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2021 Week 9 Preview: SMU Mustangs @ Houston Cougars

A 6-game win streak and a 7-game win streak meet under the lights in Houston this Saturday night.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 SMU at Houston Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 30 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Pick ‘em
  • ESPN FPI: SMU has 50.1% chance to win
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 21-13-1
  • Last meeting: SMU 34, Houston 31 — October 24, 2020
  • Current streak: SMU, 2 (2018-19)

Setting the scene

A critical AAC tiebreaker and a potential conference championship appearance are at stake this Saturday night in Houston. Houston is in the midst of six consecutive wins, while SMU rides a 7-game streak into Week 9.

Whichever team wins this matchup, it will stand as their most quality victory of the season and a possible springboard to control its own destiny for the New Year’s Six. While Houston (6-1, 4-0 AAC) and SMU (7-0, 3-0 AAC) attained bowl eligibility with ease, neither program has bested a team which currently exhibits a winning record.

SMU’s name is currently graced with a No. 19 ranking while Houston sits four spots outside the AP Poll, signifying the winner of this matchup is certain to enter November with a number beside its name. Given all the circumstances, this is the premier showcase in the Lone Star State for the 2021 season.


Sack Ave. vs. the immovable force

The main storyline in this matchup is a battle in the trenches where one side has to give. On the home sideline, Houston sends out one of the most tenacious pass rushers in the country. The Cougars have branded themselves as “Sack Ave.”, hoisting the nickname on a street sign in postgame celebrations and on the sidelines. Houston ranks second nationally in getting to the quarterback, averaging 4.14 sacks per contest. The pass rushing has largely been led by the defensive line. All five Cougars with at least 3.5 sacks this season are members of this deep position group. Derek Parish, David Anenih, and D’Anthony Jones have done a masterful job at coming off the edges while Logan Hall and Latrell Bankston provide the bull rush in the interior.

South Florida v Houston
Derek Parish has been one of the ringleaders of Sack Ave. this season with 3.5 sacks and 5 TFLs.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

On a per game basis, Houston averages more than double the amount of sacks that SMU has even allowed in 2021. The Mustangs flew through their first five matchups without yielding a single sack. In the past two matchups, SMU’s line has only faltered twice. Allowing under 0.3 sacks per game, the Mustangs’ offensive line ranks No. 1 in the country. Providing such pass protection has allowed quarterback Tanner Mordecai to thrive in the FBS’s fifth most productive offense.


SMU offensive breakdown

The title of the best offense in the AAC belongs to the SMU Mustangs. Despite losing program cornerstones Shane Buechele and Kylen Granson over the offseason, Sonny Dykes’ team has loaded and is potent as ever.

For a team heavily built from the transfer portal, it’s no surprise some of the teams’ greatest contributors arrived from other destinations. Former Oklahoma quarterback Tanner Mordecai has grown into one of the best in the nation in his first year as an FBS starter. Mordecai is almost a guaranteed 300-yard showing every time he takes the field. Six of his seven games this year have crossed that threshold, and last week was his first 400-yard showing as the Mustangs’ signal caller. Mordecai is tied for the FBS lead in passing touchdowns with 29 and his passing yardage and completion percentage also rank in the top eight nationally.

The star quarterback has no shortage of capable weapons in this offense. Reggie Roberson Jr. has been a staple of the program for four seasons, and he has recovered from a 2020 season-ending knee injury to post 30 receptions, 406 yards, and five touchdowns through seven games. Roberson is joined by the team’s leading receiver Danny Gray (two 130+ yard showings in 2021) and Rashee Rice in a loaded receiving corps which thrives from speed. Even the tight ends’ utilization is high in this offense. Mordecai’s former Sooners teammate, Grant Calcaterra, has molded admirably into this offense and he enters Saturday coming off a 7-reception, 90-yard performance.

SMU’s passing offense is among the elite in college football, but the Mustangs trot out a stellar ground game too. The team operates with a dual-threat backfield featuring the lightning quick Ulysses Bentley IV and the bulldozer North Texas transfer Tre Siggers. Bentley has spent the month of October with limited snaps as he returns from injury, but with a long week separating SMU’s Thursday win over Tulane and the Houston game, Bentley should see considerably more action this Saturday. In his four completely healthy outings, he has rushed for 140+ yards twice. Siggers has thrived as the lead back in recent weeks, routinely shedding contact en route to 81 yards and two touchdowns in the Mustangs’ most recent victory.


Houston offensive breakdown

Houston’s offense hasn’t been as consistent offensively as SMU, and the Cougars aren’t coming off their best week. The Cougars posted 24 points in regulation on East Carolina — one stemmed from a kick return touchdown, and the other two initiated from opportune turnovers in ECU territory.

Houston needs to revert to the level of offense shown in the weeknight wins over Tulane and Tulsa, where the team hit the 40-point barrier. The Cougars’ success is highly correlated with the performance of quarterback Clayton Tune. The third year starter is enjoying by-far his most efficient season as a passer. Tune’s completion percentage skyrocketed from 59.6 to 69.1 this year, and he has limited his interceptions ever since the opener. After tossing four in the Week 1 loss to Texas Tech, Tune has responded with 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions during Houston’s 6-game win streak.

