• Joe Broback

Can Shane Buechele and SMU finish the job in 2020?

Shane Buechele and the SMU Mustangs walked off the field in Bacon Raton, Florida feeling defeated. Deflated. Disappointed. A disastrous end to a successful 2019 season lingered on the minds of the Mustangs this past offseason, and it will be the driving force that brings them back more prepared thane ever for 2020. Both Buechele and SMU burst on to the scene last year, and they're here to prove that they can do it again.

Buechele and Sonny Dykes worked well together last year. The Mustangs quarterback threw for 3,929 yards in 2019, good for sixth in the country (third among returning quarterbacks). He also finished tied for sixth in passing touchdowns last year. Yet there's still room for him to do more. That 4,000 yard passing mark looms ahead of this year, a mark that's more than achievable with the skill around him. Buechele and Dykes were still getting acquainted on the field for most of last year. Now they've had an offseason to digest what went right and what could get better. With that knowledge, all they have to do is figure out personnel.

Protection shouldn't be an issue for a few reasons. Guys like tackle Andrew Thomas are back to protect Buechele, and this group only allowed their quarterback to be sacked 17 times last year. The system that Dykes put in place also allows for some relief with quick passes, so he can still get passes off when the protection breaks down. That assurance goes a long way in the confidence of a gunslinger, one that now just needs to find a few more playmakers.

Running backs Xavier Jones and Ke'Mon Freeman gave SMU a reliable 1-2 punch in the backfield, but both are gone. TJ McDaniel broke through one game, but there's not much experience anywhere else. A big reason for the offense's success was thanks to the running game. Everyone knew that Dykes and the offense would be able to throw the football, but establishing the run was the X-factor. When it worked, the offense dominated. Now there's little experience next to Buechele, but that's not the only skill position he needs to address.

Reggie Roberson Jr. returns his 803 yards receiving from last year (18.7 per catch) along with six touchdowns. When he's on, as we saw wit his 250-yard, three touchdown performance against Temple, he's one of the best deep threats in college football. He just needs to stay healthy, while also proving that he can fill James Proche's shoes. Proche moved on to the NFL after catching 111 passes for 1,225 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. While that is a lot of experience to replace, guys like Roberson will step up to fill his shoes. Tight end Kylen Granson should have another great year, and young players like Rashee Rice and Tyler Page figure to play prominent roles. Incoming junior college transfer Danny Gray is gaining popularity among analysts for his abilities at receiver, and it sounds like he'll be the guy behind Roberson.

So, while it seems like there's a lot to produce, there's just as much talent waiting to replace that production. Shane Buechele gets to work with another great group of playmakers, and the Mustangs offense should be just fine as long as he limits turnovers and lets those guys do work. As a team, though, there can't be a delay for them to keep going, and finishing the year remains a focus.

Again, it's too early to think about the end of the year when we haven't even started, but it's something this team has struggled with in the pass. Starting strong at times has also been an issue. Over the past seven years, SMU's gone 3-4 in season openers. Here's a list of the results from those games:

2013: L, Texas Tech 41 SMU 23

2014: L, Baylor 45 SMU 0

2015: L, Baylor 56 SMU 21

2016: W, SMU 34 North Texas 21

2017: W, SMU 58 Stephen F. Austin 14

2018: L, North Texas 46 SMU 23

2019: W, SMU 37 Arkansas State 30

Granted, the Mustangs opponent this weekend, Texas State, isn't the formidable opponent they've seen in the past, but that's even more of a reason to start strong. A game like the 2017 win over Stephen F. Austin should be the goal. Texas State isn't in the same realm as SMU, so it should be a blowout. A strong start will be huge for a team that many are counting out in the AAC championship race, and that should help the concerns towards the end of the year.

SMU hasn't exactly dominated at the start, and it's been a disaster at the end. Even last year's team, one of the best in school history, hit a wall to end the year on one of the worst notes possible. Unfortunately, that's not new. How bad have the Mustangs been in their final game of the season? Well, to start, they're 1-6 in their final seven games, and the scores haven't been pretty:

2013: L, UCF 17 SMU 13

2014: W, SMU 27 UConn 20

2015: L, Memphis 63 SMU 0

2016: L, Navy 75 SMU 31

2017: L, Louisiana Tech 51 SMU 10

2018: L, Tulsa 27 SMU 24

2019: L, FAU 52 SMU 28

Yikes. It's a trend that continues to plague SMU, but one that hopefully ends this season. Last year's team was special, but even they couldn't avoid the disappointment. The Mustangs started 8-0, one of the best starts ever for their program, but slipped to a 2-3 finish, including the Boca Raton Bowl debacle. Again, it's too early to be looking at the end of the season, but a slow start could mean they're headed for a rough finish. With talent like Buechele returning, it's tough to see that happening again.

Shane Buechele already broke a number of records in his first year as the Mustangs signal caller, and he's headed for more. Single season passing yards, single season passing touchdowns, touchdowns in a game are already his. A 4,000 yard season would put him second all-time in passing yards, he has the fourth and fifth most passing yards in a single game, and tied for eighth in career passing touchdowns (which he can take the lead with 28 touchdown passes this year). He's been one of the best players the programs ever seen, and the best quarterback they've had in the program's history. This isn't just another guy. Buechele's a record breaking quarterback who can take SMU back to the top. But he can't do it alone. It will be a team effort.

The saying goes, "it's not how you start, it's how you finish." This year, it is about how Buechele and the Mustangs start, but it's also how they finish. A conference championship isn't possible if SMU trips before they begin the race.