- Time and date: Saturday, September 2 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX
- Spread: SMU (-20)
- Over/under: 66.5
- All-time series: Louisiana Tech leads, 4-2
- Last meeting: Louisiana Tech 39, SMU 37 — September 18, 2021
- Current streak: SMU, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
One team has a data point already; the other does not.
Louisiana Tech is tied for the best record in America after upending FIU on a game-winning drive to conclude Week 0’s nightcap. The Bulldogs carry that 1-0 record into Dallas, where they’ll hope for a different result against SMU after falling on a heartbreaking Hail Mary just two years prior. Meanwhile, the Mustangs launch their second season under head coach Rhett Lashlee at their home in Gerald J. Ford Stadium — which takes on a new look in 2023 after $100 million facility upgrades commenced last December.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs outlook
A win is a win, especially in conference play, but last Saturday’s matchup against FIU didn’t exactly transpire in desired fashion for Louisiana Tech. The Panthers attained just four passing yards and were outgained 447-182 by the Bulldogs, yet Louisiana Tech found itself trailing when igniting its final possession with under 2:30 to go.
Still, the mission was complete. Boise State transfer quarterback Hank Bachmeier showed tremendous poise in his Louisiana Tech debut, firing for 333 yards and a touchdown as the conductor of the game-winning drive. Bachmeier, who didn’t eclipse the 300-yard threshold too often in Boise, looks like a more ideal fit for Sonny Cumbie’s offense which prefers to attack the air often. In his 30th collegiate start, the fifth-year quarterback attempted the third-most passes of his career at 44.
This strategy could work well for the Bulldogs as they exhibit excellent wide receiver talent. Smoke Harris has been a program staple since 2018, but the sixth-year senior just reset his career-high in receptions with 11 last weekend. Harris is the current FBS leader with 155 receiving yards, and he’ll look to sustain that production working alongside his new facilitator. Additionally, wide receiver Cyrus Allen is capable of manufacturing an explosive play at any moment. Allen caught five balls for 48 yards in Week 0, but as a true freshman in 2022, he posted 500 receiving yards on 22.7 yards per reception — proving his tremendous downfield speed and home run-hitting ability.
So how was Louisiana Tech limited to 22 points to FIU with all this aerial talent? One interception and two missed field goals diverted some drives, but there was an inability to establish anything on the ground. Starting running back Marquis Crosby missed the opener with an injury, and if he remains out, the Bulldogs will rely on the tandem of Charvis Thornton and Keith Willis Jr. Louisiana Tech averaged 2.9 yards per rush last week and was subject to eight tackles for loss — which could be concerning considering the talent of SMU’s defensive line.
Conversely, the Bulldogs’ defense was money against the Panthers. To reiterate, they only surrendered four passing yards, forcing FIU to a 5-of-14 performance through the air. The Panthers flew out of the gate to a 14-0 lead, but one touchdown was a 67-yard breakaway run and the other stemmed from a drive which featured more penalty yardage than offensive yardage. In summary, Louisiana Tech didn’t allow a sustained touchdown drive all game and the unit responded to those early miscues by pitching a second half shutout.
The most essential defender against a pass-heavy SMU squad will be cornerback Willie Roberts, who was responsible for the Bulldogs’ lone pass breakup against FIU. Roberts was one of the chief ballhawks in the CUSA last year, acquiring four interceptions and breaking up six passes in his first season after transferring from Stephen F. Austin. Another Stephen F. Austin transfer slated for a significant role Saturday is Myles Heard, who tied for the team-high with nine tackles in his FBS debut.
Louisiana Tech needs increased penetration in order for the coverage to thrive to the best of its ability, and after producing two sacks last week, the Bulldogs hope for a stronger showing in the trenches from J’Dan Burnett, Mykol Clark, and the defensive line.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU has marinated somewhere between decent and good over the past four seasons, and the Mustangs hope to break through that ceiling and claim new accomplishments — such as their first end-of-year ranking since 1984 and first AAC Championship Game appearance ever. Rhett Lashlee enters year two as head coach, and the offensive guru will finally unleash the player SMU faithful has waited years for.
