North Texas vs SMU Preview 2020

How many of you call this the Safeway Bowl? I was an undergrad at North Texas in 2006 when NT beat SMU and was there in that moment. No one really used the “Safeway Bowl” moniker until the last couple of years. In 2007 the stands were not filled too much. The next time when we went to University Park, Todd Dodge had his guys throw for record yardage, the stands were roughly equally greend and red. I have photographic evidence.

Here are some pictures from that time:

For people of a certain age and geographic origin (Read: about 50 years old and from Dallas) playing SMU is a bigger deal than it is to anyone else. Do not feel bad if you do not have supreme sports hate for this team.

I was not alive when the Pony Express was in its heyday and SMU won all those games by cheating. They got the death penalty for their blatant disregard for the rules and now they exist in a pseudo state of relevance. Older, influential (monied) people still remember that but that will fade.

Sonny Dykes said he grew up a fan of the Ponies in the 1980s, and that is partly why he took the gig there. This Dykes-Bueuchele renaissance is just the latest in a series of the same. SMU is always on the verge of “being back” since it received the death penalty in in 1987.

I mentioned 2006-7 seasons earlier. The first incarnation of the NT-SMU series was during the Phil Bennett years, where a 6-win season was the first sign that the Ponies were back 1. In the 2000s, SMU has been to 6 bowl games while North Texas has been to 8. In the last decade, each has had three coaches and some success in between some poor seasons. I do not think they are back.

Since this series became a regular matchup, SMU is 4-2 against NT with each of their losses coming in Denton, and in handy fashion. In fact, all-time SMU is 1-4 in Denton.

A quick history of the recent series:

Danny Mac put the finishing touches on the June Jones regime in a 43-6 affair. 2

NT vs SMU 2014

In 2015, Danny Mac sealed his fate with a conservative offense with a 31-13 loss in a winnable game vs Chad Morris at SMU. Seth Littrell’s (and Mason Fine’s) debut in 2016 saw a 34-21 loss, that was a little closer than the score reflected. In 2017, NT was blown out 54-32 in a game wherein we saw the seeds of the Ruffett demise being sown. No pass rush, DBs getting beat against superior talent. But there were things to like. NT was close to being a good team than the score indicated.

In 2018, NT blew out SMU 46-23 in a game where Mason Fine was at the peak of his powers and the defense was better than expected. NT hounded SMU and only allowed some late-game scoring that made this closer than the score suggests.

Last year, NT was demolished 49-27 in the season where Seth Littrell decided that Bodie Reeder was not aggressive enough 3 and that Reffett’s scheme was a once-every-four-year thing.

So we are here. Sonny Dykes is coming off a top-15 season, a 10-win season — the first since 1984. They have the frame of a good team — Buechele and Roberson are a lethal combination but Shane will throw an interception. He threw ten last season and 11 in his freshman season at Texas. Both are the only seasons where he put up 391+ passes. More on this later.

Texas State gave SMU a scare, and Houston Baptist was a warm-up for North Texas. There are positives and negatives to each type of matchup for each team and neither option will be “proven” by this week’s result. North Texas being early in their scheme development defensively and early in the Bean-as-starter era means that NT may have needed a warm-up game against an FCS squad. Originally, they had planned to come into this game off a trip to College Station and Texas A&M.

Again, nothing you knew about college football is necessary true in this pandemic season.

NT and SMU are still scheduled to go forward, even though two people in the NT athletic department have “active” cases.

North Texas Defense vs SMU Offense

The big concern last week was the defense allowing so many pass yards. I wrote in the recap that this was likely, considering that the HBU QB was an experienced, quality guy, that was not going to be fooled by simple stuff, and was going to recognize the weaknesses in a defense.

Also, consider that HBU threw for 572 and 4 scores against Texas Tech this last weekend.

NT was split open by some quality plays. The defense, in general, looked a bit tentative and that is always an issue on that side of the ball. The bad news is that the Ponies will have a quality, experienced quarterback coached by an offensive mastermind. NT can expect to get sliced up. The break will have allowed NT more repetitions, but nothing beats game experience. Expect multiple first-quarter touchdowns by the SMUs.

The depth chart — as of this writing — lists the usual suspects but without Joe Ozwugwu — who is opting out of the season and entered the transfer portal.

PositionNoNameClassStarts (this year)
END93Caleb ColvinRsSR1/1
NOSE97Dion NovilSR1/1
END2Davontae McCraeRsSo1/1
SAM30Larry Nixon IIIRsSo1/1
WILL5Tyreke DavisSr1/1
MIKE23KD DavisJr1/1
FS11Cam JohnsonSr1/1
LC17DeShawn GaddieSo1/1
HAWK10Makyle SandersSr1/1
BS22Keelen CrosbyRsSo1/1
RC24Quinn WhitlockRSJr1/1
Starters

The main difference from this depth chart and the one listed before HBU is that the names of the positions are different. In the preview we pointed out this oddity and discussed how Makyle Sanders was not really a SAM. That is true, and Larry Nixon is the SAM. In the game, Nixon was playing close to the line more often, but NT was sitting back in a shell so he was asked to drop into coverage more.

Seam Route

I mentioned the above in the game recap,

It’s an easy enough mistake to make early in the season and early in the scheme. HBU motioned their back from right to left, and you can see Larry Nixon signal to his teammates that he was taking responsibility for the motioning back. Typically, the safety is responsible for all vertical routes from the “#2” receiver. That would be the TE Alfaro in this case. It looks as if Gibbs read the back as being the 2nd guy and that is how you get busted coverage.

We don’t know the actual rule or coverage they were running, but obviously, leaving a guy to run unchecked is not anyone’s idea of good defense.

