The Mustangs, already in the midst of their best season since 1982, entered the game as two touchdown favorites, but it didn’t take long for Houston to prove that this in-conference, in-state rivalry was going to create a difficult spot for SMU’s New Year’s Six hopes. The Cougars have struggled recently, but a few early stops gave the home crowd some hope against an offense that had scored 40+ points in six of its seven victories. Houston’s defense did end up giving up an explosive play early, allowing Xavier Jones to get loose for one of the most impressive runs we might see all weekend.
SMU went on to build its early lead out to 28-13 in the second half before Houston started to make its climb, riding the efforts of star wide receiver Marquez Stevenson. The junior wideout had his best game of the year against their division rivals, rolling up 211 receiving yards and two touchdowns on five catches, including a 96-yard catch-and-run and this 75-yard score in the third quarter.
Here are three things to know about SMU’s win.
1. The Mustangs remain in prime position to win the AAC. Houston was not SMU’s biggest threat in the AAC West, but the Cougars are absolutely the type of team that can ruin the conference title hopes of a contender with an upset. Meeting Year Zero Dana Holgorsen late in the season, when the players that have remained active are starting to settle into the rhythms of the new regime, is terrifying for a team that wants to win championships, and even more so for the team that enters the road contest undefeated. Thursday night’s game was all about winning, by any margin, especially after the offense explosion against Temple last weekend. This wasn’t SMU’s best game, but all it needed was a win to remain on that championship track.
2. Houston’s upset effort should not be overlooked. When D’Eriq King decided to redshirt the 2019 season, and other signs pointed to veteran Houston players not playing an active role in this season, it was easy to overlook Houston as a player in the national picture. Holgorsen brought some name recognition to the table but without King in the lineup and no Ed Oliver to anchor the defense, Houston dropped below the fold in the national conversation. The fact the Cougars had SMU, not only undefeated but one of the best teams in the AAC, on the ropes should suggest that the future with Holgo is bright, even if things seem bleak in the moment.
3. SMU’s championship caliber will be tested in November. The Mustangs are currently in the lead in the AAC West at 4-0 in conference play, followed by Navy at 3-1 and both Memphis and Tulane at 2-1. It’s easy to celebrate this 8-0 start, but the reality is that the 2019 season will be defined by what happens in November. SMU plays Memphis next week on the road, hosts ECU, then plays at Navy on Nov. 23 and finishes the season against Tulane on Nov. 30 in Dallas. For all the work that Sonny Dykes has done with this group, the effort needed to claim an AAC West title, an AAC championship and contend for a New Year’s Six bowl bid all still remains on the other side of this historic start.