It’s been a long time since SMU experienced a three-year stretch like this.
To find the last time the Mustangs won at least two-thirds of their games in three consecutive seasons, you’ll have to go back to 1982 to 1984 — several years before the program’s infamous death penalty.
SMU has been a team on the rise lately, adapting to the modern game of college football with heavily utilization of the transfer portal and with clever marketing tactics, labeling itself as Dallas’ college football team, in order to become a stronger brand in one of the country’s most football-infested cities.
However, the Mustangs must adjust to life without the coach that brought them to this point. After four seasons manning the sidelines at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in University Park, head coach Sonny Dykes traveled across the metroplex to Fort Worth, accepting a job at the arch-rival campus of TCU.
Longtime athletic director Rick Hart brought in a familiar face after Dykes switched his wardrobe to purple. Rhett Lashlee, the program’s offensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019, was lured back to SMU for his first chance at a head coaching job in nearly 20 years of coaching experience. Last time he was associated with the Mustang logo, Lashlee guided the team to the FBS’s seventh-ranked scoring offense while racking up roughly 490 yards per game.
Lashlee populated his inaugural staff with former colleague Casey Woods as offensive coordinator, who moved to the Lone Star State after serving as Missouri’s tight ends coach since the start of this decade. The defensive coordinator is Scott Symons, who spent the last three seasons captaining the defense at Liberty. All three coaches were members of the 2012 Arkansas State staff under Gus Malzahn, so there is a degree of familiarity within the new-look personnel.
In the past three seasons, SMU has been no stranger to strong starts. The Mustangs crashed the top 20 of the AP Poll in each of those years, landing as high as No. 15 in 2019, No. 16 in 2020, and No. 19 last fall. But finishing has been a different story. SMU followed its 8-0 start in 2019 with a 2-3 finish. In 2020, the story replicated as a 5-0 record was hampered by a 2-3 finish. Then, the unwanted trend extended into 2021 as the Mustangs’ promising 7-0 start suddenly cratered, and they lost four of their last five contests.
SMU didn’t earn a chance to go bowling each of the last two years due to COVID-19 outbreaks, but the Mustangs hope to reverse this trend of sour finishes in year one with Lashlee at the helm. With a cast of potent returning talent, they aim to punch their first ticket to the AAC title game since joining the league in 2013.
Having a top-tier quarterback in the conference on the roster is always a viable method to qualifying for a conference championship. SMU fits this criteria as Tanner Mordecai looks to light it up in his second season as a Mustang after leading the AAC in passing yards per game in his first. The former Oklahoma transfer ranked 12th in the nation in total yards last year, and on top of that, he added 39 touchdowns to situate himself in the top five. Best of all, he attained those numbers on a presentable completion percentage of 67.8.
Mordecai eclipsed 300 yards passing in all but four games last year, and he recorded at least four touchdown passes in five contests. Given Lashlee’s affinity to air it out, those statistical trends should prolong into 2022.
Although SMU’s starting quarterbacks primarily originate from the transfer portal in recent years, one of the Mustangs’ prized recruits sits behind Mordecai on the depth chart. As a 4-star product from the local Dallas area, Preston Stone is SMU’s highest ranked recruit of the century. While 2022 appears to be Mordecai’s time, expect plenty of hype from the fanbase should Stone check into a contest for any reason. Last year, he maintained redshirt status while making three brief appearances.
At running back, the No. 1 option is set to be Tre Siggers who like many of SMU’s most impactful weapons, entered the program via the portal. In a middle-of-the-road rushing attack, Siggers led all Mustangs in yards by picking up 727 last year, complemented with nine touchdowns. Siggers takes on the form as a power back, bulldozing through opposing defenses with a 5’8”, 200 pound frame. SMU’s speed back from last year, Ulysses Bentley IV, transferred to Ole Miss after amassing over 1,500 yards across the last two seasons.