The more concerning issue is getting beat straight up like this:

Slant route on 3rd down

Everyone gets beat occasionally, but this is the type of beat that you simply cannot have if you expect to stop the pass. He is beat off the line, and allows the receiver to cross his face. Once the catch is made, he is beat in the footrace and were it not for a pulled hammy — calf? — that could have been six. Roberson at SMU will definitely score on this kind of thing.

It reminded me of this mess:

Sutton with some YAC

Both programs want to make themselves the team for the city of Dallas and because of that history I mentioned, SMU can more often convince a donor, or a television sports personality who only vaguely remembers any of the Pony Express story, to get hyped about SMU. This game and this season’s performance go a long way toward convincing players who can make take a 10-yard dig and go 50 additional yards to come to their program.

SMU has offensive talent in their program right now. NT’s defensive talent is still thinking too much. This will be a challenge.

I mentioned Shane Buechele and his tendency to throw interceptions earlier. His splits last season saw him throw four of his ten on the road (against only 12 scores). At home he threw 5 INTs vs 21 TDs. In case you think it is a talent thing, he threw three interceptions against Sun Belt competition, and one against CUSA squads (1 against FAU).

Leaders

The keys, as always, are being solid on first and second down and getting off the field on third. We still do not know how Bowen will call a game, whereas we knew how Reffett would approach things. Bowen seems content to mix it up on passing downs, bringing some pressure but also flooding the zone with defenders, putting the outcome in the opposing quarterback’s hands.

NT will be less vanilla, and it will be extremely interesting to see what this defense looks like when it is not playing the crazy-good HBU offense. That team is dangerous and SMU, while good, presents a much different challenge.

NT Offense vs SMU Defense

I liked what I saw from Jason Bean. He was decisive, accurate, and showed off some mobility (which we knew he had). The game plan against HBU was limited, having Bean go out and execute the base offense. It worked, NT scored three-straight and the one blemish on Bean’s report card is that he threw an interception. No one likes interceptions, but I think playing not to lose is worse than trying to win.

I will take the occasional interception if the right read is there — it looked like it was. I would rather lose because of a talent disparity, not because NT did not know the offense.

One man route

North Texas has added some Briles-y features to the offense. On this week’s podcast I mentioned the concept of a one-man route — where Briles would have the receivers kind of shuffle-step and stop. The whole play was going to be a one-man route to your best receiver. Above, you can see an example of NT running this concept. Everyone kind of jogs, and the entire play-design is designed to keep everyone away from Shorter. He dropped this one, but this is going to be a frequent occurrence.

Bean was able to find his guys in stride, with little issue. Check this beauty to Darden on the seam.

No help. TD

HBU left a lot of one-on-one coverage for Bean to pick on. It was strange, but perhaps they felt that bringing pressure and keeping more bodies at the line they could both speed up Bean’s decision-making and stop the run.

If SMU decides they want to sit back and let the coverage do the defending — as they did at times against SMU, I will be happy to see it. In this early game situation, SMU was sliced up by this draw play. If you want to give any of the North Texas backs that much room to run, I will take it all day.

Please, allow Torrey this much room

One caveat in our analysis is Texas State is a weird little beast like HBU was. The Bobcats are coached by a Holgerson-Leach disciple in Jake Spavital, and they do a lot of what NT does. Each coach, of course, puts their own flavor on the scheme and adapts it to their players. There are few “decided schematic advantages” in the game. They have played great and one game against a tough little opponent does not necessarily tell us the entire story.

A note about scheme: All scheme is supposed to do is to put you in advantageous positions to execute. You create mismatches, putting your fast guy against a slow guy, or with your size against their tiny person. From snap-to-whistle, however, the game is in the moment. Sometimes the ball slips, a foot steps wrongly, the laces are out, or any number of things that will foil your plans will happen.

That is the other part of coaching. In the season preview we noted that telling a player where to stand is not the difficult part. Getting 11 dudes thinking of the same solution when they encounter a scenario is the golden vision of defense. It is partly why a coach gets super hyped over a tackle at three-yards. He saw his players read the game and make the right decision in unison. It’s thrilling. 4

Concluding Thoughts

Let this serve as a TL;DR 5

NT Offense vs SMU Defense: We think we can move the ball well but the real challenge will be when NT has to do veteran QB things. Can Bean (or Aune) execute a check on a play to get out of a bad situation (or into a better one) or find the fourth option on a play?

NT Defense vs SMU Offense: This will be a bit of a struggle on third down, and in late game situations. Once SMU adjusts to whatever NT has schemed up to start, can NT adjust? Can NT adjust to anything without overloading their brains, which are trying to absorb the new scheme?

The answer to this is that NT will probably come up short on both ends. If NT pulls this one out it will be because of a big lead early and some self-inflicted wounds by SMU. I am bullish on the defense, and was pleasantly surprised at some aspects of the offense. Seth Littrell’s teams have always been able to move the ball and score 30 on average but have not been able to get that final yard or that final score when it counts.

Now that Littrell has full control of the offense, as Aldo said on this week’s podcast “we don’t have to break in a new play-caller” and that may help the team just enough to be explosive and keep up in a score-fest.

Terrible Prediction: NT 27 SMU 41


  1. Up to that 2006 season in which the Ponies won 6 games, the previous 6-win season was in 1997 under Mike Cavan

  2. The game should have been a shut-out, but SMU managed an ugly doesn’t-matter TD late. This was a 43-0 for a long while on a super hot day

  3. I wrote aggression so many times in that link

  4. I realize this could seem like I know what it is like to coach a D-1 program. Of course I do not. I have, however, coached various people at various things and the thrill of helping them along their journey is a thrill no matter what.

  5. That is too long; didn’t read