Southern Methodist (0-11, 0-7 AAC) is wrapping up its worst season performance in over a decade, and with an all-but-guaranteed loss to UConn on Saturday, could be considered the worst FBS team to take the field since the horrendous 2005 Temple Owls.
Albeit having one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country (Baylor, North Texas, TCU, and Texas A&M), SMU has played like a third-string JV quarterback being called up to varsity for the majority of the season—it has not been competitive in what ESPN ranks as the No. 7 (out of 10) conference in Division 1-A, having been outscored by an average of 33.7 points (25.7 in AAC play) through Week 14.
But with the introduction of former Clemson offensive coordinator as the new head coach on Monday, things are looking up for the miserable Mustangs—and they’re being set up to be the NCAA’s most improved team in 2015.
“You’re going to see an exciting brand of football,” said Morris. “We’re going to be one of the biggest turnarounds in college football before this is over with. But it’s going to take a lot of work.”
Morris is the perfect hire for a program like SMU—right in the heart of Texas, where top tier quarterbacks seem to grow on trees.
When coaching high school football (where he compiled a record of 169-38 over 16 seasons), he was able to develop former Texas and SMU star QB Garrett Gilbert, who led Lake Travis to back-to-back undefeated, state title-winning campaigns. He also turned Tajh Boyd into a two-time All-ACC quarterback at Clemson, orchestrating an offense that ranked top-10 in scoring from 2012-13.
Before that, he was calling the plays at Tulsa (2010), where the Golden Hurricane scored 41.4 points per game (No. 6 in the FBS) while recording a 10-3 record—and if you don’t think that’s impressive, just take a look at that program now.
@AAC_FB_Fever I’m with you on that. Just updating the offense to the 21st century will be huge.
— Billy Embody (@BillyEmbody) December 3, 2014
Nevertheless, as Morris said earlier in the week, it’s going to take a lot of work to implement his system—a smashmouth-type of spread—into a historically bad offense. SMU ranks dead last in the FBS in scoring (9.6 ppg) and has been held to 10 points or fewer eight times in 2014. It has used four different quarterbacks—Neal Burcham, Kolney Cassel, Garrett Krstich, and, most recently, Matt Davis—who have all combined to complete 54.2 percent of their passes for an mere 4.73 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
“(Quarterback) is top on our list in recruiting,” Morris said. “That’s top on our list in development in the spring. And that’ll be the same thing next year as we talk.”
There is plenty of talent on this SMU roster that should be bowl-caliber, but June Jones wasn’t in a football state of mind and Tom Mason is not a head coach. From 2012-14, the Mustangs put together recruiting classes that averaged to finish No. 73 in the nation—plenty of room for improvement, but it proves there’s no excuse for the extreme struggles.
— Mitch Wilcox (@mitch_wilcox) December 3, 2014
It’d be an incredible feat if Morris were to lead SMU to a bowl game in his first season as a head coach following one of the worst collective 12-game performances in college football history, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The Mustangs will again have a brutal non-conference stretch with Baylor and TCU looming, and North Texas has proved its stature under Dan McCarney. Scheduling an FCS opponent and then getting some help with AAC play—maybe avoiding two of the conference powers like Memphis did this season—will also be important.
In 2013, there were 10 teams with one win or less. Here’s what they have done in 2014:
*SRS: Simple rating system; a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. (Zero is average.)
*SOS: Strength of schedule. (Zero is average.)
As you can see from the table above, every single team improved to some degree, with eight out of the 10 receiving an easier schedule the following year. It also indicates that we can assume somewhere around a three- or four-win season for SMU next season (which currently has a -18.72 SRS and 2.19 SOS), though there are the wildcards: Cal and Western Michigan—both with new, excellent coaching staffs that have a vision of creating a winning culture.
There’s no doubt that Morris had inherited a mess and one of the most challenging clean-up jobs in recent memory, but if there was anyone in the coaching market that was the perfect match for this opportunity, it was him.
Expect the Mustangs to be competitive again next season and to compete for AAC championships in the near future.