SMU motivated to knock off Mids, become bowl-eligible
But Mustangs wonder about coach’s future with team
DALLAS — On Monday, Southern Methodist coach Chad Morris talked enthusiastically about what his football team could accomplish this weekend.
SMU(5-6, 3-4) can become bowl-eligible by upsetting Navy (8-2, 6-1) today at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. It is senior day for the Mustangs, who are also hoping to finish .500 in the American Athletic Conference after going 1-7 a year ago.
Knocking off the Midshipmen, the West Division champion in the American, would be a strong statement by the Mustangs.
“Hey, we’re excited about this opportunity. What else would you want going into the last game of the regular season? To have the Today, 3:30 p.m. TV: ESPNU Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Navy by 7
best team in our division coming in and for us to have an opportunity to clinch a bowl berth,” Morris said on the AAC teleconference.
One day later, Morris found himself warily responding to reports he was on the verge of ditching SMU and accepting the head coaching job at Baylor. Media outlets said contract negotiations had been ongoing with one stating it was a done deal that Morris would be hired by the Big 12 Conference school by early next week.
“This time of year in college football — this time of year even when I was in high school football — that’s just what happens,” Morris said during his weekly news conference. “You’re either getting fired because you ain’t won enough games or you’re leaving because you’ve won too many games. Or you’ve got a program going in the right direction. That’s just the way this business is at this time of year.”
SMU can’t seem to get over the hump with regard to rebuilding its once-storied program. June Jones was lured away from Hawaii and led the Mustangs to four straight bowl berths, then abruptly retired in September 2014 because of personal reasons.
Morris, a Texas native and hotshot offensive coordinator at Clemson, was an inspired choice to replace Jones and quickly directed a dramatic one-year turnaround. SMU, which went 2-10 in its first season under Morris, is one of the most improved programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“I came here to build SMU into something that I felt like can be great. And that’s my focus and my focus in my job is to give SMU and my staff and our players 100 percent of everything that I’ve got every day,” Morris said in further response to what he termed as “rumors” about leaving to Baylor.
SMU will clearly be motivated today. Regardless of their coach’s future, the Mustangs want to secure a bowl bid and send their seniors out on a winning note.
“Our seniors have invested so much in this program. They’ve gone through a coaching change and bought in so much. They have changed the culture and flipped the whole mindset of our program, and they are leaving a strong legacy,” Morris said. “Our message to the underclassmen is that this is a week for the seniors. Pour everything you have into helping these “My focus in my job is to give SMU and my staff and our players 100 percent,” coach Chad Morris said in response to reports about leaving for a job at Baylor. seniors go out the right way.”
There is a turning point for every college football program in rebuilding mode, one that determines the direction of that attempt. For SMU, a thorough 38-16 thrashing of heavily favored Houston on Oct. 22 in Dallas might well prove the catalyst for future success. Taking down the Mids one week before they play in the AAC championship game would be another notch in the belt of the Mustangs.
“I think we’ve definitely turned a corner with this program. There’s no question about that. I’m extremely proud of where we are. It’s about staying the course and not deviating from our standard,” Morris said. “These kids believe in what we’re doing, believe in our coaches, believe in our system.”
Morris was hired because the SMU administration was confident he could successfully recruit the talent-rich state of Texas. The Edgewood, Texas, native spent 15 years as a high school football coach in Texas, leading Lake Travis to back-to-back unbeaten seasons and consecutive state championships.
In 2014, SMUhad68Texas players on its roster — fewest among the state’s FBS programs. Every member of the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes put together by Morris and his staff is from the Lone Star State.
That ability to recruit Texas, along with his strong ties to the top high school programs in the state, is reportedly the primary reason Baylor is pursuing Morris.
SMU’s depth chart is loaded with players recruited by the current regime. The Mustangs lost a talented quarterback when returning starter Matt Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. However, Ben Hicks, a four-star prospect out of Midway High in Waco, stepped in and operated the offense at a high level as the Mustangs are averaging 427.3 total yards.
Hicks has shown a strong, accurate arm along with a veteran’s pocket awareness and instincts in completing 203 of 378 passes (53.7 percent) for 2,599 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Courtland Sutton has blossomed into one of the country’s top wide receivers as a sophomore, catching 70 passes for 1,186 yards and nine scores. The Mustangs have found a talented tailback in sophomore Braeden West, who is 12 yards short of reaching the 1,000 milestone for the season.
Turnovers have been a problem for the Mustangs, who are averaging 27.3 points as a result. SMU has committed 22 turnovers with Hicks throwing 13 interceptions.
SMU most likely will need to score a lot of points to pull off the upset. The Mids have been on a roll of late, averaging 48.2 points and 524.8 total yards over their past five conference games. Quarterback Will Worth has been the catalyst of the offensive fireworks, which began after a dismal performance against service academy rival Air Force on Oct. 1.
“Their quarterback makes them go. Will Worth isn’t a flashy runner, but he’s strong. He operates the system very well and is in a great groove now,” Morris said.
Morris has been impressed by the play-calling of Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, whose ability to adjust to whatever defensive scheme the opponent uses is becoming uncanny.
“They’ve been around and been around long enough to know how people play them from a defensive standpoint, Morris said. “They have answers based off how you play them.”
Morris said SMUhas spent time preparing for Navy’s triple option at times since the start of preseason. However, he acknowledged it’s impossible to replicate the speed and precision at which the Mids run the unique attack.
“It comes down to execution. When you can execute at a high level like Navy does, you’re going to be successful,” Morris said.