With all due respect to Abilene Christian, the real season begins this week against SMU. Yes, the Ponies opened as 4-point favorites in something of a condemnation of the North Texas defense and a little faith in the Sonny Dykes rebuilding project.
If for some reason you have not noticed, Southern Methodist has been about as good (and bad) as North Texas since about 1996. From this year’s preview:
Southern Methodist is storied but those who like to tell those stories are getting closer to retirement. The Ponies have not been nationally relevant since the late 1980s. Since 1996, SMU is only 101–174 with five bowl appearances (3–2). North Texas over that same span is 105–172 with eight bowl appearances (2–6)”2019 MGN Season Preview
Sonny Dykes is doing some Air Raid things on the Hilltop with some famous people to boot. He has former Longhorn QB Shane Beuchele to throw the passes, the dangerous James Proche to catch them, and Xavier Jones to tote the ball in the run game.
North Texas did not perform well defensively vs ACU, but the offense was humming. The Bodie Reeder attack has more RPOs and more tempo, and Mason Fine still may be the best QB in the state.
SMU is favored by 4 points as of last Sunday, but that means little. Head coach Sonny Dykes said the Ponies will have their “hands full” with NT and the same is true the other way. Talent should always be respectfully feared, and that is what coaches mean when they spout those clichés about preparing the right way.
Last year’s blowout win was a bit surprising. NT caught SMU unready and proceeded to hand them a thorough beat down, before Ben Hicks and company managed some points in the fourth quarter.
On a given day, anyone can beat anyone and blowouts are just a couple of plays away. North Texas came out with a vengeance and the Ponies were perhaps still reeling from Chad Morris’ departure and still adjusting to the new program.
The Ponies struggled against Arkansas State, which is understandable as the Wolves are one of the SunBelt’s best. North Texas struggled to keep the score a complete blowout vs Abilene Christian. We can learn a couple of things from that note: Neither team is complete at this point.
If you want to look to conventional football wisdom, the week 2 improvement is the greatest jump a team can make — that according to ODU’s Bobby Wilder. The truth is that it all depends on the team and the type of humans on the team and the potential they have.
North Texas is about as good as it can get on offense. There are some limitations in the run game and in protecting Mason Fine, but the QB is a 4th-year starter, three of the top four wideouts have had two or three years of playing time and all three backs have started games.
They have started slowly and quickly and everything between. Defensively, there is much improving to do. With so many moving parts we are likely to see progression and regression in various aspects each day. There is little reason to be upset about this, as this is what happens in college football. There is talent on the team, and that was evident, but there is talent on this SMU squad and they have experienced coaches that will look to exploit that inexperience.
We should prepare to see some blown coverages and mistakes throughout the game for the Mean Green defense. Nick Harvey was picked on last week, and we might see more of that. NT will be vulnerable in that department but did well to get into the ACU QB’s face.
We might see some personnel chances to get to the QB quicker. We might also see a less vanilla scheme given the opponent quality.
SMU will try to get to Mason Fine and bring heavy pressure to do so. There will pressure on each of the pass-catchers to beat their coverage and get open. It seems simple, but it is an imperative in a spread offense for everyone to beat their man in space. The up-tempo game NT wants to play will not work without an initial first down.
Fine is supposed to be going for broke a little more often, and so we might see a little more of that aggressive down-field game. That could result in interceptions, but again, North Texas’ best group is the offense and going all-in on that is the way to win.
Bussey was held out the rest of the game after hurting himself last week. When he is good to go, he is dangerous and this offense has enough of a vertical threat to operate. When he is gone? Well, that is where NT struggles. Last year vs UAB and UTSA, there were some questions. Jyaire Shorter and Deion Hair-Griffin (DHG) did not overly impress in the pass game last week.
Mike Lawrence had a drop, but ran some nice routes. Jaelon Darden had a ton of grabs, but did not break one. If Bussey cannot go, or is limited, look for Darden to be the deep threat as he was against Arkansas last year.
All of the prognosticators have this as a close one, with SMU getting a lot of love. They are at home, even if that is just down the way from Denton, and are in year-two of a rebuilding process. There are some nice transfers on the Hilltop, including Shane Buechele, former Texas QB.
There has been enough written about the kid for an internet search to help you get a feel for his game, but I will say this: Ben Hicks was a nice QB for SMU last year and is now at Arkansas. NT handled him well in all the times he was not throwing to NFL wideouts.
That is to say that NT should not be scared of Shane but continue to have a healthy respect for the offense and what it can do. Sonny Dykes’ teams have always been able to put up big offensive numbers and we should not freak out if they are able to score.
It is a test, but NT is further along in the process but has a shaky, young defense. SMU is talented and at home but is still putting it all together.
NT 44 SMU 38