On the cusp: SMU football program on brink of national breakthrough

Photo by Bobby Thomas

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DALLAS – SMU has risen. And, oddly enough, the factors propelling the Mustangs’ return to college football relevance are the same ones that prompted the NCAA to issue the Death Penalty in 1987. Like bootlegger-turned-brewers after the end of prohibition, old sins are now rebranded as new opportunities.

Most college football fans are familiar with the story of SMU and the Death Penalty. Eric Dickerson and the gold Trans Am. The Pony Express. The one-year ban that set the program back multiple generations. The Mustangs were a top 15 team in the four years spanning from 1981 to 1984. They claim two national titles (‘81 and ‘82) and were 41-5-1 in that time, winning at least 10 games in each of those seasons.SMU didn’t win 10 games again until 2019. 

Current head coach Rhett Lashlee was the offensive coordinator under Sonny Dykes that 2019 season. Lashlee returned as head coach 18 months ago. The program announced a $100 million dollar project currently taking place in the end zone that’ll provide a major upgrade in football facilities. An NIL collective called “Boulevard Collective” ponied up $3.5 million annually to pay every scholarship player on the football and basketball teams $36,000 a year. 

Add in a College Football Playoff expansion in 2024 that guarantees the top G5 program a bid into the dance on top of rumors swirling about an invite to the Pac-12 and the Mustangs are ready for the big stage after a 40-year coma.

“We feel like we’re on the cusp of being back to where SMU should be and has been before, and that’s competing at the highest level of college football,” Lashlee told DCTF. “We feel like our program is trending in a great direction because we have the resources and the recruiting base to compete with anyone in the nation.” 

Timing is everything in life and Lashlee’s arrival in Dallas coincided with three of the biggest rule changes in the modern history of college football. 

One, NIL allowed the Mustangs to leverage its most natural of resources – money. SMU is just an inch north of the affluent part of Dallas known as Highland Park. Two, the transfer portal’s prevalence allowed SMU a second chance at the top-end talent that leaves DFW every year to play “Power Five football”. Three, the backlog of eligible players created by the 2020 COVID exemption resulted in the NCAA dropping its 25-scholarship cap for a recruiting class. 

Lashlee and SMU took advantage. The Mustangs added 30 new faces between the end of the 2021 season and the start of the 2022 campaign – Lashlee’s first as a head coach. The program signed 33 new faces this cycle, including 17 transfers. That means 63 of the roughly 85 scholarship players on the team in 2023 weren’t on The Hilltop when Lashlee arrived 18 months ago. The staff says a handful more of new additions could be added in the summer to raise the number of new additions since Lashlee’s arrival to around 70. 

“We’ve basically done a roster flip in 18 months, which is remarkable,” SMU offensive coordinator Casey Woods said. Woods was at UAB when the Blazers returned to football and started from scratch. “We had to do it at UAB, but there it was less transitioning and more stockpiling. We’ve completely turned over this roster in a way that wasn’t possible even a few years ago. And it probably won’t be possible again in a few years as new rules are made.”

Leading the charge for SMU on personnel decisions is general manager Alex Brown. The 31-year-old tried to work for free as a scout a decade ago before college football embraced the idea, but he was pushed towards the NFL scouting realm because those jobs simply didn’t exist. Brown was hired at SMU to oversee personnel decisions and help the coaches sift through thousands of prospects in the high school ranks and in the portal.

His first task was to comb through the SMU roster to find the current and future holes on the roster. To fill those holes, Brown built out position specifics for each position on the team based on the scheme and system ran by the coaches. He watched Miami film to get an idea of Lashlee’s offense. He studied tape of Liberty’s defense under coordinator Scott Symons to learn the player tendencies on the other side of the ball. He then turned his attention to the SMU roster he was inheriting. 

“You can go through every single signing class and piece together a team’s roster. It takes about two hours,” Brown said. “My goal was to find where are depth deficiencies were from a purely numbers standpoint because then you can start seeing the holes.” 

A trip to an SMU practice this spring illustrates the roster turnover that simply wasn’t possible in college football in the past. The Mustangs expect over half of their 22 starters to be fresh faces. That includes seven potential new starters on defense, including four of the five defensive back spots. The offense added roughly five new instant starters through the portal. These players are from colleges such as Miami, Texas, Texas A&M and Stanford. The momentum at SMU, as well as its resources on and off the field, are attracting players that SMU couldn’t land out of high school. Dykes started that trend by bringing back a bunch of players to the DFW area that picked “bigger” programs out of high school.

Lashlee and Brown are perfecting it by poaching familiar faces from the portal. Most of the incoming players are familiar with the staff or the state. Six of the 17 transfers played at Miami with Lashlee. Two more are defenders from Liberty. Most of the rest are native Texans hoping to remain in the state or to return to it. That’s not a coincidence. SMU wants players who have ties to the coaches or the program. Those factors eliminate the chance of failure in the recruiting process and once those players are on campus. The coaches already know the new faces, and the new faces already know the expectations and the schemes. 

“The teams that do the best job of finding out those webs of influences will be the teams that can close on players,” Brown said. “It is one thing to say, ‘we found some good players’, but it is another thing to get them on campus, make them feel comfortable, and then get them committed.” 

The improved relationship between the institution and the city of Dallas is at the forefront of SMU’s evolution. SMU no longer exists in its own bubble. The Mustangs were let out of the stable, and even brought back some old thoroughbreds who were shunned for past transgressions. 

“The biggest difference at SMU is how much we embrace the city of Dallas. When I was in high school 15 years ago in this area, I didn’t even know where SMU was,” Brown said. “It felt shutoff from the rest of the city. Now, we’re Dallas’ team. Guys like Eric Dickerson and Craig James are back in the building because we’re embracing the past.” 

SMU is a favorite to win the AAC in 2023. The Mustangs avoid regular season matchups with UTSA or Tulane. The toughest games on the schedule, at least on paper, are non-conference matchups with Oklahoma and TCU. A 10-win season is within reach, as is an invite to a Power Five conference. Even without that invite, SMU is poised to become the top G5 program in the nation. And as the playoff expands in 2024, that might be the cat bird’s seat. 

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