Stepping into Bentley’s absence should be Tyler Lavine, who earned slightly over five touches per game in 2021. Lavine isn’t necessarily the speed back Bentley was, but he should replace Bentley’s usage as a receiver. Despite seeing considerably fewer snaps, Lavine corralled more receptions than Siggers last year, so the Cedar Park, TX product is structured to fit the role as the third down back.
Other supporting depth at the position includes promising Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton — a consensus five-star prospect still awaiting his first collegiate snap. Also, T.J. McDaniel may play a major role in the offense once again after suffering a season injury in the 2020 season. He logged two 100-yard outings in the opening three games that year before suffering a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle on his first carry against Memphis.
SMU witnessed one player return successfully from a season-ending injury last year when Reggie Roberson shed a torn ACL to light up secondaries at wide receiver. The 2021 Mustangs featured a loaded receiving corps, but Roberson is now with the Tennessee Titans and the unit’s yards leader Danny Gray is currently a San Francisco 49er. And tight end Grant Calcaterra, one of the four corps members of the receiving corps, is also fulfilling his professional dreams after getting drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round.
Thus, plenty of vacancies open up in the offense Casey Woods inherited. Luckily for him and Mordecai, SMU retains its 2021 receptions leader in Rashee Rice, who caught 64 passes — 13 more than any Mustang. After consecutive 650+ yard seasons, Rice is suited to serve as the clear No. 1 option in an aerial attack which ranked 14th nationally last year.
Three receivers who snagged between 12 and 17 receptions should complement Rice in a rotating receiving corps. Those options are true sophomores Roderick Daniels Jr. and Dylan Goffney, as well former Arizona State transfer Jordan Kerley. Speaking of transfers, SMU loaded up on a litany of those to bolster depth including Moochie Dixon from Texas, Teddy Knox from Mississippi State, and Jake Bailey who was Rice’s leading receiver in 2021.
But the transfer expected to receive the most in-game reps is likely starter Beau Corrales. The former Tar Heel registered 18 starts and 1,176 yards at North Carolina, but missed nearly the entirety of last season due to injury. As a 6’3” option with a reliable set of hands, he’ll play a similar role to the one Calcaterra previously held in the receiving game.
SMU’s offensive line was one of the more underrated units last year, finishing 17th in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed per game — which is very impressive considering the offense’s proclivity for passing often. However, the line lost its lone All-AAC selection in Alan Ali. The group still returns four members who started at least half of the Mustangs games in 2021, including left tackle Jaylon Thomas and right guard Justin Osborne who have been full-time starters for multiple seasons. Branson Hickman is set to claim the center position after recording seven starts last year, while the 6’8”, 315 pound Marcus Bryant is the likely option at right tackle with seven starts under his belt in two years at SMU.
Rounding out the five in the trenches could be one of three guards — incumbent reserves Cameron Ervin and Ben Sparks, as well as Virginia transfer Joe Bissinger. Bissinger’s starting experience reigns supreme of the three, appearing in the lineup seven teams during his playing days in the ACC.
Even during SMU’s recent resurgence, defense has never been at the forefront of the team’s success. The last time the Mustangs ranked better than 75th nationally in scoring defense was 2012 in the midst of the June Jones era.
Last year’s team continued the trend of fielding a stellar offense combined with a pedestrian defense, as SMU surrendered 28.4 points per game. The team finished 87th in scoring defense and 94th in yards allowed.
Many of the Mustangs’ defensive issues were associated with the secondary. Only five FBS teams yielded more average yards through the air than SMU’s 278. The unraveling of the pass defense certainly caused SMU’s free-fall after a 7-0 start. In the two games following that perfect start at Houston and Memphis, the Mustangs allowed back-to-back 400-yard performances to opposing quarterbacks and consequently dropped both contests in narrow fashion.
