How did SMU finally recover from the death penalty? Should Chase Young be the Heisman Trophy favorite? And what are November's must-see games? Adam Kramer takes on those questions and more in the third installment of his 2019 college football notebook.
Sonny Dykes was in high school when his favorite football program was sentenced to death. At the time, in 1987, he wasn't sure what it meant. No football program had previously received this punishment—the result of years of wide-ranging payments made to players, even after the program had been placed on probation in 1985—and none has since.
Dykes, now 49, grew up in Big Spring, Texas, about a four-hour drive from Dallas and the SMU campus. He knew just how potent the area was when it came to producing high school talent, and knowing that, he assumed it was only a matter of time before the Pony Express resumed a run of dominance that had seen it go 41-5-1 from 1981 to '84.
The team was banned for the 1987 season—prompting an exodus of players and coaches. In 1988, it remained on ice, practicing but not participating in games. But it was after that, ironically, when the team returned to the field in 1989, that reality hit with a 2-9 season. Then 1-10. Then 1-10 again. Outside a handful of semi-successful seasons, SMU proceeded to spend the next three decades as a football doormat.
Dykes kept tabs on the school as his own football career grew—from coaching Texas high school ball to assisting at Texas Tech to heading up a rebuild at Cal.
Then after a four-year stint at Cal, Dykes was named SMU head coach in December 2017. "This is a place I had my eyes on for a long time," Dykes tells B/R. "There are so many things that are attractive about the program, and I love being able to live in Dallas. My wife and I still talk about it every day. We wake up in the morning and we talk about how happy we are to be here."
His vision for the program, at least when he took over, was to bring it back in three or four years. But even in his first season, 2018, the team went 5-7 and there were signs that the rebuild would come in ahead of schedule.
"I thought when we went and played Michigan last year, we really battled those guys—even though we ended up losing by a couple of scores," Dykes says. "We lost to a really good Cincinnati team in overtime, and we probably should have won the game. There were moments when you thought you were headed in the right direction. There were others when I thought it may take a little longer than I originally thought."
Then came this season and the 8-0 start, including a win over ranked TCU, that has the program already tied for its highest win total since 1984. Dykes' team is averaging 43.6 points per game, seventh in the nation, and had climbed as high as No. 15 in the AP rankings—after not being featured in polling since the death penalty—before finally losing a game this past Saturday.
Over the past three decades, the ritual of defeat had grown common at SMU. But this year, even the one loss didn't come quietly—a 54-48 thriller against No. 24 Memphis.
With three wins in its final four games—home against East Carolina, at No. 25 Navy, home against Tulane and then a bowl game—SMU could even tie for its highest total since 1935.
And this is just the beginning. For Dykes, the thrill of SMU's rise in 2019—one of the best stories of the college football season—is only a preview of what he hopes to build in the years ahead.
The expedited rebuild can be traced back to a few factors, he says: inherited talent that has flourished under his tenure coupled with a jolt of meaningful transfers, the most notable being former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele, whose 23 passing touchdowns this year are tied for ninth nationally.
All these years after that high schooler assumed SMU couldn't stay down long, optimism has finally returned. And others are taking notice.
For Dykes, that has made the past few months all the more satisfying.
"You walk around, and there's SMU everywhere now," Dykes says. "There are bumper stickers on cars, and people wearing it on hats and sweatshirts. There's just a general excitement around the university right now. It's just been fun to be a part of it."
Yes, Chase Young should be the Heisman favorite
Heisman voters, let's talk. Yes, Ohio State's Chase Young plays defense. But that doesn't mean you should follow the same archaic, maddening voting practices as usual and not truly consider him for the award.
I know you love giving this piece of bronze to quarterbacks. And if not them, then running backs. And there are some good ones in this year's group, without question. But no player has been as dominant and impactful this season as Young.
The Buckeyes' do-everything defensive end has 13.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in eight games. And it's not just the numbers; it's the impact on seemingly every play Young is on the field.
