Another year, another September Iron Skillet matchup. SMU heads to Fort Worth on Saturday to challenge TCU yet again; the Mustangs have won only twice in Fort Worth since the early 1990s. The Horned Frogs have won the last seven matchups against SMU, and despite what it may have felt like, most of these affairs have been relatively drama-free; TCU has won by double digits the last six games, including a 56-0 win in 2014, the largest win by either program in the series.
Looking at the program tracker from our friend at collegefootballdata.com, in the late nineties, SMU almost had their revival, but since, the two programs have been separated by at least ten spots in SP+ overall ranking, sometimes as many as 40 or 50.
But the past is the past. Sonny Dykes leads an experienced and deep team who has found a bit of an offensive groove this season and looks as competitive an SMU unit as TCU has faced in recent memory. Let’s turn our attention to some advanced stats and characterize what TCU and SMU can expect to see on the field.
SMU Mustangs (71st SP+ overall, 42nd off, 92nd def) at
TCU Horned Frogs (25th, 65th, 19th)
SP+ Prediction: 81% TCU Wins, TCU 35, SMU 20 (over)
FEI Prediction: 76% TCU Wins, Projected Margin of 14.8
When TCU has the ball
The TCU rushing attack versus Purdue has drawn some praise, and it should - the Frogs had a 54% success rate rushing the ball against the Boilermakers, and they rushed on 67% of plays! TCU’s rushing game should pose a formidable threat to an SMU team who has struggled to defend the rush - the Mustangs have allowed 5 yards per rush this season, 86th in the nation, and that is unadjusted for opponent quality: by success rate, the Mustangs have played the 94th, 63rd, and 111th best rushing offenses in the nation, and still allowed 5 yards a carry. For TCU, who is averaging a 55% success rate on rushes (8th) and 6.56 yards per carry (13th), that should provide a strong opportunity for attack.
You’d hope that rushing attack will have some general equilibrium effects: namely, you’d like for the rushing success to take the spotlight off the pass, diverting SMU’s attention in preparation for the game away from pass defense. TCU’s pass game has left much to be desired, and any opportunity the rush game can give to help the pass game figure things out, TCU should take.
TCU is averaging a 33% success rate on passes this season, 104th in the nation. Literally, Rice and Rutgers are more successful in their passing game than TCU is right now. Expect that to change, but still... yikes. SMU presents a cure for the common offense, though - they’ve allowed 40% success rates (75th in the nation), but only 4.55 yards per attempt. They seem willing to give up the short pass in favor of preventing the long bomb - SMU ranks 8th in the nation in explosive pass rate - which works against TCU, because TCU evidently doesn’t have a deep threat yet. Should they find it, the Frogs will be able to exploit an overmatched defense.
When SMU has the ball
The Mustang offense ranks 42nd in efficiency nationally. Typically, I’ll grade P5 and G5 teams on a curve - for example, if you’re a P5 team and less than the 55-60 range in any category, you are very bad. If you’re a G5 team and higher than 55-60 range in a category, you’re very good. SMU’s offense is a very good unit. SMU ranks 25th in raw yards per play, averaging 6.903 yards per play on over 13 drives a game (high pace of play!) and 6.8 plays per drive. They’re 34th in success rate, gaining 50% of yards on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down 45.9% of the time. SMU ranks 2nd in finishing scoring opps with Touchdowns - 21 of their 41 drives ended in TDs; 26 of those were scoring opportunities.
SMU expectedly excels in the pass game, keeping drives alive and moving the ball with the pass game: 25th in Pass Success Rate (50%), and 20th in yards per pass (8.67). Their passing game is also consistently explosive: 21.5% of their passing plays gain yardage categorized as “explosive”, 45th in the nation. Last week, all 7 of SMU’s touchdown drives against Texas State involved plays of at least 20 yards. Stopping the explosive aspect to SMU’s offense will be crucial in stopping their offensive attack.
Fortunately, as we see above, TCU had some success last week against Purdue’s long threat. Taking this with a enormous grain of salt, given the status of one Elijah Sindelar, but TCU allowed only two passes of 20 yards last week - one of those came against TCU’s backups, and the other was an impressive throw and catch that even good defense couldn’t do much to prevent. Purdue last week threw 12 balls downfield (>~12 yards or so), and completed only three of them. Two were picked off, and seven fell incomplete. TCU is third in the nation at limiting explosive plays this early in the season, as you’d expect them to be against an FCS school and an injury-depleted Purdue.
The SMU rushing attack has been surprisingly effective - the Mustangs rush at a rate of 57.3% (over 60% on early downs). While their yards per play and explosiveness are both less effective than the pass, they don’t get stopped much - 13th in stuff rate, and their line is 42nd in the nation at opportunity yards.
SMU has struggled on first down (71st in success rate) this season, but more than made up for it later on: 16th in 2nd down, 15th on third down. The key to stopping drives for TCU will be to make SMU pay when the go off schedule on first downs.
TCU’s defense has yet to force or even recover a fumble but has 4 interceptions on the year, with an expected 5 interceptions based on passes defended. SMU, on the other hand, has thrown three interceptions and lost two fumbles on the season. Ball security will be a huge avenue for TCU to uproot SMU’s offensive flow.
I don’t quite see this game hitting the under- I’m expecting something similar to last week, perhaps a little more pointsy. SMU is capable of deep threats, and I think their offense will be a little more competent than what TCU saw against Purdue. Additionally, they’ve had one more game of live reps than TCU has. Prediction: TCU 38 - SMU 27.
What are your thoughts? Does SMU keep this one close?