The secondary will play a major role in defining the Mustangs’ success in 2022. The starting cornerbacks from last year, Bryce McMorris and Jahari Rogers (the reigning team leader in pass breakups), both upgrade to sophomore status after getting their initial tastes of every-down experience in 2021. Ar’mani Johnson will also provide ample support in sets that require more defensive backs, accruing 15 tackles while making three starts last year.
SMU certainly has a slew of names to choose from when selecting the other three starters in the revamped defensive backfield. Chace Cromartie comes with the most in-house experience, compiling 17 starts and 86 tackles over the last two seasons. The team also fields veteran talent in Brandon Crossley and Bryan Massey, two well-tenured members looking to expand their impact on defense.
Other options in these safety and nickel roles include Isaiah Nwokobia, who tied for the team-lead with two interceptions as a true freshman. And similar to most positions, SMU consulted the transfer portal for a defensive back and received an impressive acquisition by landing Chris Adimora. In 2020, Adimora started all 10 games for a ranked Texas squad, securing 41 tackles and a 71-yard interception return in a thrilling overtime victory over Texas Tech. With a litany of defensive backs vying for playing time, expect these players to routinely rotate in and out on the game depending on matchups, scheme, situation, or fatigue.
The strength of the SMU defense lies within the front seven, and more specifically, the defensive line. This is where some of the premier pass rushers in the AAC reside. Defensive tackle DeVere Levelston led the group in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (6.5) after a tremendous breakout campaign, and if his progression continues, All-AAC honors are within striking distance. Serving alongside Levelston is backfield menace Elijah Chatman. The senior registered 40 tackles and nine tackles for loss in 2021 and his résumé also features four forced fumbles since 2020.
Turner Coxe is one of the Mustangs’ longest tenured members, first appearing on campus during Chad Morris’ final season at the helm in 2017. The Highland Park native exhibits a stacked career stat-line, featuring 126 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, and most impressively, seven forced fumbles. As evidenced by the production of Chatman and Coxe, SMU had a knack for jarring the ball loose last season — however, 11 forced fumbles led to just four fumble recoveries — so improving the turnover margin is an area of focus for 2022.
Other names of note on the d-line are nose tackle Terrance Newman, who is shaping up to step into the starting nose tackle role for the first time, and Gary Wiley, an edge rusher who has received significant utilization off the bench since 2018, ranking among the top four in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks last season.
In the linebacking corps, Isaac Slade-Matautia takes center stage. Slade-Matautia is set to fulfill an important leadership role at outside linebacker without the presence of Delano Robinson, SMU’s leading tackler from the prior year. Slade-Matautia, originally an Oregon Duck, fit in smoothly in the first year on his new campus. He obtained 31 tackles and captured two interceptions, demonstrating his ability to thrive in coverage — an aspect of his game which was on full display when starting all 21 of Oregon’s games from 2020 to 2021.
Slaude-Matautia switched his status this offseason to becoming an incumbent member of the group, but a marginal amount of the linebacking corps consists of new transfers. Shanon Reid enters the program after previous destinations of Tennessee and FCS school Illinois State. Also, JaQwondis Burns traded in the Minnesota maroon and gold for Mustang red and blue after recording three tackles and a sack in limited action as a Gopher. Finally, the most experienced of the linebacker transfers at the FBS level is Kamryn Farrar, who logged 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2021 as a member of Oklahoma State’s fifth-ranked rushing defense.
Those incoming linebackers may be competing for one starting spot at the MIKE position, as Slade-Matautia and Jimmy Phillips Jr. likely have a stranglehold on the other spots. Phillips approaches his fifth season on the roster, looking to capitalize on his 60-tackle performance from last year, which ranked second on the team.
SMU indeed has a claim to the best player in college football at one position. That position is kick returner, where Bryan Massey intimidates special teams coaches with his presence. Massey ranked second in kick return average (34.3 yards per return) and fifth in total yardage last season, and he tied for second in the FBS by running back two touchdowns. Given his explosive ability with the ball in his hands, kicking away from No. 0 may become a common staple in opponents’ special teams strategies.
