At first glance, it might seem like Southern Methodist isn’t all that menacing as an opponent.
In six games, the Mustangs have mustered only one victory — a 31-13 triumph over winless North Texas in Week 2 — and rank toward the bottom of Division I-A in most defensive categories.
But if you thought USF (3-3, 1-1) would be taking them lightly heading into Saturday afternoon’s game at Raymond James Stadium, you’d be mistaken.
Though SMU is lacking in victories on paper, the Mustangs remained competitive in losses to No. 2 Baylor and No. 4 TCU, scoring 21 and 27 points in both, respectively.
“Obviously we’ve faced some very talented opponents, and I think the record speaks for itself on what we’ve faced,” SMU coach Chad Morris said during Monday’s AAC coaches teleconference. “We’ve been in it, every one of the games.
“I think the biggest thing with my guys here is just learning how to finish, and learning how that when adversity hits you, we’ve got to withstand it, we’ve got to be able to survive it.”
What SMU lacks defensively (123rd nationally), it makes up for on offense.
SMU (1-5, 0-2) boasts a quarterback similar to USF’s Quinton Flowers in dual-threat Matt Davis, who has evolved into an elusive player. The former Texas A&M signal-caller has amassed 1,430 yards through the air and 645 more on the ground with 18 total touchdowns. He also ranks 17th nationally in yards per game (309.3) and 41st in efficiency (144.4).
“They’ve scored on some great teams — some teams that run the same defensive style that we run,” senior defensive back Jamie Byrd said. “And they have great players and great receivers.”
It doesn’t hurt that Davis has a solid go-to target, either.
Though he was expected to take on a bigger role in the offense after taking a medical redshirt last season, wide receiver Courtland Sutton has been one of the biggest surprises in first-year coach Morris’ up-tempo system. The redshirt freshman, who has 27 receptions for 498 yards and six touchdowns, is on pace to break 1,000 yards and has brought a much-needed lift to a group lacking experience.
“I feel like they’re doing a very good job and I feel like they’re a very good team,” sophomore running back Marlon Mack said.
But coming off back-to-back wins against Syracuse and Connecticut with a chance to tighten its grip on a potential postseason berth down the road, USF’s confidence is heightened.
The Bulls rank 15th nationally in rushing offense (233 yards per game) and 11th, defensively, in tackles for loss (8.2 per game).
Still, coach Willie Taggart has made sure his team won’t be looking ahead.
“I tell our guys we’re 3-3, we haven’t done anything,” he said. “We don’t just talk about going to a bowl game … we’re focusing on accomplishing our goals, which one is, to win this conference. We know we can’t do that if we don’t take care of the team that’s in front of us.
“So, each and every week, we talk about our goals, where we’re at with our goals, and what it’s going to take to move closer to that goal. And right now it’s SMU, that’s all we can focus on.”