Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bowl Talk

Adding to yesterday's note on the Sherrington chat, Calvin Watkins asks the question: "Were expectations set too high for a team with several questions on its roster?"

In a word, "No."

First, this team finished 5-6 last year. It defeated three bowl teams. It beat a ranked opponent.

Second, the schedule is significantly easier than the past season. Instead of TCU, A&M and Baylor, the schedule consists of Texas Tech, UNT, Sam Houston State and Arkansas State. That is a downgrade in competition if there ever was one. While Tech for TCU or A&M may be a wash, neither UNT, Sam Houston State or Arkansas State is as good as the other nonconference teams on the 2005 schedule. Phil Bennett has clamored for a softer nonconference schedule for years; it is a point that I still, despite the loss to UNT, agree with.

Also with regard to the schedule, compare this year's schedule to next year's schedule. In conference alone, SMU goes from playing the predicted three lowest ranked teams in Conference USA-East (Marshall, UAB and ECU) to playing the predicted three highest ranked teams in Conference USA-East (UCF, So. Mississippi and Memphis). The nonconference schedule is upgraded next year as well. Texas Tech, Arkansas State and North Texas are still on the schedule, but Sam Houston is replaced by TCU. The Tech, Arkansas State and TCU games are all on the road. Bennett is complaining that four of the first six games are on the road this year; I wonder what he will say when he realizes SMU plays seven road games and just five home games next year.

Third, the only significant loss on the offensive side of the ball was quarterback. Yes, SMU lost experience. The fact is SMU lost two quarterbacks that were not highly recruited by anybody. At times they were gutsy and at times were able to minimize mistakes, but neither quarterback produced stellar numbers. In their place comes Justin Willis who was hyped from the day he arrived and according to Phil Bennett, gave serious consideration to playing him as a true freshman. This is the third year in the same offensive system; a system we have been told repeatedly Justin Willis played in high school. The offense returned nearly every player that caught a pass in 2005. You will forgive us for thinking that the offense might at least meet, if not exceed, last year's 96th ranked passing offense.

As for the running game, the top two running backs return, including DeMyron Martin, whom nearly everyone was expecting to exceed the prior year's performance. The offensive line is bigger and more experienced with four starters returning. Oh, and Willis is a better runner than either quarterback last year. The line is also deeper than previous years. Again forgive us for thinking that the offense might at least meet, if not exceed, last year's 77th ranked rushing attack.

All and all, last year's offense ranked 104th and won five games. Was it unreasonable not to expect better than the 80th rushing offense, the 111th passing offense and 106th ranking in total offense (115th in scoring)?

Fourth, as for the defense, I will remind you that Bennett is a defensive coach. Yes a lot of the secondary and linebackers were replaced, and yes, SMU lost seniors, but SMU didn't lose these guys to the NFL. They have been replaced by players of comparable talent that, for the most part, have watched and should know their position. Not to mention that all four defensive linemen return and last year's top two leaders in sacks are yet to record one.

Fifth, this is Bennett’s fifth season. Five spring workouts. Five recruiting classes. Five years of Bennett’s defensive system. Five years of Bennett’s staff, though the current offense is in year three. In five years, a certain measure of progress is expected to be achieved. I am not saying “bowl or bust,” but beating a team in the worst conference in I-A that finished 2-9 the year before and couldn’t decide on a QB until Wednesday afternoon and a team that you really wanted to play is, well, on the wet end of the measuring stick. I am not even going to tell you where a I-AA team is on the measuring stick.

So, why was there bowl talk? I don’t know whether Bennett believed it or not. But he knew the alumni did. He knew that he had an athletic director and a President that were calling for expectations to be raised. Bennett knew that dealing with the disappointment of his stated goals if SMU fell short was going to be the least of his problems. Under those circumstances, why the heck not? Where is a program supposed to be five years in? It is not unreasonable to say that five games is not the ceiling. It is not unreasonable to say that you ought to be sniffing a winning record.

Honestly, I am irritated Bennett stopped talking bowl bid. We’ve lost two games. SMU should still beat Sam Houston (emphasis on the “should”). SMU plays Arkansas State at home, which is still a very winnable game; SMU may even be favored. Then Tulane. 3-2 is still a very real possibility and that would still be the best record for September in ten years. Soon after that, you may get Martin back. SMU plays .500 ball in-conference and SMU is still bowl eligible IF IT WINS ITS NEXT TWO GAMES. I said before, 2-2 nonconference this year is a disappointment; 1-3 is a disaster. Wait until there is a disaster before throwing away all talk of going to a bowl game.

Now, you may ask me, “What have you seen that leads you to believe SMU is even capable of something like that?” Well, not much. Certainly, on offense there is nothing to be pleased with. Bennett ought to be getting more out of the defense than he is.

This isn’t “Rah Rah Rah” talk. This is about meeting expectations. And to be clear, those expectations are reasonable expectations. This is also about being reasonable and giving a coach the reasonable opportunity to meet those expectation. And it is also about the reasonable consequences of failing to meet those expectations.

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