It is game day. This is one of the more anticipated seasons in North Texas Football history, one over a hundred years old. The expectations are high and the competition is beatable. The opponent today is a rival and very beatable. SMU vs NT is not Michigan-Notre Dame for a lot of reasons, but it does bring some local fire and this is a good matchup of G5 schools.
One one side — the good side — is the Mean Green and the explosive offense led by Mason Fine and organized by Graham Harrell and Seth Littrell. On the visitor –bad– side is Sonny Dykes, son of a legendary head coach and the man who helped teach Graham and Seth all they know.
There will be easy storylines. SMU has won the last three in this series, as NT dug itself out of a coaching change. SMU was one-year ahead in their own regime change, as Dan McCarney’s Mean Green snuffed out the June Jones-led Ponies 43-6. Chad Morris took the reigns and won three straight, helping McCarney get shown the door.
These two programs are nearer to where they want to be but still far away from where they imagine themselves in their wildest dreams. SMU has the ghosts of the Pony Express teams to live up to, and the demons of the fallout of that era to run away from. The Mean Green are trying to grasp some of the relevance of the 70s, and to find another great player to give Hall-of-Famer Mean Joe some company.
The next step on each’s journey begins today at 6:30 pm.
The above should look very familiar. The Air Raid is built on a philosophy of practicing and approaching the game in a particular way and that has led to a handful of plays that attack every part of the field and are easy to execute but difficult to defend.
The ‘stick’ route, with its accompanying options is one of the staples of the Air Raid and the above is something in the playbook of every non-option team. The difference is in the devotion to its practice and development.
SMU has not had the time or the development in this system and will rely on running the ball — not unlike the first-year of Seth Littrell. SMU is not as bottomed-out as the 2016 Mean Green were, and so there will not be much drop off from last year’s ~38 point-per-game outfit.
During the spring game, SMU ran the ball about 20 more times than they threw it, with a ton of option looks. Xavier Jones will get most of those touches. He is a thousand-yard back if just barely. He ran for 74 yards last year during this game, but 47 of those came on this one scamper late.
Braeden West will get the ball also, and we might see Ke’Mon Freeman.
The WR group lost Courtland Sutton (thank goodness) and Trey Quinn to the NFL, but there is a talented group looking to step up. James Proche will be the number one option but Reggie Roberson Jr. (6’0″ 195 SO) has talent and originally committed to WVU and has experience in a similar system.
QB Ben Hicks returns to helm the Ponies, and says the offenses are similar and that he feels comfortable and ready to play. He is good, but there are questions about his ability to produce without his NFL wideouts. Louisiana Tech’s J’Mar Smith struggled while adapting to his new pass-catchers and we might see something similar here.
The offensive line is experienced and can open up lanes and protect the passer. North Texas has had struggles getting sacks and that will be the case again here. Last season NT went up 10-0 and that was through offensive execution and getting stops. Eventually, the Pony offense exploited the talent advantage out wide and that made all the difference. Without Sutton to throw up heaves to, does Hicks produce on those third downs?
North Texas was able to produce big yards and points but some of that came late. Looking at the film, there was plenty to like about the say the offense played and in the the since everyone has improved and is more comfortable.
SMU’s Defensive Line goes two-and three deep and they have good size in the middle. Line backers Kyran Mitchell, Richard Moore, and Trever Denbow, have good size and can move enough. Corners Sutton and Wyatt also have good size and will look to stop the speed of NT’s X and Z receivers.
The key here is — as always — keeping Mason Fine from getting hit and giving him time and space. SMU head coach Sonny Dykes talked about how good Fine is and he should know better than anyone what rattles a good Air Raid QB. So much rides on that strategic matchup that we could spend the entire post writing about it.
Mason Fine has improved as a game manager, passer, and decision maker in his time. We should see a continuation of that this season in his third year. His legendary work ethic and shoulder chip should forestall any slippage in his focus. While he has a good arm, he does not have a Pat Mahomet-Like cannon that he over-relies on, so we should see good decisions in this one.
Graham Harrell will rely on getting the backs in space while taking what the defense gives him. Shots will be taken — Guyton and Bussey are too good not to let them test the defense. The question will be if North Texas can execute while also hitting home runs.
Defensively, NT should be better than last season. While SMU is still explosive and changing to a new system, they remain talented and the new staff is a proven quality set of coaches. The new run-focused SMU should fall into NT’s hands, as the defense was stronger against the run than it was against the pass. SMU has talent out wide but there is no obvious, proven Sutton type guy that will shrug off a safety on the way to a 40+ yard TD.
In the preview I picked NT 42-33 and still looks good to me. The crowd should be raucous and a possible sell out. There is wrestling on the bill, but this is the main event.
Let us Safeway Bowl.