Massey isn’t known to field punts, however. That role was reserved for Jordan Kerley in 2021, and as a returning member of the roster, Kerley should expect to maintain that status in 2022 after generating a respectable average of 8.7 yards per return.
Punting will unquestionably be handled by sophomore Brendan Hall, but the player responsible for kicking duties is more of a question. Hall — who sunk one extra point last fall and missed his lone field goal attempt — could step into that role, but the prime candidate is true freshman Collin Rogers. The 6’4” kicker was a heralded prospect at his position, and he wound up in Dallas after holding offers from Georgia, Florida State, Ole Miss, and Army.
SMU Mustangs 2022 Schedule
|1||Sat, Sept. 3||@ North Texas||W, 35-12|
|2||Sat, Sept. 10||vs. Lamar (FCS)||N/A|
|3||Sat, Sept. 17||@ Maryland||N/A|
|4||Sat, Sept. 24||vs. TCU||W, 42-34|
|5||Sat, Oct. 1||@ UCF||W, 55-28|
|6||Sat, Oct. 8||BYE||N/A|
|7||Fri, Oct. 14||vs. Navy||W, 31-24|
|8||Sat, Oct. 22||vs. Cincinnati||L, 48-14|
|9||Sat, Oct. 29||@ Tulsa||L, 34-31|
|10||Sat, Nov. 5||vs. Houston||L, 44-37|
|11||Sat, Nov. 12||@ South Florida||W, 41-17|
|12||Thu, Nov. 17||@ Tulane||W, 55-26|
|13||Sat, Nov. 26||vs. Memphis||L, 28-25|
|14||Sat, Dec. 3||AAC Championship Game*||N/A|
SMU is known for scorching starts, jumping out to 5-0 or better in each of the last three seasons. So, an interesting aspect about SMU’s schedule is that the Mustangs don’t face an opponent that defeated them last year until they host Cincinnati on Oct. 22.
The only unfamiliar FBS opponent appearing on the 2022 docket is Maryland, a team SMU has not played since 1962. That game signifies the only time the Mustangs will leave the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex during non-conference play, as their only other road game occurs at North Texas, roughly 40 miles northwest of campus.
The annual highlight of SMU’s non-conference schedule is the battle for the Iron Skillet against crosstown rival TCU. The Skillet has been property of SMU for three years running, as the Mustangs bested TCU in high-scoring fashion in 2019 and 2021 alike. In the 2020 COVID-19-riddled season, the matchup did not transpire, so SMU has enjoyed extended time with the beloved frying pan.
Conference play commences with an early-October trip to the Bounce House, where Rhett Lashlee will face his former mentor in Gus Malzahn. A bye week divides the UCF game from the rest of the non-conference slate, and SMU returns home for back-to-back games against Navy and Cincinnati — eyeing revenge on the Bearcats after a brutal beatdown at Nippert Stadium last November.
Tulsa, which bested SMU in the Mustangs’ most recent outing and in six of the last eight seasons, looms next on the schedule to close October. To open college football’s pivotal month of November, SMU hosts Houston — the same program which spoiled the Mustangs’ undefeated run in 2021. Houston was voted the AAC preseason favorite at the conference’s media day, but after battling the Cougars, the schedule smooths out toward the end.
Not one of SMU’s final three opponents finished above .500 in 2021, so the three-game slate of South Florida, Tulane, and Memphis provides the Mustangs an opportunity to finish much stronger than they have in recent history. By dominating this stretch, a successful season could result in the team’s first AAC Championship Game appearance in the first week of December. Breaking the conference championship drought is certainly one goal, but that isn’t the only streak that needs to be snapped. SMU has not hoisted bowl hardware since 2012 and after facing bowl cancelations in consecutive seasons, the 2022 Mustangs are hungrier than ever for the postseason.