Heading into the second year of the Sonny Dykes era, the Mustangs were certainly expected to improve upong last year’s 5-7 record. But, they were breaking in a new quarterback (Texas transfer Shane Buechele), which can take some adjusting. The adjustments have happened quickly, and SMU’s offense has ranked among the most prolific in the country, averaging over 44 points per game. The play of Buechele has been a big reason why.
“Shane Buechele, in the era of the transfer quarterback, belongs on the list of one of the most successful,” said CBS Sports Network college football announcer Carter Blackburn. “They have been electric, and it has been a thrill to watch.”
Buechele, a redshirt junior, is completing 64 percent of his passes for over 2,100 yards, with a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (18 TDs vs. 6 INT). He is directing a passing attack that ranks 12th in the country at over 315 yards per game, averaging over 8.5 yards per pass attempt. Combined with a potent rushing attack, featuring the trio of Xavier Jones, Ke’Mon Freeman and TJ McDaniel, the Mustangs have proven hard to slow down. They put up 45 points on a Temple team that ranked in the top 20 defensively heading into last weekend.
On the other side of the ball, the defense has shown holes, but, Blackburn notes, the tackling has gotten much better than in years past. It has shown up on the scoreboard where the Mustangs have allowed a little over a touchdown less per game this season (27 PPG vs. 35 last year). The big question that remains, of course, is can the Mustangs run the table and earn the coveted New Year’s Six bowl berth reserved for the highest-ranked Group of 5 team.
Blackburn says the Mustangs remaining unbeaten will be a “major challenge” due to the overall strength of the American conference.
“The AAC is maybe one of the more compelling conference championship races. Of course if you’re in contention to win the Big 10 or SEC, you’re likely in contention to win the national championship. That likely isn’t the case in the American, although you never know with college football,” said Blackburn. “But when you look at just a conference race, which conference is going to give you a down-to-the-wire, a lot of contenders in for the championship, the American is the best in the country.”
Various methods of determining team strength bear that out. The AAC rates as the fifth-best conference in the country according to RealTimeRPI, one spot ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Counting AP Top 25 teams? The AAC has two ranked, and four in the others receiving votes category. No other Group of 5 conference has more than two.
How about more advanced rating systems? Well, ESPN’s FPI has five AAC teams in its top 50, with UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis and Navy all joining the Mustangs in that category. SP+ has two additional teams in that top 50, with Temple and Tulane joining the aforementioned group.
While that strength proves Blackburn’s point, as he notes, it makes life difficult for a Mustangs team hoping to run the table. The good news? FPI gives SMU at least a 51 percent chance of winning in four of its final five games. The only game in which Dykes’ team is projected to lose is next week, when they hit the road to face Memphis. Aside from Memphis, the Mustangs still face tests against Navy and Tulane, with the game against the Midshipmen coming in Annapolis.
History would tell us that remaining undefeated isn’t likely, and the advanced stats bear that out, with FPI giving the team just a 3.9% chance of winning out. However, according to Blackburn, the Mustangs high-octane offense gives them a chance.
“SMU is fifth in the country, averaging 44 points per game,” said Blackburn. “That will be difficult to continue, but if Sonny Dykes’ version of the Mustangs can continue to do that, you’re going to outscore a lot of teams.”
If the Mustangs were to remain undefeated, it would be just the second time in school history, the first coming in 1982, when they finished 11-0-1 under head coach Bobby Collins. #16 SMU heads to Houston to face the Cougars in a Thursday night prime-time matchup, with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. Central Time.