Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2023: 23. SMU Mustangs

Preston Stone, SMU

 23. SMU Mustangs

With a slew of Power Five transfers and a potential star under center, SMU has the tools to be the favorite in new-look AAC

2022 Review
Year One of the Rhett Lashlee era in Dallas got off to a bit of a rocky start, as numerous close losses left SMU 3-4 looking ahead to the final stretch of their schedule. The Mustangs could have easily mailed it in and called it a lost season, but the 2022 team showed real grit over the season's final month. They went 4-1 in their final five regular season games, with the lone defeat coming on the road to an eventual New Year's Six Bowl Champion, Tulane. A heartbreaking bowl loss, yet another close defeat, was a disappointment, but SMU should still feel good about what they accomplished in 2022. Considering all but two losses were by a score or less, there's reason to believe that this team, assuming they figure out how to better close games this fall, can achieve even greater things in Lashlee's second season at the helm.

2023 Outlook
Offense: A longtime offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee has earned a reputation as an elite offensive mind who can get the best out of what his roster has to offer. The 2022 squad finished 12th nationally with 37.2 points per game and despite some turnover, there's reason to believe the Mustangs will be a fun watch offensively once more.

The decision from quarterback Tanner Mordecai to transfer to Wisconsin may sting, but it shouldn't be a death blow to this offense. Mordecai put up gaudy stats during his time in Dallas, but turnovers and poor decision-making consistently sunk SMU's chances in big games. 

Instead, the Mustangs will turn to talented youngster Preston Stone, a former high-profile recruit who sat behind Mordecai for two seasons. Stone doesn't exactly have a lengthy track record, but he's impressed in the short spurts we've seen of him, and he seems to have all the tools necessary to run an up-tempo, aggressive offensive attack. It would not shock me one bit if he is one of the American Athletic Conference's breakout stars in 2023.

Helping out Stone will be one of the best collections of skill position talent in Group of Five football. It starts in the backfield, where a trio of former Power Five transfers lead the way. Former Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton is a big name who ran for 322 yards in ten games last fall, but it's the newcomers who may overtake him. That includes former Miami tailback Jaylan Knighton and Texas A&M's L.J. Johnson Jr., who both arrive with some fanfare. Knighton is the veteran of the trio, playing in 27 games in Coral Gables, but Johnson may have the highest ceiling. Although he never quite got a chance to show what he could do with the Aggies, he earned quite the reputation for himself in the high school ranks and the offensive fit for him should be beneficial.

It was a nice early summer surprise when former TCU wide out Jordan Hudson announced his intentions to transfer to the Mustangs. Hudson was originally committed to SMU before following former head man Sonny Dykes to TCU. He's a special talent who should wreak havoc in this wide-open offense, making my annual "10 Players Ready for the Big Sophomore Leap" list. 

Hudson is far from the only name to keep an eye on in this SMU receiver corps. Although superstar Rashee Rice departs, Jeremy Kerley looked capable of taking over No. 1 receiver duties before Hudson's late commitment. He finished only behind Rice in both receptions and yardage last fall, and was proven he can take the top off opposing defenses. There's not a ton of returning experience behind Kerley, although Lashlee did brings over multiple receivers from his old stomping grounds at Miami. Key'Shawn and Romello Brinson have both proven to be capable pass-catchers who know this system.

It's a mixed bag up front for the Mustangs, with several starters returning, but questions at right tackle. Senior Marcus Bryant is an anchor at left tackle, while Branson Hickman and Justin Osborne bring starting experience on the interior. Miami transfer Jakai Clark is also expected to play a leading role, who has a chance to slide into an immediate starting spot at center. He's the type of player that you don't see often at this level, a multiyear starter from the Power Five level who was yet another former Hurricane that reunited with Lashlee.

SMU has earned a reputation for explosive offenses, and that certainly doesn't appear to be changing under Lashlee. The personnel on the roster is an ideal fit for what he wants to run, and the staff has done an excellent job filling in gaps as needed. Expect another impressive offensive campaign from the Mustangs, even if it takes Stone a bit of time to get fully acclimated to the starting quarterback role.

