It’s good to be Sonny Dykes these days. His program is fresh off a historic season. SMU is recruiting at an elite level. His quarterback is on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. Everything is lining up.
SMU’s rise to national prominence in 2019 was as unexpected as it was awe-inspiring. The Mustangs were the only FBS program in the state to double their win total as they won 10 games for the first time since 1983.
“A year ago at this point, if you had asked me whether we have a 10-win team, I think few of us would have said yes,” Dykes said.
However, SMU remade itself in an offseason. Quarterback Shane Buechele, linebacker Richard McBryde and defensive tackle Zach Abercrumbia all joined the program late and played major roles. The returning talent developed. SMU got a few breaks. It all combined to produce a magical season.
“Everybody would agree with this: We were probably a little faster to 10 wins than we thought,” safeties coach Trey Haverty told Texas Football in February. “I laugh because there are now expectations, which we all want.”
Keeping the momentum won’t be easy. Star receiver James Proche was selected in the NFL Draft. Top rusher Xavier Jones, safety Rodney Clemons and the bulk of pass rush production is gone. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was snagged away by Miami. The Mustangs rank No. 97 nationally in returning defensive production.
In response, the Mustangs have only upped their aggressiveness. To replace Lashlee, Dykes reached across the country and poached away Garrett Riley from Appalachian State. The program reached to the JUCO ranks to pull a pair of big-time receivers, and then turned to the transfer portal to add a safety and defensive tackle from elite Power Five programs. The Hilltop is becoming a destination.
“When you go to some of these places, you have to be a little creative and have to think a little unusual,” Dykes said. “You have to fake it ‘til you make it in some ways. That’s what we’ve tried to do at SMU. Instead of complaining that you don’t have this or that, we’ve tried to figure out what we do have.”
While several longtime leaders are gone, others are ready to step up. Buechele threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns despite playing in a new offense. Tight end Kylen Granson turned himself into an NFL prospect. Other defensive backs have been chomping at the bit waiting for their opportunity. Oh, and the Mustangs have several transfers from the 2019 recruiting class that didn’t even get to see the field. Another influx of talent is coming.
Despite the 10-win season, SMU still hasn’t accomplished its goals. That’s the funny thing about 2019. The Mustangs started 8-0 and were a top 15 team heading into the season-changing loss to Memphis last November. Then, SMU finished with tight losses to the Tigers, to Navy and FAU in the Boca Raton Bowl. Finishing 2-3 to close the season won’t cut it. SMU aspires to be a championship program.
The schedule doesn’t pull any punches. TCU will be ready this time around, even though the game is at Ford Stadium. A conference opener against AAC favorite Memphis will test the Mustangs early. Cincinnati, a potential New Year’s Six contender, also comes to Dallas. Three of the final four games are on the road. Plus, SMU won’t sneak up on anyone in 2020.
“I think we have to keep building that killer mentality,” defensive coordinator Kevin Kane said. “We have a great attack mentality, but what are we attacking to do? We haven’t won 10 games here since 1983, so it’s still a learning process in how to finish. They tasted it, they were so close, so hopefully that builds on what we’re telling them as coaches.”
SMU spent the last two years trying to establish its place as the signature college football program in Dallas. With any luck, the 2019 season will just be the beginning.
“There’s a lot of pride in the city of Dallas and the different communities,” Dykes said. “I think SMU is starting to become a very viable option in recruiting. We’ve got to capitalize and continue to do that because that doesn’t come around all the time. You have to take advantage when it does.”
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