UNIVERSITY PARK -- For the first time in two years, SMU lost big.
Cincinnati came into Saturday’s matchup at Gerald Ford Stadium ranked No. 9 in the nation, the top team SMU has played in the Sonny Dykes era. In a rare twist, the Mustangs looked completely overmatched in a 42-13 loss. It was a humbling experience for a team that looked superhuman for so much of the past two seasons.
The last time SMU lost by multiple touchdowns at home was on Sept. 7, 2018, against No. 16 TCU, Dykes’ second game. Both regular season losses in 2019 were by single-digits. It was a frustrating loss for a program that considers itself one of the nation’s best and could have taken control of the AAC title race with a win.
“I think I told the guys in the locker room, whenever things are going well and you’re winning, it’s easy for everybody,” Dykes said. “You have a game like that and get exposed and don’t play well, you really find out what you’re all about as a football team.”
It’s hard to ignore the parallels to the 2019 iteration of SMU, a game-changing 10-win squad that set records and earned the Mustangs the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. Last year, SMU went on the road against Memphis with AAC frontrunner status on the line. It ended with silly lapses on defense and special teams costing SMU a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.
This time, the game was even bigger – a No. 9 vs. No. 16 matchup on the Ponies’ home turf. On Saturday, it was the offense that mustered just 13 points, also the worst performance against a conference foe since Chad Morris’ second season in 2016.
Unfortunately, there’s precedent for SMU’s offensive crash since soon-to-be NFL receiver Reggie Roberson went out of the lineup. When Roberson got injured last season, the Mustangs lost three of their last five games. The lapses are glaring.
When Roberson is in the lineup, SMU’s offense has been unbeatable. The Mustangs are a cool 11-0 against FBS competition when Roberson plays in the past two seasons. Without Roberson, SMU is just 3-4 over that same period. In those games, Buechele’s completion percentage drops five percent, his yards per attempt falls nearly a full yard and the rushing game averages 47 fewer yards per game.
A former SMU assistant told Texas Football over the offseason that Roberson’s loss was too much to overcome in 2019 and pointed to lack of experienced depth. With Dykes in Year 3, however, the Mustangs rank among the most talented squads in football – at any level. The answers are on the roster.
Receivers Rashee Rice, Danny Gray and Tyler Page and tight end Kylen Granson could all start for any other team in Texas. Calvin Wiggins, T.Q. Jackson and Keke Burns rank among talented options to break into the rotation. There isn’t a James Proche on the roster to carry the weight, but SMU has strength in numbers. Running back Ulysses Bentley ranks No. 11 nationally in rushing yards and the coaching staff raved about backup Tyler Lavine.
Perhaps that’s what makes 11 dropped passes and 3.4 yards per play against Cincinnati so intensely frustrating.
“It hurts not having Reggie,” Buechele said. “He does a lot of great stuff for our offense. If y’all ask the same question every week heading forward, I’ll tell you how important Reggie is, but we have guys who need to step up.”
However, if SMU wants to get back into the conference championship race, the Cincinnati game is a wakeup call. Averaging 3.4 yards per play won’t cut it, no matter the strength of the Bearcats defense. If SMU can get through the remaining five games unscathed, it most likely sets up yet another date with Cincy. Coming away with a win next time is fully within reach.
“We beat Memphis earlier in the year, who was the defending conference champion,” Dykes said. “I don’t know how many teams have played two ranked teams. It’s probably not that many. When you sit down and look at our schedule, we won one and we lost one against good football teams...our guys have an understanding that if we go out and play well, we have a chance to win.”
Another parallel to 2019? SMU has a big game against Navy to get things back on track. This isn’t the same 11-2 Navy squad that terrorized teams and finished top 20. The Midshipmen have been shaky, but also have won nine of 10 games against SMU since the turn of the millennium.
“We’ve still got a long season ahead,” Buechele said. “We showed that when we come together and execute, we can drive it down the field. When we don’t, we hurt ourselves and don’t score points. We’ve got to come in [to practice] with the right mindset.”
Unlike last season, the marquee matchup can’t keep SMU out of the American Athletic Conference championship game. With UConn gone, the top two teams in the conference make the title game. A 10-1 record with a tiebreaker over Memphis would easily get it done – and a rematch over the top-10 Bearcats would be in order.
However, this must be a galvanizing moment for the program. Buechele came to this program to make history, and he’s accomplished more than anyone could have expected. These final five games will show exactly what this program is right now – and perhaps whether it can cement its place among the elite Group of Five programs.
“You figure out what people’s character is all about when you have a bit of adversity and you get your tail kicked, especially when you’re not accustomed to it,” Dykes said. “We lost a couple of games last year, but most were one-score games.
“We haven’t gotten our butts beat very often. It’ll be a good wakeup call for us. We’ll find out who responds and who doesn’t.”
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