Know the Foe: SMU
A look at SMU, which hosts USF on Saturday night at Gerald R. Ford Stadium
Record: 5-5 (3-3 American Athletic Conference)
Wins: at North Texas 34-21, Liberty 29-14, Houston 38-16, at Tulane 35-31, at East Carolina 55-31
Losses: at Baylor 40-13, TCU 33-3, at Temple 45-20, at Tulsa 43-40 (OT), Memphis 51-7
Coach: Chad Morris (second season, 7-15)
The breakdown: If UCF didn't exist, the Mustangs would be the AAC's most improved team. As it stands, they're its most schizophrenic. Two weeks after shocking Houston, they were embarrassed at home by Memphis, only to recover a week later and drub East Carolina on the road. ... A Dallas native, Morris is rebuiding the program with in-state talent; 18 of SMU's 22 projected starters hail from Texas. ... A huge key to SMU's progress has been the rapid evolution of redshirt freshman QB Ben Hicks (2,219 passing yards, 15 TDs, 11 INTs). Thrust into action when starter Matt Davis tore his ACL in the season opener, Hicks struggled early and still has his moments, but he has not thrown a pick in four of SMU's last five games. His top target is 6-foot-4 future NFL employee Courtland Sutton (57 catches, 934 yards, seven TDs), who was neutralized by USF (three catches) last season. Providing balance -- which SMU's high-tempo offense has lacked in recent years -- is diminutive RB Braeden West (5-foot-10, 170 pounds), who has four 100-yard efforts in his last five games. Defensively, the Mustangs won't elicit comparisons to Alabama, but the 436.3 yards per game they're surrendering represent a noticeable improvement from this point last season (521.5). Moreover, SMU is the only Division I school with three players who have four or more interceptions, led by senior CB Horace Richardson's six. Against East Carolina, they had a season-high 28 points off turnovers. Junior DE Justin Lawler leads the team in tackles (58) -- a rare distinction for a lineman -- and ranks third in the AAC with six sacks. "He's the real deal at
defensive end," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said. ... Special teams remain a concern; SMU ranks 117th nationally in kick returns (17.97 average), 103rd in kick return defense (23.2) and 100th in net punting (35.8 yards per attempt).
Odds and ends: SMU needs one victory to become bowl-eligible for the first time in four years. ... The Mustangs' roster features only three players from Florida, none from the bay area. ... Eight SMU defensive players, including the entire secondary, have started every game at their respective position.
Willie Taggart's take: "It's gonna be another challenge for us on offense to take care of the football, because they do a good job of taking it away. And you look at a lot of the games they've won, they've taken the ball quite a bit from people and capitalized on it."