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The Big USF vs. SMU Preview

An improving SMU team is on the verge of bowl eligibility. It’s up to USF to stop them outscore them.

Memphis v SMU Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

With Chad Morris in charge at SMU, it was always going to be a matter of time before the Mustangs got going again. He battled through a Year Zero situation in 2015, which included a 38-14 loss to USF in Tampa. He lost his dual-threat quarterback, Matt Davis, to an ACL injury in the first game of the season, and had to bring through redshirt freshman Ben Hicks, a pocker passer with almost no mobility. He had to find a way to improve a defense that gave up well over 500 points. Yet here SMU is at 5-5, just one win from bowl eligibility.

It’s still not perfect. The Mustangs have had a Jekyll and Hyde quality for most of the season. One week they could almost lose to FCS Liberty, no-show against local rival TCU, or get obliterated by Memphis. The next week they could thrash Houston or take Tulsa to overtime on the road. Which SMU team shows up tonight will make a big difference in how tough a game this will be for USF.


Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. SMU D) S&P+ (SMU O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 40 3 106 50
SMU 78 83 63 123

SMU doesn’t have much of a statistical profile - it’s the result of their good games and bad games averaging out. Their special teams are particularly bad, because of their poor coverage and return units. Don’t be lulled to sleep, though. On their day they’re capable of giving USF all they can handle.

When SMU Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
SMU Offense 59 103 20
USF Defense 109 100 46

We all know the drill here. SMU is a slightly better version of Memphis running the ball - not super efficient, but they’ll break a big one on you. Braeden West and Ke’Mon Freeman both ran for over 100 yards last week and it’s not hard to imagine that happening again. They’re going to get plenty of yards. Let’s not even pretend like they won’t. USF just needs to limit the damage.

When SMU Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
SMU Offense 85 116 19
USF Defense 63 79 28

Not surprisingly with a redshirt freshman, SMU’s passing game is inefficient. However, Ben Hicks has been playing very well recently. His completion percentage is still low, but Hicks has cut his turnovers down considerably. Only two of his 11 interceptions have been thrown in the Mustangs’ last five games. SMU is very capable of hitting big passes on slumbering defenses. The Bulls have to be aware of downfield passing, especially on play action with their vulnerable (to say the least) running game.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 7 23 3
SMU Defense 47 45 104

That “104” for SMU under Run Explosiveness is going to be a big factor. The Mustangs do a pretty good job against the run overall, but you can pop big plays on their run defense, and USF certainly will... because they do it to everybody.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 44 33 5
SMU Defense 56 65 5

This will be an interesting matchup. Even though USF hasn’t hit a deep shot in weeks, their passing game has still been explosive because they have the athletes to turn short passes into big plays. SMU does a great job preventing big pass plays, but what kind of big pass plays have they prevented? If the Bulls can unlock the Mustang defense and get chunks of yards in the air, they should be able to move the ball at will.

Side note: The Mustangs got a big rankings boost last week because they collected five turnovers from East Carolina. USF probably won’t do that.

Summary and Prediction

Moving the ball at will would help, because do you have any confidence in USF’s defense holding anyone under, like, 30 points? Even grading on a curve to account for the reality of college football, this is a bad, bad defense and SMU will get theirs. If things break their way, it wouldn’t even be a huge surprise if SMU wins.

I think the game comes down to how Ben Hicks plays and if SMU’s defense can put in another good performance. They’ll need both to play well to win... and while I think Hicks will have some success, the Mustangs’ best defensive performances of the season have come with question marks. Houston’s offense is nowhere near as good as it was last year, and ECU has pretty obviously quit on the season. USF has the most explosive offense in FBS. It’s a very tall order that I don’t think SMU will quite be able to fill.

USF 42, SMU 31