Defense: The Mustangs have gotten comfortable winning shootouts over the years, but if they want to become a consistent contender in the American, they're going to need the defense to begin playing their part. There's been talent on this side of the ball, but it feels like it doesn't show up each and every week, and it's been a fairly standard defensive scheme.

As coordinator Scott Symons prepares for Year Two running this unit, he hopes to establish a more aggressive, physical tone. It helps that the Mustangs have also brought on their fair share of big-name transfers on this side of the ball, at every level of the defense.

The defensive front offers plenty of experience, but is short on star power. Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston are two holdovers who have played aplenty at SMU and proven to be capable pieces. Chatman in particular has proven himself to an elite run stopper, but is he ready to take on more of a leadership role this fall?

Of course, there are also transfers to watch here who could elevate the unit. Jordan Miller and Elijah Roberts are two more Miami transplants aiming for a fresh start in Dallas. Miller has played a bunch and proven to be rock-solid, likely to start alongside Chatman from Day One. Roberts is more of an interesting case, a high-upside edge rusher who never was able to reach his peak with the Hurricanes. Perhaps a change of scenery is exactly what he needs to achieve the breakthrough. There's also Stephon Wright, a former Arizona State transfer that figures to fill into the rotation somewhere. It's Wright's second year in the program, but he was held back by injury in 2022.

Considering SMU ranked 120th in the country in rush defense a year ago, allowing over 200 yards per game, there's pressure on this linebacker corps to step up. They were pushed around too easily by opposing offenses a year ago and now lose their star, Isaac Slade-Matauita. 

Senior Nelson Paul will reprise his defensive end/outside linebacker spot, the "Bandit" position. He's proven to be one of the team's premier defenders, but it will be interesting to see if there's another level he can hit in 2023. He'll be flanked by yet another pair of transfers in JaQwondis Burns and Ahmad Walker, while freshman Alex Kilgore also is likely to see snaps. Burns hails from Minnesota, while Walker followed Symons from his former post at Liberty. Walker has proven to be a real playmaker at the middle linebacker spot, but his run-stopping ability will be the most important addition to this Mustang defense.

The secondary was the strength of the defense a season ago, but it wasn't exactly a lockdown group, either. They finished 73rd nationally, allowing 227 yards per game, but struggled against some of the top competition on their schedule. This group loses some important pieces, but is hopeful that reloading with even more former Power Five transfers could end up leading to an improvement.

Seniors Brandon Crossley and Bryan Massey are veteran pieces who should play a crucial leadership role on this defense. Crossley, who began his career at Colorado State, is set to play the nickel once again, and is arguably the team's top playmaker on this side of the ball. Massey is hoping to become more of a force on this end, as he originally made a name for himself on special teams. He'll battle for snaps at free safety, with Stanford transfer Jonathan McGill also likely to factor in.

Cornerback is a concern, as a lack of depth could put SMU in a bad position later on in the year. They're likely to rely on several transfers here, namely Charles Woods and Chris Megginson, both grad transfers. Woods is on his third school, spending time at both Illinois State and West Virginia, while Megginson reunites with Symons after playing several seasons at Liberty. 

The Mustangs do not have to be shutdown on this side of the ball to achieve their goals, but they do need some improvement. The program may be acclimated to winning shootouts, but a spotty defense won't make things any easier, especially considering they will have to go on the road to both Oklahoma and TCU in the month of September.

Special Teams: There's reason to feel good about special teams, as just about every important piece returns. Collin Rogers proved to have an accurate leg in 2022, knocking 16 of 20 field goals, and will once again man placekicking duties, while punter Ryan Bujcevski gives the Mustangs an upper hand in the field position battle. In the return game, expect Kerley, Massey, and junior Roderick Daniels Jr. all to be featured heavily.