While the passing game has displayed efficiency, explosiveness is still a trait the Cougars strive for. They are one of seven FBS teams without a 50-yard offensive play this season. They rank in the bottom 30 in the country in fewest 20-yard plays generated, and creating long runs has been a challenge for the team all season.

East Carolina shut down the Cougars’ rushing attack last week until Alton McCaskill took the opening carry of overtime 25 yards to the house. McCaskill has risen to be the featured name in the backfield this season as a true freshman, and he’s shown poise in shedding contact to garner extra yardage. Four of his last five showings have gone for at least 70 yards on over 4.3 yards per carry, and the Cougars could use another strong performance from the youngster against their strongest opponent yet.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Navy at Houston
True freshman running back Alton McCaskill has been reliable around the end zone this year with nine rushing touchdowns.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For a team which averages north of 30 passes per game, expect heavy doses of Nathaniel Dell and Christian Trahan in this matchup, especially against an SMU passing defense which ranks 100th in the FBS in yards allowed. Dell is the chief playmaker from the receiving group, and the Cougars are awaiting another remarkable performance from the sophomore after a hot start to the season. Last Saturday, Trahan was Tune’s preferred target and the duo connected six times for 68 yards. The tight end seam has been a potent route for the Cougars this year, and Trahan has defeated many linebackers and safeties on such patterns.


Defensive players to watch

Delano Robinson, OLB, SMU: Robinson leads the Mustangs in tackles with 43. He has been the centerpiece of the unit in Jim Leavitt’s first year as the defensive coordinator. Robinson has been the primary run stopper on a run defense which has improved from allowing 180 to allowing 147 yards per game over the course of the last year. The Denton, TX native has provided eight stops in four separate games this year, and he’ll play a key role in limiting Houston’s rushing attack from gaining consistent success.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 North Texas at SMU
Delano Robinson leads SMU with 43 tackles on the season. He is currently on pace for his third consecutive 70+ tackle campaign with the Mustangs.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Turner Coxe, OLB, SMU: Coxe has established himself as one of the top pass rushers for an SMU defense which averages 1.86 per game. The edge rusher produced a pivotal strip sack deep into TCU territory to propel the Mustangs’ to their signature victory of 2021. Coxe is a familiar face for the veterans on this Houston team, as he also forced a strip sack in SMU’s 2018 victory over the Cougars.

Donavan Mutin, ILB, Houston: Mutin called game last Saturday at TDECU Stadium by forcing the game-winning fumble in overtime. He is the ultimate havoc raiser for this defense, and that punch-out marked Mutin’s third forced fumble of the season. The linebacker leads all Cougars in tackles with 44 and will serve as the team’s top counter to Ulysses Bentley IV and Tre Siggers in the run game.

Damarion Williams, CB, Houston: SMU has plenty of weapons in its receiving corps, so Williams will be called upon to slow down the Mustangs’ slew of playmakers. Williams ranks first on the defense in pass breakups and he boasts a team-best 30 solo tackles on the season, consistently making open field tackles in one-on-one coverage. Teamed with cornerback Marcus Jones, stifling SMU’s 10th ranked passing attack is a key passageway to lead Houston to pulling off its first ranked win since 2018.


Keeping up with Jones

One factor to watch in this matchup is Houston’s ability to strike paydirt without the offense even taking the field. Marcus Jones earned All-American honors as a return specialist in 2020 after posting two 100-yard performances and one touchdown while fielding punts. This year, the senior has taken it to another level. Through seven games, he leads the FBS in special teams touchdowns with three. He already ran back punts to the house in consecutive games earlier in the season. Last week, Jones added to his résumé with a 99-yard kick return in the first quarter vs. East Carolina.

SMU must envelop Jones before he makes the first two guys miss, because once he cuts upfield or takes the ball to the boundary, six points is a frequent result. The lethal return man currently holds the third most punt return yardage in the country. Kicking away from him could be a strategy the Mustangs employ to prevent another Jones moment.

Special teams prowess hasn’t been limited to Houston this year. In the Week 7 win over Navy, a 95-yard kick return by cornerback Bryan Massey sparked the Mustangs’ comeback to upend the Midshipmen.


Prediction

The better offense belongs to SMU. The better defense belongs to Houston.

Houston’s offense has wavered in stature in recent weeks, but if the team can prevent turnovers, the Cougars should move the ball well on an SMU defense which hasn’t been as forceful on the road. The Mustangs’ road defensive performances include allowing 37 points to Louisiana Tech in a game decided by a Hail Mary, yielding 34 to TCU, and permitting Navy to score 21 first half points before a strong second half showing.

Pitted against Sack Ave. which invades opposing backfields with regularity, this should be the most pressure SMU’s stout offensive line faces all year. Houston’s 14th ranked scoring defense presents many challenges for SMU, especially within the front seven, so the Mustangs will need to thrive on quick passes to escape the Cougars in the trenches. The secondary has done a standup job at preventing quarterbacks from catching fire as well, and Houston limits opponents to 174 passing yards per game on a 57.6 completion rate.

SMU has proven to be beatable before by the likes of Louisiana Tech and Navy. It will be close, but undefeated teams are dropping week by week, and I predict the home team picks up a program-boosting upset Saturday night by the means of a suffocating defense.

Prediction: Houston 30, SMU 26