He should be the favorite to win the Heisman.
He isn't and he won't, because the award has shown no signs of evolving—just ask Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, defensive linemen who unleashed magical seasons that were Heisman-worthy. But Young has the stats and the traits and the team to change that. Now it's up to the voters to acknowledge him.
Welcome to the Silly Season, college football's most exciting, deflating yearly ritual
Yes, the high-profile coaches fired each year are mostly millionaires. Willie Taggart will reportedly take home more than $18 million in buyout money to not coach Florida State anymore. USC will eventually fire head coach Clay Helton. It's inevitable.
Other schools will join in the trend—paying coaches small fortunes to go away. The excitement that builds from this across social media and message boards will create tidal waves, especially at schools with strong histories and large pocketbooks. And it's hard not to get swept up in the madness of it all.
It is exciting. And optimism for fanbases will and should run wild. But there is an underbelly of this that often goes ignored. Full coaching staffs will have to scramble to find new work. Their kids will be asked to change schools.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't all have fun with the rumors that will commence immediately. But be mindful of what's taking place for so many others.
Yes, the College Football Playoff release show is unnecessary, and, yes, you should watch every minute of it
From this point forward, your Tuesday nights are taken. The CFP release show is back, which means the rage and anger and disappointment that stems from the selection committee's snubbing your team has returned.
There will be five Tuesday night shows, all of which are utterly excessive. The Sunday show December 8 is the only one that matters—the day the playoff is officially decided. (These shows are meant to increase interest and sell advertisements, and they do an excellent job of both.)
But while ranking teams at this juncture may seem unnecessary, it's also entertaining. Excess isn't always a bad thing, and the rankings allow us to dive deep into the mindset of a group of human beings given the impossible task.
I will be watching, and if you're reading this column, you should be too. Let the anger flow through us each Tuesday night in November.
Cancel your plans for these five games this month
1. No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama, Nov. 9 (Week 11): We called it the "Game of the Century" a while back. Then we did it again. And sure, let's do it once more: No. 1 vs. No. 2.
The storylines are endless. LSU's rapid offensive evolution. Tua Tagovailoa's ankle injury. Playoff implications. SEC bragging rights. You could write 5,000 words on this game without breaking a sweat.
No, it's not an elimination game. But that doesn't make it any less significant. This is why you watch college football, for games like this.
2. No. 5 Penn State at No. 3 Ohio State, Nov. 23 (Week 13): It may not carry the same weight as LSU-Alabama, but the significance and general intrigue between Penn State and Ohio State will be enormous.
Both teams are 5-0 in the Big Ten East—two fewer losses than the next-best team—so, barring something weird happening in the next few weeks, the winner here will be bound for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Penn State does have a bit of work to do beforehand—and we'll get to that. But regardless, this will be a spectacular matchup.
3. No. 6 Georgia at No. 12 Auburn, Nov. 16 (Week 12): When I think of SEC football in mid-November, I think of games like this: Two teams with enormous expectations that have experienced remarkable highs and violent lows during the year.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Georgia-Auburn, though, is we're not quite sure what it'll mean come playoff time.
Georgia controls its fate in the SEC East, sitting a loss ahead of Florida, while Auburn closes out the season with games against the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide after enduring a schedule that has been anything but favorable.
Time will tell what exactly this game means, but it could impact teams well outside the SEC.
4. No. 2 Alabama at No. 12 Auburn, Nov. 30 (Week 14): Of course, the Iron Bowl is on here. It's the Iron Bowl.
The fact that the game is being played at Auburn is certainly relevant. What it means for both teams—particularly Alabama—will likely be dictated by what happens Saturday against LSU.
Still, this is one of the greatest rivalries in a sport celebrated for these types of games. It will still crack this list if Auburn loses to Georgia. This is a game you should always cancel all plans for and consume without interruption.
