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Watching Film: SMU

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Taking a closer look at the 4-0 Mustangs.

NCAA Football: SMU at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

USF opens its conference schedule with quite a challenge.

The SMU Mustangs come into Tampa 4-0, including a win last week against rival TCU. The Mustangs have a high-powered offense led by Texas transfer, and Charlie Strong recruit, Shane Buechele. Defensively, the Mustangs show multiple looks to help them confuse offenses.

This should easily be the toughest game for USF since Wisconsin. Let’s take a closer look at SMU and what the Bulls must do to win the game.


General Game Management

Marino Rule Plus

SMU’s hot start can be somewhat explained by their excellent Marino Rule numbers.

SMU has been great on third downs on both sides of the ball. They also have a positive turnover margin on the season. In their upset win against TCU, The Mustangs were +2 in the turnover battle. They also got their turnovers in very advantageous spots on the field.

Yards Per Play

One popular measure of efficiency is yards per play. It is exactly what it sounds like, your total offense divided by the number of plays you ran.

Offensively, SMU is averaging 6.4 yards per play. On defense, SMU is giving up 4.9 yards per play. Both these numbers are above average nationally and rank inside the top 45. While the numbers are impressive, they may be somewhat inflated.

SMU has been very efficient on offense, but they had not played a good defense until last week. TCU held the Mustangs to 4.9 yards per play in their game last week, or a yard and a half below their average. TCU also gained 5.44 yards per play which was about a half a yard above the SMU defensive average.

USF actually has the best single unit in the game, with their defense giving up 4.7 yards per play. It’s hard to tell exactly what to think about the USF offense. Cumulatively, they are at 4.77 yards a play, which is well below average nationally. However, since Jordan McCloud was inserted against Georgia Tech, the Bulls offense has averaged 6.58 yards per play which would be 32nd nationally.

And while we can take that number with an SC State Bulldog sized grain of salt, it does show vast improvement. The offense gained over 100 yards in McCloud’s 12 plays against Georgia Tech and 459 yards on 73 plays against SC State.

While USF has played the toughest opponent of either team (Wisconsin) they have probably also played the weakest (SC State), so it will be interesting to see the yard per play battle. The USF defense has actually held all of its opponents, including Wisconsin, to their lowest yards per play this season. Additionally, SMU has had both of its worst outings, according to YPP, on the road this season.

SMU Offense: Efficiency and Explosiveness

As stated above, the SMU offense has been very efficient this year by the numbers. Head coach Sonny Dykes has brought his version of the Air Raid to Dallas, and the results have been good for the Mustangs.

However, Dykes and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, a Gus Malzahn disciple, aren’t running the traditional air raid offense. SMU plays up-tempo, will mix up personnel groupings and has a more diverse run game than what you would think when hearing “air raid”. They also use a lot of motion and the quarterback run game.

One element of the air raid that SMU shows a lot on film is the ability to create explosive plays. The Mustangs have created these explosive plays in a variety of ways. Let’s take a closer look at SMU’s explosive offense in the video below.

Now let’s look at the Mustangs’ first drive against TCU. This drive is a great microcosm of the SMU offense.

As you can see, the USF defense will have its hands full this weekend. They have been up to the task for the most part this season, but this is their toughest test by far since Wisconsin. This should be an interesting matchup.

SMU Defense: Movement and Multiplicity

Multiplicity isn’t just an award-winning movie (don’t look this up) starring Michael Keaton. It’s also the best way to describe the SMU defense.

The Mustangs will show the opposing offense a lot of different looks during the game. Sometimes they will come out in what looks to be a traditional 4-3 Over front defense. The next play they will show an Okie front with three down lineman and drop eight players into coverage. Then later they will come out in the Tite front with three down linemen between the offensive tackles, wide overhang outside linebackers, and three safeties. On top of all that, defensive coordinator Kevin Kane will line up talented safety Patrick Nelson (#2) all over the field. It’s a lot for the offense to take in. Especially up front. Let’s take a closer look at some of the different ways SMU likes to line up defensively.

USF has a tough task ahead of them, especially up front. However, even with all the exotic looks they show, SMU is giving up 28 points a game. And they haven’t played a great offense yet. USF is not a great offense, but they are improving every week. I would look for USF to break out some new wrinkles in the run game, and hopefully the bye week helped shore up the pass protections. If so, this should be an exciting matchup.


SMU is a good team. They a 4-0 for a reason. They have a really efficient offense that can also produce explosive plays. Defensively, they make life on opposing coaches difficult with all the different looks they will show. They aren’t very good on special teams, and that is one spot where USF should have a big edge.

On this week’s Bulluminati Podcast , we talked about this being a “Prove It” game. I think that is true for both teams. If SMU comes out and plays at the same high level that they have through four games, then they are legit. If USF can come out and get a win against a good opponent, then they show that they will be in the race for the AAC. Either way it should be an interesting game and will inform how we look at each team going forward.