Date: Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Kickoff Time: 7:00 PM CT
Location: Frisco, TX
Stadium: Toyota Stadium
Series Record: La Tech leads 3-1
Last Meeting: La Tech won 41-10
Betting Line: SMU -4.0
The former Miami Beach Bowl has moved to Frisco, Texas, as the DXL Frisco Bowl, and you couldn’t ask for better story lines for the inaugural game. The hometown SMU Mustangs will be making their first bowl appearance since 2012, and will be facing the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs from just down I-20. The Ponies and Dawgs spent four years as conference foes in the WAC from 2001-2004 before SMU left for C-USA.
Oh, did I mention Sonny Dykes was going to be there?
After getting SMU back to the postseason for the first time in five years, Chad Morris left Dallas to be the head coach of Arkansas. He took several of his assistants with him, including interim head coach Jeff Traylor. Therefore, SMU’s replacement for Morris will be taking over as the head coach for the Frisco Bowl. That alone is rare, as new hires typically don’t intervene until after the bowl game. What’s even rarer is the fact that Sonny Dykes’ first game will be against his old team.
Dykes was the head coach at Louisiana Tech from 2010-2012. After a 5-7 debut, Dykes captured Tech’s second WAC title in 2011, and then led the Bulldogs to one of their greatest seasons ever in 2012. In Tech’s final year in the WAC, they took down two Power 5 teams (Illinois and Virginia) and came just short of a tremendous comeback against the Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M squad that would later beat Alabama and go on to win the Cotton Bowl. Oh, and did I mention that Tech spent five weeks as a ranked team that year? They’ve spent six total weeks in the AP Top 25 in school history.
Tech would lose their last two games, in part thanks to the fact they didn’t have a bye week that year. Prior to that happening, Tech had a very reasonable shot at landing in the Orange Bowl. This, however, is when things got messy.
I won’t bother you with details of Tech’s 2012 bowl debacle, but in short, Tech didn’t get any bowl game that year and Dykes up and left to take over at Cal. Whether justified or not, many Tech fans blame Dykes, at least partially, for the sour ending to what could have been a dream season.
After a failed stint at Cal, Dykes spent most of this year as an analyst at SMU’s crosstown rival TCU. Now, he will lead the Mustangs into battle.
SMU finds itself in the middle of a transition, but nonetheless they have ended a four-year postseason drought. Dykes is now their head coach, but there’s no possible way for him to establish his trademark air raid offense this quickly, so it’s up to the remaining assistants to lead the way.
Similar to Tech the last couple of years, two wide receivers stand out for the Mustangs. Trey Quinn is the leading receiver with 106 catches for 1,191 yards and 12 touchdowns. But, you can’t spend too much time on him because they also have Courtland Sutton. Sutton has “only” 62 catches, but those have been good for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns. Todd McShay thinks he could be a first round pick. Both juniors will provide a difficult challenge for Tech’s young secondary. The man getting them the ball is sophomore quarterback Ben Hicks, who has 32 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He has 3,442 yards and a 58.7% completion rate. That isn’t an eye-popping completion percentage, but with receivers like Quinn and Sutton, they don’t need too many opportunities to make magic happen.
SMU will want to make this a shootout. They haven’t held an FBS team under 21 points all season, but only Houston and UCF have held them under 31.
The biggest question for SMU will be this: how do they perform during this coaching transition? Head coach Chad Morris is gone. Assistant head coach Jeff Traylor is gone. Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock is gone. Sonny Dykes is in town, but his quarterback is having to teach him SMU’s system for this game. Will they perform the way they have all season? Or will they be in disarray? That’s probably the single biggest question impacting the outcome of this game.
Louisiana Tech Outlook
6-6 is not what La Tech fans had in mind before the season, but here we are. The Dawgs had to win both of their last two games to even reach a bowl, but they managed to do it. At the very least, however, Dykes’ successor Skip Holtz has managed to deliver a school best fourth straight bowl game. DFW is becoming more and more of a familiar place for La Tech, as three of those four bowls have been there (Heart of Dallas 2014, Armed Forces 2016, Frisco 2017). He’s won the last three, including a 48-45 thriller against Navy in Forth Worth last year. Can he win this one?
J’Mar Smith has been underwhelming at quarterback, but it’s possible expectations were set too high based on the quality of quarterback play Tech has enjoyed the past few years. He’s had good games, but also very bad ones. He’ll need to play well in order for Tech to finish with a winning record in 2017.
The good news for Tech is that Smith probably doesn’t have to carry the team. The run game can do that. Boston Scott and Jarred Craft have been a great one-two punch at running back all year. Jaqwis Dancy has only seen limited playing time as the third stringer, but he’s got some talent, as well. All three have been banged up to some degree throughout the year, but if they are all healthy, they could be deadly.
The defense hasn’t been terrific, but it’s better than last year. There’s also plenty of young talent, especially true freshman Amik Robertson. Regardless of the outcome of this game, the added experience for these young guns through bowl practices and the game itself could make a difference next year. As far as this game is concerned, the challenge for this Tech defense will be slowing down SMU’s offense, especially Sutton. How young corners like Robertson fare against this NFL receiver will be a good measuring stick.
In short, Tech’s key to victory will be keeping the points low. Tech isn’t winning a shootout. On offense, they’ll need to establish the run game and control the clock. Do that, and stay in + territory in turnovers, and they’ll have a shot.
The coaching transition for SMU could make this interesting, but at the end of the day SMU’s offense will probably just be too much for Tech.
SMU 31, La Tech 24