Through eight quarters, the No. 19 Michigan football team has already shown its fans the good, the bad and the ugly. A 24-17 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame took some shine off the Wolverines (1-1 overall), while a 49-3 blowout of Western Michigan showed that the hype might not be for naught.
On Saturday, Southern Methodist (0-2), another middling team with a first-year coach, will stroll into Michigan Stadium.
The Mustangs are playing their second consecutive ranked opponent after suffering a 42-12 defeat against No. 15 TCU last week. The Daily spoke to Scott Bell, an editor for the Dallas Morning News, to learn about SMU’s strengths and weaknesses, and what to expect facing Michigan on Saturday.
The Michigan Daily: The current line has Michigan as the 35.5-point favorite. Does that sound fair or is there recency bias?
Scott Bell: I think that sounds about right. I think SMU and Western Michigan, at least this year, are kind of comparable teams. SMU basically lost all of its big playmakers from last year’s team, (and) coming off of a big rivalry game last week, I think mid-30s sounds about right. It’s one of those games where I think it’ll be comfortably out of reach by halftime.
Whether they cover or not depends on whether the (Michigan) second-team offense scores in the fourth quarter, or do the defensive substitutes for Michigan hold up in the second half? I think it’s pretty fair. I think the game opened closer to 30. We do picks at the Dallas Morning News against the spread and almost everyone is taking Michigan.
TMD: From Michigan’s perspective, there is more to lose than gain from a game like this. Where do you think SMU can cause trouble?
Bell: The first half of last week’s TCU-SMU game sort of shows what they can do, and at the end of the North Texas game, too. They can explode for big plays. Braeden West had a big touchdown to start off the game to give SMU an early lead. SMU had two other 50-plus yard touchdowns at the end of the North Texas game. I don’t expect SMU to have long, sustained drives where they can pound it out, but they do have some playmakers that can break bigger plays. Like I said, Braeden West has a long touchdown run and catch this year. James Proche, who was SMU’s third best receiver last year, had a big play and is their top receiver now. I think it was a 60-yard touchdown against North Texas.
TMD: From the SMU perspective, what’s the most positive outcome for them if not a win?
Bell: No injuries? I don’t mean this to disparage them, but it seems like going to Ann Arbor is kind of like — I don’t want to say that they’re happy to be there — but they seem excited for the possibility of going to the Big House. I don’t think many people expect it to be a particularly close game. As weird as it sounds with them losing by 30 last week, I think they really did take a step forward in terms of, “Hey, they played a pretty competitive first half against TCU, which is a pretty good team.” But it’s gonna need to be something like that where they take positives out of a losing effort. Braeden West has established himself as the top back. Something that this group needs is for Ben Hicks — returning as their starting quarterback — he’s struggled this year so far. For their sake, ideally, he’ll have a better game and have some momentum going into conference play. I think any positives they take from this game (are) going to have to be more from a moral victory variety.
TMD: Are there any glaring deficiencies with SMU that you would expect Michigan to try and exploit?
Bell: Just from it being a Power Five team against a Group of Five team, you’re gonna see a big difference in the trenches, which is probably good for Michigan because SMU needs to build some confidence in their offensive line. I think just when you look at the difference of size in the trenches, Michigan can and should dominate on both sides of the ball in terms of the battle up front. SMU has sort of been torched in a different variety of ways the first few weeks. North Texas in the first game dominated their secondary. Against TCU, it was different because the game was basically in a rainstorm. The way TCU was scoring was a special teams touchdown, a fumble recovery touchdown, some more weird stuff. If that was a game indoors, I think you’d see TCU have some more success. I think Michigan can probably have its way both on the ground and through the air.
TMD: SMU has a first-year coach in Sonny Dykes. What were the expectations for him, especially with a more depleted team than last year?
Bell: It’s a real tough ask the first month’s schedule for anyone, let alone a first-year coach. SMU had to start a road game against North Texas, and North Texas was in the Conference USA title game last year and basically returned everyone. And the next two weeks taking on TCU and Michigan, a pair of ranked opponents who a lot of people thought going into the season could be in the CFP mix. I think it’s unreasonable to expect SMU to be anything but 0-3 or 1-2 if they could surprise North Texas.
It’s been a slow start, but if you look at it from a practical standpoint, it’s where it had to be. Once you get towards the middle of the year, I think you’ll see whether or not how much the team has bought in at that point. I think in general, he’s a good person to have in that spot. Similar offense to what (current Arkansas and former SMU coach) Chad Morris ran last year, not a huge learning curve there. And unlike Morris — who was kind of the big hot commodity offensive coordinator from Clemson when he came to SMU, and it kind of looked like SMU would be a stepping-stone job — Dykes is more of a Texas guy. He’s done the Power Five deal with Cal before and it didn’t work out. There’s a better chance of him settling in and being a good long-term fit for SMU.
Bell: Probably something similar to Western Michigan. Put me on record for 42-6.