The last time the Houston Cougars had a Thursday night game, I punted on the idea of even doing an opponent preview thing. It’s probably better that one less written record of UH and Tulane ever playing in the 2019 football season exists.
Because I’m a sucker for alliteration and the time I have for this is kind of pinched, I’ve trimmed the usual 5 item format down a bit for our short week opponent.
No sentence gives me less joy to write than this: through 7 games the SMU Mustangs look like a good football team. The Ponies haven’t scored less than 37 points in any game this season. After week 1 they haven’t scored under 40, a point total UH has only reached one (UNT) and that was with the help of 2 return TDs. Tonight’s game is a daunting task.
This isn’t to say an upset is out of the question though. In 2 of the last 3 games in this series we’ve seen a team who was a well into double digit underdog (specifically, SMU) win decisively. Spoiling SMU’s season would be the kind of proof of concept that this new coaching staff would love to have after a tough season to date.
1.) The Pony Sh-avior
I'll preface this thing by saying the section title is somewhat cribbed from a recurring bit my favorite general college football podcast from 2013-17 (The Solid Verbal) did in the 2016 season.
The moment I believed SMU might have something in 2019 was when it became official Shane Buechele's grad transfer destination would be SMU. Even before Buechele's official arrival the Ponies had an intriguing collection of returning talent. Receivers James Proche and Reggie Roberson Jr had the potential to be the league's best receiver tandem and with Buechele have realized that potential.
Even though Buechele isn't a dual threat QB by any stretch, just the fact he's given the Ponies a credible passing attack has allowed Xavier Jones and Ke'Mon Freeman to recapture their 2017 form and spearhead a lethal rushing attack through 7 games. These are the kinds of ripple effects you have from a good QB who fits an offensive scheme well.
It has been quite the journey for Buechele since a standout prep career at Lamar High in nearby Arlington earned him a scholarship offer from the Texas Longhorns. He every game of the Longhorns' 2016 season, setting the program record for passing yards by a freshman and also seeing his head coach Charlie Strong fired after the season. The arrival of highly-touted Austin recruit Sam Ehlinger meant Buechele split time as the starter in 2017 and lost the job to Ehlinger prior to last season. Because he appeared in only 2 Longhorn games last year, Buechele was able to redshirt in 2018 and join SMU as a grad transfer and 4th year junior.
So far in Buechele's 7 game SMU career he's thrown for 2,122 yards and 18 passing TDs. He is completing over 64% of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt, and despite the vertical and pass happy nature of the offense is only throwing an interception about every 42 passes. He has just about the most ideal combination of learned experience and natural ability.
2.) D(FW)iaspora & Winning the Transfer Game
Buechele's arrival is part of another larger positive trend with the SMU football program: players from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex transferring back home.
Reggie Roberson Jr started his career playing for Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, but transferred closer to his hometown of DeSoto and joined SMU last year.
Some other Metroplex products who prepped in the and came back home are: DT Zach Abercrumbia (Dallas Skyline/Rice), OL Thomas Shelmire (Highland Park/Boston College), CB Chevin Calloway (Bishop Dunne/Arkansas), S Cam'ron Jones (Mansfield/Nebraska), DE Gerrit Choate (Parish Episcopal/Utah), DB Brandon Stephens (Plano/UCLA) and OL Charlie Flores (Ft. Worth All Saints/Columbia).
One-time Cedar Hill product and Texas A&M transfer Richard Moore was supposed to play a major role on the Pony defense, but suffered a season ending knee injury earlier this season.
Beyond the already mentioned glut of local kids coming back home, Sonny Dykes and his staff have done well with a few decidedly not local transfers as well. Patrick Nelson, a Chicago kid who took a well-trod path to Illinois, has been one of the Pony defense's most critical players the last 2 seasons as a safety and linebacker. Richard McBryde, an Auburn grad transfer, along with Nelson has been one of the team's top tacklers and critical in the absence of Moore.
Cougar fans can take heart at the idea of a team with a healthy amount of transfers taking off in a staff's 2nd year as the majority of us look towards 2020.
3.) Sonny Dykes vs. Defense
Sonny Dykes is now the head coach at his 3rd different college and at least in short bursts has achieved above expectations at Louisiana Tech, Cal and now SMU. He has done this in spite of the teams he's coached mostly being awful at defense.
In any way you slice the numbers, La Tech and Cal mostly won *in spite* of their defenses. In Dykes' finally year at Tech (2012) the Bulldogs led the country in points/game (51.5) but were the 6th worst team nationally in points/game allowed (38.5). It didn't get any better at Cal and in 2 of Dykes' 4 seasons (2013, 2016) they were the 2nd worst team in the country in points/game allowed. There are other ugly stats I could cite, but I think you get the idea.
However, Dykes' first season at SMU may have been the beginning of a trend breaking. The surface level numbers weren't anything special, but the Pony defense allowed 30 or fewer points in 5 of their last 6 games (UH scored 31 points vs SMU, but 7 were from an interception return TD).
You won't confuse SMU for the 1985 Chicago Bears, but they're a solid defense that isn't simply being dragged along for the ride to 7-0 by a great offense. Pony defensive coordinator Kevin Kane, a Kansas alum from their 2007 Orange Bowl team, is one of the most promising young defensive minds in the sport. Cougar fans will remember how Kane's various 5-6 defensive back looks flummoxed Kendal Briles and shut down what had looked like an unstoppable offense.
This won't be one of the best 2 or 3 defenses UH faces in 2019, but they're more than capable of shutting down the Coogs if they play like they did up in Connecticut.