The SMU Mustangs finished their regular season 10-2 and perfect in AAC play. With that, I think it’s safe to say they’re ready for greener pastures.
Boy, what a year for the SMU Mustangs. After starting 2-2, they won all eight of their league games, six of which were decided by three scores or more, en route to what is just their second season to hit 10 wins since 1984.
This spectacular finish comes soon after the Mustangs were announced as one of three squads set to join the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, and to me, it makes them look about as ready to move on from the American (and the Group of 5 entirely) as they possibly could.
Now this is a statement that, at least at face value, may come off a tad bold to some, as each of the two Power 5 opponents that SMU faced this year—Oklahoma and TCU, the latter of which went 5-7 in its regular-season slate—beat the Mustangs by convincing margins.
They also still have to face a one-loss Tulane in the AAC title game; if they lose that, they lose that perfect record they have in league play. Lastly, if this is only their second 10-win season in just under 40 years, then the absolute last thing we should do is treat this current level of success as anything consistent.
With that stuff in mind, how has 2023 even remotely indicated that the SMU Mustangs are ready for all that a Power 5 conference will throw their way?
It’s a fair question, but it fails to carry much weight when analyzing the details of their situation in particular, and it all begins with one important clarification: I never said they’d stroll into ACC play and dominate right away. Rather, I said they’re currently too good for the Group of 5, and how is that wrong?
Remember, SMU is entering the postseason without a single American loss to its name, and they seemingly avoided such defeat with ease, as most of their league victories were decided by multiple scores. It’s the specifics of those beatdowns that truly put their superiority into perspective, though: 34-16, 31-10, 55-0, 69-10, 45-21, 59-14. Scores like these are ones you’d expect to see from high-profile Power 5 schools playing AAC competition.
In fact, it’s those same results that will have me looking SMU’s way more than Tulane’s this weekend, as even the closest of them managed to hold an 18-point advantage—that’s a larger differential than the Green Wave has beaten an American name by all season. So, while both teams have been untouchable in conference games, SMU is the only one that’s truly met the definition of the term with their on-field performance.
That fact alone is enough to chalk the Mustangs up as being far above the American as of late, and that’s really today’s main takeaway as they prepare for their last opponent from the conference before they leave it. However, since I made that point so efficiently (and since the Mustangs are going to take on the Atlantic Coast next year regardless of how ready they look), we now have time to hold them next to some ACC teams solely for curiosity’s sake.
Upon doing that, the future surprisingly starts looking even brighter than before.
The ACC is about as comfortable as it can get for SMU
Of the 16 schools that SMU will share its new home with (14 veteran members accompanied by Stanford and California), nine of them sit with non-winning records right now. Of those nine, five will play the Mustangs in 2024, with three of them going on the road to do so.
Even with their struggles against Power 5 adversaries from earlier this season, it’s hard not to assume that at their current pace, they will be good enough to exploit the weaknesses of at least some of those squads—and that’s without even covering the manageability of their out-of-conference foes.
Beyond the new ACC faces on their slate, the Mustangs have a non-conference bunch that includes three more losers from other Power 5 leagues: Vanderbilt, TCU and BYU. The only one of those three that SMU will be visiting, Vandy, did easily the worst, going 2-10 this season after a 2-0 start. Meanwhile, the Cougars matched the Horned Frogs at 5-7.
In other words, the only part of that trio that doesn’t look like a guaranteed win is TCU, but if it continues its embarrassing collapse while SMU continues its meteoric rise, who’s to say that the Frogs will be in any shape to follow up the aforementioned win they got over the Mustangs this year?
Oh, and for its fourth non-conference “challenge,” SMU will be hosting Houston Christian of the FCS. I can’t predict the future, but that certainly feels like the safest bet to take the Ponies in.
Now that we have all of this information, let’s apply a hypothetical scenario with it: With the intention of bracing for the worst outcome that is realistically possible, let’s assume that the Mustangs win three of their four non-conference games and go 3-5 in Atlantic Coast play. That would leave them 6-6, entering the postseason with a chance to clinch a winning record.
For a team new to both the ACC and the Power 5 as a whole, that wouldn’t be an upsetting outcome by any stretch of the imagination, and it would set a silencing standard as SMU grows into what many have viewed as a controversial piece of the conference realignment puzzle.