The Mustangs rank No. 91 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
SMU is coming off its first bowl appearance in five years, so the framework is set. The Mustangs' success in the AAC will depend heavily on junior quarterback Ben Hicks grasping the nuances of new coach Sonny Dykes' Air Raid scheme.
Previewing SMU Football's Offense for 2018
Hicks made significant strides during Chad Morris' tenure, setting the school record for career touchdown passes. He threw for 3,569 yards and 33 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last season, but he must improve his decision making under pressure. His second season featured 42 more completed passes, a better completion percentage (from 55.5 to 58.5) and three fewer interceptions (12). But he will need a more dramatic jump to compensate for the loss of 1,000-yard receivers Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn to the NFL. They combined for 182 catches in 2017.
Lack of depth at wide receiver and on the offensive line will magnify the challenge of the offensive transition. James Proche, overshadowed by Sutton and Quinn, is a dangerous receiver who can spread the field, and he should thrive with increased touches, provided some other threats emerge. Dykes has moved players around in the hope of getting the ball in the hands of playmakers. Expect talented running back Braeden West to be used in multiple roles, including the slot. He averaged 7.8 yards on his 73 rushing attempts and also caught 18 passes last season. Running backs Xavier Jones, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2017, and Ke'Mon Freeman provide a strong one-two punch. The line is solid with four starters back, but depth could be an issue.
Previewing SMU Football's Defense for 2018
Needing major improvement on the front seven, the Mustangs instead took a step back last year. Poor tackling fundamentals overall and mistakes in the secondary yielded too many big plays. They ranked 122nd in total defense, allowing 476.7 yards and 36.7 points per game. Surrendering big gains on simple plays often countered the offense's production. Dykes brought in coordinator Kevin Kane from Northern Illinois to turn things around. Kane's system and his attack mentality certainly worked at NIU, which ranked seventh nationally in yards allowed per play last season. SMU, which operated in a 4-2-5 last year, has changed to a 4-3-4 scheme. The new regime has emphasized physical play and winning the line of scrimmage.
Replacing the multiple contributions of defensive end Justin Lawler, a team leader, will be difficult. The Mustangs have some depth up front, but also some inexperience. Cornerback Jordan Wyatt, who is recovering from a knee injury, has been a major force the past two seasons. Richard Moore, a transfer from Texas A&M, has turned heads with his aggressive play and will add a dynamic edge to the linebacking crew. Illinois graduate transfer Patrick Nelson will arrive this offseason to provide help in the secondary.
Previewing SMU Football's Specialists for 2018
The Mustangs desperately need special teams to help overcome weaknesses elsewhere. They changed placekickers midway through 2017 because of Josh Williams' struggles. Kevin Robledo, a Florida State transfer, made the only field goal he attempted. Another question mark will be finding a punt returner to replace Quinn. Proche seems the obvious choice here because of his speed and elusiveness.
Dykes is a proven offensive guru with a scheme that should ease the transition to the new staff. Kane's back-to-basics renovation of the defense should at least reduce the number of back-breaking plays allowed. If the Mustangs can make a marked improvement on defense, stay healthy on the offensive line and develop some playmakers, they could find themselves in another bowl game.