Chad Morris accomplished what he hoped at SMU by building the Mustangs into a dangerous program in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) using his deep roots in Texas and offensive acumen. After posting a 14-22 record in four seasons, including a 7-5 regular season finish in 2017, Morris moved on to Arkansas.
With the program in much better shape than it was when Morris arrived, SMU will take on Louisiana Tech in the Frisco Bowl in the first postseason appearance for the Mustangs since 2012. The Bulldogs, making their fourth straight bowl trip under Skip Holtz, are coming in 6-6 overall, and like SMU, 4-4 in conference play (Conference USA).
DXL Frisco Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. SMU
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: SMU -5
Three Things to Watch
1. New SMU head coach Sonny Dykes
Chad Morris’ departure opened the door for Dykes, TCU offensive analyst and former Louisiana Tech and Cal head coach, to take the job at SMU — and he will waste no time settling in, instead jumping right into the fray to coach the Mustangs against his former program.
Dykes has a 41-45 record as a head coach, including an 8-5 mark that included a 6-1 conference record and WAC championship with the Bulldogs in 2011 (in which he also won WAC Coach of the Year honors), followed by a 9-3 record the following year. His best season at Cal occurred in 2015 when he led the Golden Bears to an 8-5 record, including a victory in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Dykes, the son of legendary Texas Tech head coach Spike Dykes, is well known for the prolific offensive numbers his teams have produced in the past — much like Morris. Also like Morris, he has deep roots in the Lone Star State, which should help SMU continue its recent recruiting momentum. Simply put, the hire should be a relatively smooth transition into 2018.
2. Big-play receivers
Dykes has inherited a much fuller cupboard in Dallas than his predecessor, including arguably the best wide receiver duo in the country. Unfortunately, Dykes may only have one opportunity to coach junior Courtland Sutton, who some analysts consider an early-round NFL draft prospect. Sutton, a big target at 6-foot-4, caught 62 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns during the regular season, having surpassed 100 yards six times.
Interestingly enough, however, Sutton was not quarterback Ben Hicks’ favorite target in 2017. Trey Quinn was on the receiving end of 106 passes for 1,191 yards and also scored 12 times. Quinn is a junior but not as highly touted as a pro prospect as his teammate Sutton, so Dykes may have a longer working relationship with the star wideout.
Louisiana Tech also has a talented receiving corps. Teddy Veal led the Bulldogs with 69 receptions for 832 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season. Rhashid Bonnette ranked second on the team with 32 catches for 579 yards — averaging an explosive 18.0 yards per reception — and two TDs. Bonnette had an 87-yard touchdown catch in the 23-22 win over Western Kentucky that was the longest play of the season for the Bulldogs, though fellow wideout Marlon Watts (22 receptions, 319 yards), also has an 80-yard catch this year.
3. Defensive playmakers
Hicks, Sutton, Quinn and running back Xavier Jones (1,019 rushing yards, 9 TD) will keep the Louisiana Tech defense busy, but the Bulldogs have a handful of defensive playmakers capable of grabbing momentum. Defensive end Jaylon Ferguson (above, right) is the most talented player on the Louisiana Tech roster, and he is one of the top pass rushers in Conference USA. The 6-foot-5, 269-pound junior has 38 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks to his credit this year.
The pressure Ferguson and his teammates have put on opposing quarterbacks has helped put the secondary in position to make big plays. Freshman defensive back Amik Robertson led the team with four interceptions in the regular season, followed closely by Darryl Lewis with three. Lewis, Trey Spencer and DaMarion King have each recorded a pick-six for the Bulldogs and the defense has produced 16 interceptions overall while Tech quarterbacks have only thrown five.
But the SMU defense is capable of coming up with big plays as well. Though he isn’t expected to play in the bowl game due to a knee injury, Jordan Wyatt led the Mustangs with four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, while defensive end Justin Lawler has recorded 9.5 sacks, which ranks among the top 10 nationally.
Louisiana Tech took a step back offensively in 2017, seeing its scoring average dip from 44.3 points per game in 2016 to 28.8. Teddy Veal, Rhashid Bonnette and Marlon Watts provide several playmaking options for quarterback J’Mar Smith, and running backs Boston Scott and Jarred Craft are a capable duo that should find success against an SMU defense that surrendered 35.5 points and 486.7 total yards per game, as well as 6.67 yards per play. The Bulldogs also have shown improvement defensively, shaving nearly a touchdown per game off their scoring average from 2016 (from 33.6 to 26.7), and though the unit has made its fair share of big plays this season, this SMU offense is explosive.
But perhaps more important than the results of the season to date, SMU is in a unique coaching situation. It’s not unheard of for interim head coaches to guide a bowl team to victory, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see a head coach lead the Mustangs to victory so soon after his arrival — especially since SMU is favored to win. However, bowl games are always tricky, as are coaching transitions. Tech is used to bowls, while the Mustangs sat home each of the last four Decembers, raising the possibility SMU could fall prey to “happy to be here” syndrome.
Expect lots of points and for Sonny Dykes’ involvement in the bowl practices to pay dividends in his first full season, but also for such a quick handoff from Chad Morris to Dykes to create a few obstacles to victory for the Mustangs.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 34, SMU 31
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen