SMU is 17-6 over the last two years, but if coach Sonny Dykes’ team wants to take the next step and contend for the conference title, there’s one glaring question mark to address this offseason. The Mustangs aren’t lacking for skill talent at running back or receiver, but uncertainty remains under center after the departure of Shane Buechele. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai and freshman Preston Stone are set to compete for the job and are crucial to the overall success of SMU’s 2021 season. The Mustangs gave up 30.9 points a contest last year, but seven returning starters under new play-caller Jim Leavitt should be enough to generate improvement on defense.
Previewing SMU's Offense for 2021
The Mustangs must find ways to replace Shane Buechele and his 7,024 passing yards of the past two seasons. Tanner Mordecai transferred from Oklahoma hoping to do just that. Mordecai played in 12 games with the Sooners, throwing for 639 yards and four touchdowns. Four-star recruit Preston Stone and Georgia transfer John Seter will push him.
Experience up front and depth at running back and tight end will ease the QB transition. All five starters return from an offensive line that helped the offense rank ninth nationally in red zone scoring percentage, 13th in passing offense and 15th in scoring offense. AAC co-Rookie of the Year Ulysses Bentley IV led the league last season with 913 rushing yards. He will be joined by RBs TJ McDaniel and North Texas transfer Tre Siggers, who is perfectly suited to SMU's scheme. The Mustangs are overflowing with talent at tight end after adding three transfers from high-level programs — Grant Calcaterra (Oklahoma), Nolan Matthews (Arizona State) and Simon Gonzalez (Texas Tech).
Reggie Roberson Jr., with 117 catches for 2,079 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in just 23 games with SMU since transferring from West Virginia, is coming off a season-ending injury suffered in the fourth game last year. If healthy, Roberson will be among the nation's most dynamic receivers.
Previewing SMU's Defense for 2021
The Mustangs needed improvement after ranking 78th nationally in total defense. Things will at least be different this season with three new coaches hired in the offseason, including coordinator Jim Leavitt, formerly with Florida Atlantic. Leavitt has some talent to work with.
With their speed and aggressive style, the Mustangs consistently came up with big plays. They ranked 14th nationally in averaging 7.6 tackles for a loss per game. Their gambling style also resulted in 10 fumble recoveries (tied for eighth nationally) and seven interceptions.
Many of the key players are back. Delano Robinson is a proven commodity at linebacker with 153 tackles the past two seasons, including a team-high 77 last year. So too is Trevor Denbow, who posted 7.0 TFLs, three forced fumbles and one interception.
Leavitt plans to use multiple formations. He wants to take advantage of his personnel, flashing different looks to confuse offenses.
Previewing SMU's Specialists for 2021
Although it loses Chris Naggar, SMU fortified its kicking with the addition of Blake Mazza, a Washington State transfer. Mazza was a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2019 after making 20-of-21 field goals, and he converted 4-of-4 in 2020. With 6'7" freshman signee Brendan Hall, SMU will have the rare luxury of depth at placekicker.
A relatively easy non-conference schedule should allow SMU to build momentum before the tough conference stretch. Success on the road will be crucial. The Mustangs will visit four of the league's toughest venues — defending AAC champion Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy and Houston. Head coach Sonny Dykes has worked wonders on the Hilltop, reviving recruiting and posting consecutive winning seasons. The Mustangs might have the pieces to challenge for the AAC title. Much will depend on how quickly their new quarterback meshes with his receivers.
National Ranking: 64
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(Ulysses Bentley IV photo by Vladimir Cherry/SMU Athletics)