer, continued his blistering start to the season, hauling in seven catches for 116 yards and a score; he also completed a pass for 34 yards and returned a couple kicks 28 yards. The nation’s all-time high school receiving yards leader has blossomed into a dynamic threat for Morris, who recruited him for the Tigers a few years back. Now, on a team that has as many wins as it did all season the year he signed with them, Quinn will pair with Sutton to form maybe the only passing threat that’s close to being as entertaining as their AAC counterparts, Memphis.
On the other side of the ball, the Mustangs are not quite as lucky. SMU is a year removed from finishing 111th overall in points allowed; teams gashed them on the ground, going for 210 yards per game. The defensive front took a big step in terms of quarterback pressure between Morris’s first and second seasons, upping their sack total from 16 to 29. Only Justin Lawler returns on the line, which is good news considering he logged six sacks and 19 tackles for loss to lead SMU a year ago. He’s no longer the unit’s only standout, though, as inside linebacker Kyran Mitchell is currently pacing the team with three sacks and five tackles for loss through three games. As good as Mitchell and Lawler are, as it stands now, SMU’s defense’s stated goal should be doing just enough to not lose games. And that’s just fine. After all, winning is what Sutton and Quinn are for.
It only takes one look at Courtland Sutton to know he’ll be terrorizing NFL defenses very soon. After surpassing the 1,200-yard mark and earning All-American honors in 2016, the spotlight’s been on Sutton all offseason. Even with a freshman quarterback that was four touchdowns away from having a 1:1 ratio with interceptions, Sutton used his massive frame and frankly unfair speed to bully corners, shoving them to the ground via a viciously rude stiff-arm or simply leaping up and using those sticky mitts to haul in overthrows. If Sutton didn’t play in a conference with Anthony Walker, he’d be far and away the AAC’s biggest draw. You’ll see him in an NFL uniform one day; until then, enjoy watching a man squash some boys.
SMU’s no playoff team. The Mustangs also don’t have much of a shot at winning the AAC; that’s all right, though, because the goal that SMU should have up on its whiteboard—winning a bowl game—is very much within reach. They’re already a third of the way there. The only thing left is to pick up wins against Arkansas State, Tulsa, Central Florida, UConn, and Tulane; from there, SMU can hope its two big receiver boys go out and ball and steal a win from Navy or Cincinnati. I’m not saying I don’t expect the ‘Stangs to shit the bed against at least two of those teams, but hey, this is a “can” section, not a “will” section.
I don’t have anything as of now that would indicate that Chad Morris is a dick. He does really, really love Red Bull, though.
Sept. 2: Stephen F. Austin (W 58-14)
Sept. 9: North Texas (W 54-32)
Sept. 16: @ TCU (L 56-36)
Sept. 23: Arkansas State
Sept. 30: UConn
Oct. 7: @ Houston
Oct. 21: @ Cincinnati
Oct. 27: Tulsa
Nov. 4: UCF
Nov. 11: @ Navy
Nov. 18: @ Memphis
Nov. 25: Tulane