For Chad Morris it's bowl or bust. The stakes may actually be higher than that considering the talent returning. A six win season and a bowl game might be a disappointment. The Mustangs were 5-7 in 2016. What does the 2017 season hold in store? Will the Mustangs be better or worse?
The Mustangs will be better...
Because there is skill talent for days. If you gave the Big 12 and SEC coaches in Texas truth serum and asked them if they'd trade straight up for SMU's backs and receivers I think more than half would do it. Courtland Sutton alone might sway most of them. SMU has elite level skill players. At receiver Sutton, James Proche, Xavier Castille, Alex Honey, Kevin Thomas, Trey Quinn and a bundle of redshirt and true freshman give the Mustangs as deep a receiving group as their is in the AAC or Big 12. At running back Braeden West, Ke'Mon Freeman, Xavier Jones, and freshman Kayce Medlock are equally deep and with diverse skill sets. With Morris' creativity on offense, his mind must be working overtime to think how to use all his toys.
Competition should breed success. For the first time in Chad Morris' tenure, spring practice had open competition from talented players for playing time at the majority of positions. There were very few defaults. The offensive line has injected a number of talented young players into its ranks, pushing for playing time, to go with a veteran core. The aforementioned skill players are talented and deep and fighting for playing time. The secondary, is full of young talent as well. SMU has three young safeties that can all play. At quarterback the Mustangs have two or three options that should be game ready. Morris has turned over his roster with speed, skill, and players ready to compete. It's roster that now has the luxury of not relying on true freshman to fill out a two-deep.
Because the offensive line is now fully functional. The mark of a good program vs. a mediocre one is line development. Can you recruit, grow, and develop line talent - both offensive and defensive? For SMU they can answer yes to they offensive end of the equation. The Mustangs have a good mix of returning production and young talent. Evan Brown has been a bedrock at center. Jerry Saena, who has long tantalized Mustang fans with his physical gifts, has found a place on the interior of the offensive line. Kadarius Smith received plenty of reps in the spring and fits the mold of the young athletic bookend. Braylon Hyder and Bryce Wilds will be better served in backup roles where they add more value. Jacob Todora and Alan Ali are young players who have a chance to grow at a reasonable pace rather than be thrown into the fire. The offensive line should be the x-factor that takes this offensive over the top.
SMU will be worse...
The defensive line is starting over. While Justin Lawler is the best player you've probably never heard of, the senior All-Confernce player from Pottsboro is the only returning starter on the defensive front. That's bad news because the Mustang defensive line as it was, didn't perform well. The Mustangs didn't stop the run in 2016 and they lose their top two defensive tackles and three of four starters. Their defensive ends, other than Lawler are all listed at 250 or smaller. SMU will be young and light up front. After allowing 5.0 yards a carry in 2016, that's not a good recipe.
Quarterback is still an unknown. We don't know whether Ben Hicks can lead an elite offensive unit. As a first year starter thrust onto the field he was up and down. Better at the end of the season but still inconsistent. Rafe Peavey looks like the most battle-ready challenger to Hicks out of spring practice. Highly regarded out of high school in Missouri, the Arkansas transfer pushed Hicks more than anticipated. Former Wisconsin and JC quarterback D.J. Gillens is an interesting option as well. He's a close 3rd on the depth chart out of spring practice. The battle resumes this fall. SMU needs a quarterback to take these elite skill players to the next level. So far that answer is an incomplete at the position that year in, year out is the most important in college football.
Because they were a roller coaster in 2016. Strap into the Texas Twister that was the SMU Mustangs in 2016. They started 2-2 with wins over North Texas and FBS foe Liberty and losses to Baylor on the road as well as TCU. 2-2 is right about where the Mustangs should have been. In league they lost by 20 at Temple, then took a very good Tulsa team to overtime on the road. The season defining upset of Houston was followed by a big win at Tulane by four. Then a week later with mythical momentum in their sails, Memphis destroyed the Mustangs in Dallas by 44. They beat a bad ECU team on the road and then lost to a good USF team at home by eight. Then, with a bowl game on the line, the Mustangs were annihilated by Navy on the Hilltop 75-31. Seventy-five points.
I still don't know how good or bad SMU was in 2016. I just know they were inconsistent. While we anticipate development and progress, the results from 2016 muddy the waters. For as close as SMU played Tulsa and USF, they were completely outclassed by other AAC teams. That might be indicative of a young team with a new quarterback suffering growing pains, or it might be indicative of a team further away than we might think upon further review.