Preston Stone is the highest-rated recruit in SMU history. The four-star quarterback committed in January 2020 and arrived on campus in 2021, but sat two seasons under the talented Tanner Mordecai — who departed to Wisconsin after attaining All-AAC status in 2021. Stone saw fractions of playing time in his redshirt freshman season, completing 28-of-48 passes for 388 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The Dallas native also showcased his mobility with 63 yards on the ground and a pair of rushing touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry net of sacks.
Stone’s preparedness in his first year as a starter will be a significant factor determining how SMU shapes up in 2023. The Mustangs have been highly-reliant on excellent quarterback play the past four years, and Stone is gifted with a more-than-manageable schedule to operate with in his first season as the offensive centerpiece.
One valuable component Stone won’t enjoy is the presence of wide receiver Rashee Rice. Rice ranked fifth in the FBS in receptions and third in receiving yards last year, serving as the overwhelming go-to target for Mordecai. Without the First Team All-AAC selection in the room, SMU must see one or more receivers emerge into that echelon. Jordan Kerley should be the main option after amassing 588 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2022, but Moochie Dixon, Jake Bailey, and Roderick Daniels Jr. all added at least 20 catches and 240 yards as tertiary options. So the talent remains deep, and even tight end RJ Maryland should play a pivotal role in Lashlee’s offense after corralling 28 receptions and six touchdowns a year ago.
While last year’s rushing leader Tyler Lavine returns, he is no longer listed atop the depth chart. Lashlee reunites with his former running back Jaylan Knighton after spending time together at Miami (FL) in 2020 and 2021. Knighton produced over 400 rushing yards on 5.4 yards per carry in his final season with the Hurricanes and he operated as a receiver quite frequently — making him an ideal fit in Dallas. But Lavine is certainly a formidable second fiddle behind the Miami transfer after registering 642 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2022.
There is usually a stark contrast in SMU’s offensive and defensive numbers. In 2022, the scoring offense ranked 12th and the scoring defense ranked 119th. Those respective numbers were 10th and 87th in 2021, 15th and 75th in 2020, and 7th and 110th in 2019. Such defensive lapses have prevented the Mustangs from crashing the AAC Championship Game despite rampant offensive success over the years.
SMU addressed this over the offseason, bringing in seven transfers who are listed atop the depth chart for the opener. Incumbent pieces like defensive tackle Elijah Chatman and edge rusher Nelson Paul provide plenty of valuable skills in the trenches, but SMU needed assistance elsewhere on the unit, especially at cornerback. Chris Megginson arrives from Liberty after 33 starts, 98 tackles, and 14 pass breakups, while Charles Woods occupies the other boundary after transferring in from West Virginia, where he earned seven starts.
Kobe Wilson (Temple) and Ahmad Walker (Liberty) are among veteran linebackers transfers with heaps of starting experience, hoping to improve a 120th ranked rushing defense, while Miami (FL) transfers Elijah Roberts and Jordan Miller add massive size and strength to the defensive line. Rounding out the transfer starters is free safety Jonathan McGill, who served as a team captain at Stanford last season and even claimed Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Based on the teams’ 2022 numbers, this one is shaping up for higher-scoring territory. However, the new accelerated clock rules may limit the offensive output when compared to what it would have been under the old system.
Louisiana Tech has the advantage of in-season experience, while SMU is making its 2023 debut. The Bulldogs provided a scare as underdogs in the prior meeting and nearly left victorious, if not for a miracle Hail Mary by the Mustangs. There’s a lot to like about Louisiana Tech’s Hank Bachmeier-led offense with two stellar receiving threats. And although the opponent was FIU, the defense showed tremendous poise in the second half, recording stop after stop to give the offense chances to win the game.
SMU will be another animal offensively though. There may be a growing period with Preston Stone as the starter, but he has a bevy of talent at the skill positions and the Mustangs can keep their traditionally pass-heavy offense more balanced, thanks to increased running back depth with the arrival of Jaylan Knighton. Run defense is the Bulldogs’ greatest heel, so expect SMU to target the ground more often than usual in order to secure a season-opening victory at home.
Prediction: SMU 34, Louisiana Tech 29