SMU 2021 season in review: Struggles down the stretch, departure of Sonny Dykes dampen excitement for Mustangs

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2021 record: 8-4 (+1 win from 2020)

Texas Power Poll ranking: 5 of 12

THE GOOD

The Mustangs raced to a 7-0 start in the 2021 season with a victory over TCU stamping SMU as a contender for the AAC crown. SMU knocked off Louisiana Tech 39-37 on Sept. 18 thanks to a 33-yard Hail Mary from quarterback Tanner Mordecai to wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. as time expired. The next week SMU beat TCU 42-34 thanks to 350 yards rushing, and four touchdown passes by Mordecai. The Mustangs averaged 6.7 yards a carry against TCU as Ulysses Bentley and Tre Siggers topped 100 yards on the ground. 

Mordecai, an Oklahoma transfer originally from Waco Midway, set school records through the air throughout the 2021 campaign. He finished with 3,628 yards and 39 touchdowns on 67.84 percent completions. He added two rushing touchdowns and only threw 12 interceptions on 454 passing attempts. 

The SMU offense averaged 38.42 points per game. Rashee Rice was Mordecai’s favorite target in the passing game. Rice caught 64 passes for 670 yards and nine touchdowns. Roberson added 51 grabs for 625 yards and six touchdowns. Danny Gray was the big-play receiver with a team-high 803 yards and nine touchdowns on 49 receptions. Tight end Grant Calcaterra, also a transfer from Oklahoma, added 38 receptions for 465 yards and four touchdowns. 

Siggers emerged as a true No. 1 running back with Bentley dealing with nagging injuries during the second half of the season. Siggers, a transfer from North Texas, finished the year with 727 yards and nine touchdowns on 147 carries. Bentley registered 610 yards and four touchdowns on 96 totes. Tyler Lavine tallied 257 yard and a pair of rushing touchdowns on 54 carries. 

The offensive line was solid for most of the season. The Mustangs only allowed 16 sacks, which is astounding considering that SMU passed the ball 468 times on the season. The team averaged 4.6 yards a rush and 6.3 yards per play. 

The front seven for SMU was stout defensively. The Mustangs allowed just 3.7 yards a carry and recorded 27 sacks. Delano Robinson led the team with 78 tackles. DeVere Levelston and Tuner Coxe combined for 12.5 sacks. Gary Wiley added nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Elijah Chatman recorded 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Opponents only scored 28.42 points a game, which was 10 points fewer than the SMU offense. 

THE BAD

The SMU secondary was the weak link in the program during the 2021 season. Opponents averaged 278.08 yards passing a game against the Mustangs. The secondary allowed 8.26 yards per attempt with opponents completing 59.16 percent of their passing attempts. SMU allowed 412 yards passing against Houston in a loss. Memphis threw for 392 yards a week later in a three-point victory over SMU. Cincinnati went 17 of 23 through the air for 274 yards and three touchdowns on Nov. 20 and Tulsa ended the season by passing for 244 yards against the Mustangs. 

SMU not only allowed big plays. The Mustangs failed to create momentum for the offense through turnovers. SMU was minus-three on the turnover battle in 2021. The secondary recorded 10 interceptions on 404 passing attempts against. The trio of Trevor Denbow, Issac Slade-Matautia, and Isaiah Nwokobia tied for the team lead with two interceptions each. 

THE UGLY

SMU went 1-4 down the stretch following a 7-0 start. The downward spiral started with a seven-point loss at Houston on Oct. 30. SMU came back to tie the game at 37 late in the fourth quarter, but a 100-yard kickoff return by Marcus Jones gave the Cougars the win and the inside track to face Cincinnati in the AAC championship game. SMU would lose by three points to Memphis a week later and to Tulsa at home to complete the regular season. The Bearcats embarrassed SMU in a 48-14 victory on Nov. 20. 

Behind the scenes, SMU was dealing with the potential exit of head coach Sonny Dykes. Job openings at Texas Tech and TCU, where Dykes eventually was hired to replace Gary Patterson, became talking points for the Mustangs, and that clearly leaked into the players’ ability to prepare and perform. 

TEAM GRADES

Quarterback: A

Running back: B

Wide receiver/tight end: A

Offensive line: B+

Defensive line: B

Linebacker: B

Cornerback: C

Safety: C+

BIGGEST OFFSEASON QUESTION

Can SMU learn to close seasons? 

SMU was 25-10 overall in the last three seasons under Dykes. The Mustangs jumped out to quick starts in each of those years, including a 7-0 start in 2019 and 2021. SMU couldn’t close those years on top, however. The Mustangs were 1-4 over the last five games in 2021, 0-2 to close out 2020, and 2-3 in the final five games of 2019. SMU was 4-7 in November over the last three years, and that must change for new head coach Rhett Lashlee to take his Mustangs into greener pastures such as a conference championship in 2022 and beyond. SMU can position itself as the power broker of the AAC with Cincinnati and Houston heading to the Big 12 in the next few years. 

WAY TOO EARLY 2022 OUTLOOK

Lashlee was the offensive coordinator at SMU in the 2019 and 2020 season before serving in the same role at the University of Miami in 2021. His familiarity with the SMU program should serve as a springboard for early success in Dallas. Lashlee recruited about half of the current roster while as the offensive coordinator, and he should bring in an offense that is familiar to the current players. Still, it is always hard to project how easily a coach can handle his first year as the head man. 

SMU should be one of the more complete teams in the AAC. Cincinnati and Houston will be the favorites, but the Mustangs should be in the second tier of contenders alongside programs such as Memphis. Mordecai and the offense should be explosive. The defense returns some of its best players. The schedule starts with winnable matchups against North Texas and Lamar. The big game on the schedule comes on Sept. 24 when SMU hosts TCU and Dykes. 

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