5. No. 5 Penn State at No. 13 Minnesota, Nov. 9 (Week 11), and No. 3 Ohio State at No. 14 Michigan, Nov. 30 (Week 14): Let's bundle two Big Ten games for the final spot. While no one envisioned that Penn State and Minnesota would meet in mid-November as undefeateds, that's precisely what will happen Saturday.
Minnesota scrapped through some ugly close calls early on, although its play has vastly improved. Penn State, meanwhile, is seemingly crisper and more dominant every week.
As for Ohio State and Michigan, the narrative is pretty established by now: Can Jim Harbaugh finally beat the Buckeyes?
A month ago, the thought would've seemed outrageous. But the Wolverines have quietly, steadily improved. Can they can finally conquer this specific demon? For now, let's just say this game could end up a lot closer than we originally thought.
Final takeaways: More must-see TV and CFB
1. Don't let the College Football Playoff blind you from other great things that are taking place around the sport. I love the playoff, and I believe it's necessary. But I don't love that it outshines most everything in CFB come November. There is so much more to celebrate than that. Expand your palate if you haven't already.
2. The Curse of Oak Island is back on television this week. If you enjoy treasure-hunting shows that are speculative, normally without treasure and occasionally fascinating, you should check out this History Channel production. I love it. I hate it. Nothing seems to actually happen. They pretty much only find old buttons and coins. And I refuse to quit.
3. Speaking of television, I thought El Camino, Breaking Bad's Netflix follow-up, was perfectly fine. Not brilliant. Certainly not bad. Beautifully shot. Wonderfully acted. And while it didn't move things all that far in the story, they sure know how to make great television. Also, Jesse Pinkman is an all-time character.
4. Yes, I want players to be able to profit off their likeness at the collegiate level. And yes, I want them to profit off their likeness so EA Sports' NCAA Football franchise can return and we can throw our arms around it with a warm embrace. I wrote about the CFB video game franchise this past summer—exploring the joy in the creation and the cult-like following it has garnered. It feels like we're getting closer thanks to the movement the NCAA can no longer run from. For those who loved this game—and for someone, like myself, who used to simulate the season and then post results on blogs and even this website—I yearn for the moment the childish tradition will return.
5. Have you watched Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell yet? I didn't think it was possible to upgrade from Darrell Henderson, who was brilliant last season for the Tigers. But they might have. The freshman is one of the brightest young stars in the sport. As a whole, that Memphis team is all sorts of fun.
6. I will be at Alabama-LSU on Saturday. While covering college football at Bleacher Report is indeed a "job," being able to attend games of this stature is still something I appreciate beyond words. Deep down, I'm a football junkie. I love the sport. Look for all sorts of content from the game this weekend.
7. It snowed in my hometown on Halloween. A few thoughts and observations about that: A) My children still trick-or-treated for two hours; B) Dad found ways to stay warm; and C) Might be time to move.
8. The Urban Meyer-to-USC rumors are unsurprising and still fascinating. The former Florida and Ohio State coach could very well become the first head coach in college football to make more than $10 million per season. But will he leave his television gig? He's quite good at it, but maybe the USC job is intriguing enough to come out of retirement again? Or Florida State? At this point, it's hard to say. But the story will consume the sport in the weeks to follow.
9. The season-ending ACL injury to Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State's star junior wideout, is such a bummer. Over the past two seasons, few offensive players have been more impactful. Just a massive loss for the Pokes.
10. In July, former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen died at age 38. The QB, known in college as the Hefty Lefty, struggled with obesity during and after football—the root cause of his passing. Last week, I wrote a story on Lorenzen, his life, his death and his legacy. Quite honestly, I don't think I'll ever forget this one. The heartbreak of having to write about a life gone too soon and the love that so many had for him was truly challenging. These types of stories stay with you when you write them and long after. But they are also why I do what I do. It was a privilege to report and publish.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.