Bottom Line
After four straight bowl trips to conclude their time in the C-USA, SMU's ascension to the American Athletic coincided with the downfall of the June Jones era. After a few lean years, the program has generally been one of the strongest in the American, and now have a golden opportunity. With Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston all moving on to the Big 12, the Mustangs have the makeup to be the new power player in the league. Lashlee and staff don't seem to have shied away from it; instead, they've built "Miami West" by bringing in a bunch of former Hurricanes and becoming a shelter for Power Five transfers that didn't pan out at their original destinations. It's an understandable strategy, but one that doesn't come without risk. You always wonder how a team is going to gel, essentially one that has been part of such a roster overhaul following the departure Sonny Dykes. Yet, there's no question the Mustangs are going to put up points either way, and if the defense takes even a small step forward, there's a lot of reason to believe in this team. Road trips to Oklahoma and TCU may be daunting, but the schedule actually works out very much in SMU's favor. They avoid regular season meetings with two of the other AAC heavyweights, Tulane and UTSA, the major reason why their pick in this conference and a serious contender for a New Year's Six Bowl.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
There were some understandable growing pains for Rhett Lashlee in Year One at the helm, as the 40-year old experienced his first taste of being head coach. Lashlee has been a fast riser in the coaching game, taking advantage of his relationship with Gus Malzahn to earn the Auburn OC job in 2013. Since, he's moved around as an offensive coordinator, including two years at SMU under Sonny Dykes, before earning the head coaching gig. The offensive coordinators will be Casey Woods and Jonathan Brewer; Woods also leads the TE room, while Brewer is the QB coach. On defense, Scott Symons is heading into his second year leading this unit. Prior to his time at SMU, Symons held the same role at Liberty, and crossed paths briefly with Lashlee during their time at Arkansas State over a decade ago.

Recruiting Breakdown
It's obvious Lashlee and this staff are putting a major emphasis on the transfer portal, but that doesn't mean they've completely ignored the high school recruiting game. They landed one of the better classes in the Group of Five, buoyed by linebacker Alex Kilgore, a likely instant contributor. Kilgore is a twitchy athlete who also starred in track and field. Alongside him, two other Texas natives lead the charge in defensive linemen Daemian Wimberly and Jaxson Lavender. Lavender is an interesting addition, a 5'9" burner who should be a fun watch in an up-tempo, aggressive Lashlee offense. Another receiver to watch is three-star Lonnie Johnson III, who had a bunch of interest in the state of Texas and around the Southwest but was a nice get for this staff.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Former Conference USA foes clash in SMU's opener, as the Mustangs welcome Louisiana Tech to Dallas. It should be an interesting appetizer for the Mustangs; Louisiana Tech are unlikely to a bowl-caliber team, but former Boise State QB Hank Bachmeier should have them humming offensively. The season really gets started for SMU over the next three weeks, with road trips to Oklahoma and TCU determining just how high of a ceiling this SMU team has in 2023. Both should be good barometer tests for Lashlee and this program, and the "Iron Skillet" rivalry with TCU has been an interesting one in recent years, with the Mustangs winning two of the last three. A home game against Charlotte kicks off conference competition, but the great news? SMU avoids both Tulane and UTSA, widely expected to be the other two teams battling for the AAC crown. In fact, the entire league slate looks winnable, even if road games against East Carolina and Memphis could be tricky.

2023 X-Factor: Ahmad Walker, LB
The American Athletic may be a quarterback-centric league, but SMU is not going to get by unless their rush defense takes a major step forward in 2023. There's reason to believe it can, with the defensive line returning plenty of familiar faces, and the linebacker corps bringing back Nelson Paul and JaQwondis Burns. Yet, the X-factor for the team is likely to be a newcomer, Liberty transfer Ahmad Walker, who is ready to start at middle linebacker. Walker might not have come to college with the fanfare of other transfers now on the Mustangs, but he has been incredibly impressive over the last two seasons with the Flames. He's a fearless defender attacking the run, and don't be surprised if you see him rush the passer more than most at this position. If he can come in and stabilize this rush defense, SMU will feature a much improved defense and in turn, field a more formidable team.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (6-2 AAC, Win AAC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: WR Jordan Hudson
Defensive MVP: LB Nelson Paul
Impact Freshman: LB Alex Kilgore
Impact Transfer: LB Ahmad Walker
Breakout Player of the Year: QB Preston Stone

Five-Year Trend

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.