In a good old SWC matchup, Houston and SMU meet at Ford Stadium in an AAC Western Division tilt. Here are a few things we’ll be watching for.
Which Ben Hicks?
Ben Hicks is quietly climbing the SMU passing charts. Sometimes not so quietly, like nails on a chalkboard. Over his career on the Hilltop, Hicks has thrown nine pick sixes. His interception rate isn’t horrible, but when he throws one, he gets his money’s worth. In conference, he’s completing a below average 56% of his passes which is better than his non-conference percentage (50%).
Hicks is a notoriously slow starter, season to season. Last year, before the bowl game, when his arm was the accelerant to one of the worst performances of his career, Hicks was trending into a very good season. He’s on the uptick again in 2018, but his ceiling might be average.
The Continued Excellence of D’Eriq King
On the other hand, D’Eriq King continues his trajectory to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in college football. The junior from Manvel is living up to and exceeding our preseason projections which we set at 3,800 passing yards and somewhere near 800 yards rushing. In the past few seasons, only two quarterbacks have mashed up that combination, Lamar Jackson and J.T. Barrett. Not bad for a guy who was a receiver for a third of 2017.
With his ability to break games open with his legs and accuracy as a passer, he’s like chocolate and peanut butter in Kendal Briles’ offense. As a defensive coordinator you can pick your poison, keep King in the pocket, and he’s shown he can splash yardage almost on a whim. Decide to pressure him, and you’d better find him, or he’ll create a whole new and fun highlight real with you chasing him. We’d call in sick.
Houston’s Marquez Stevenson and SMU’s James Proche are one-two in the AAC receiving yardage list this year. Stevenson leads in yardage, Proche leads in receptions and both have eight touchdowns. Stevenson teams with Keith Corbin, Bryson Smith, and Jeremy Singleton to form a big play brigade with the fourth most explosive passing plays in the FBS. They’ll probably be without Courtney Lark who suffered a leg injury against USF.
The Mustangs key off Proche, who is fearless and has almost twice as many receptions as the next Mustang receiver. Proche torched the vaunted Michigan defense in Ann Arbor with eleven catches and two touchdowns. West Virginia transfer Reggie Roberson is closing the production gap after missing two games earlier this year. He’s been hot in SMU’s last two outings with a combined fourteen catches, 246 yards and three scores. Roberson can also do damage in the return game.
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If you’ve read this site, you know the mythology of Briles’ Bear Raid is that it’s a passing offense. In practice, it is first and foremost a physical rushing attack that exploits defenses vertically when the matchups are favorable. Houston’s run game sparks the offense and triggers the passing game. The Coogs are up two yards per carry and 80 yards rushing per game. No one in college football goes faster. Some teams might run more plays, but none run more plays per minute and only Alabama averages a higher number of points per play.
Sonny Dykes officially turned the offensive keys over to Rhett Lashlee, and it shows. Dykes 2016 Cal team averaged 86 plays a game with 60% of total plays coming from the pass. After a year in TCU’s program as an “analyst” Dykes seems to have made a change, if not in overall offensive philosophy then in his ability to delegate. The Ponies are pedestrian in terms of tempo compared to his Golden Bear squads and are committed to the run game.
That change in philosophy hasn’t panned out on the production front; however, the Mustangs struggle on the ground. With the same backs and basically the same front, SMU averages over a yard and half less per carry. Chalk some of that loss in production up to the loss of Courtland Sutton and perhaps, more importantly, Trey Quinn, but the Ponies aren’t scaring anyone on the ground.
Can SMU Keep Up?
Houston will score. Unless the Coogs implode, utterly, they’ll put a 40 burger on you. SMU doesn’t have that gear. What the Mustangs have going for them is that Mark D’Onofrio is coordinating the Houston defense and he’s prone to making pedestrian offenses look pretty decent. Even if SMU gets to pretty decent, it might not be enough. Houston took parts, sometimes large parts, of the Rice, Arizona, and Tulsa games off and they still scored quickly enough and en mass to blow the each of those teams out of the water.
SMU will either have to put together a Herculean effort defensively or find a minimum of twenty-three extra points somewhere. Flip a coin.