Some coaches try to dodge high expectations. Rhett Lashlee is diving head-first into the expectations pool that he faces in his second season as SMU’s head football coach.
It appears very likely that the Mustangs will be considered at least a top-three team in the new 14-team American Athletic Conference.
Defending champion Tulane also faces high expectations as does two-time defending Conference USA champ UTSA, among six schools joining the AAC from C-USA. Other teams could also surface as contenders, but these appear to be the top three.
“We need to put ourselves in a position to compete in and win a conference championship,” Lashlee said in a recent interview with HERO Sports. “We have been doing a lot of good things in the league like we did a year ago, but we need to take that next step and hopefully make it to the conference championship game and even win it.”
The top two teams in the AAC will compete in the conference championship. Last year, Tulane beat UCF for the league ttle.
SMU and Houston both finished 5-3 in the AAC last season, tied for fourth place behind Tulane, UCF, and Cincinnati.
Of those five schools, only Tulane and SMU remain in the AAC.
UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston have left for the greener (meaning money) pastures of the Big 12.
“We feel like with the guys we have returning from last year, coupled with the high school players and transfers we brought in, we feel like we put ourselves in a position to be able to compete,” Lashlee said.
SMU hit the transfer portal hard and got many players from Power Five schools, including a half dozen from Miami, where Lashlee was the offensive coordinator for two seasons before taking over as SMU’s head coach last season. He had been the offensive coordinator at SMU for two seasons before leaving for Miami.
Lashlee isn’t predicting that SMU will win the AAC, but he’s not backing down from the expectations.
“We just want to do something that hasn’t been done in 40 years here and that’s win a conference championship,” he said.
He was referring to the fact that in 1984, SMU shared the Southwest Conference title with Houston. That was the Mustangs’ last football conference title.
“We have a great tradition, three national championships, a lot of players have gone to the NFL, and we just feel like our program is finally back in a position to seize the moment and try to get us back in a position to compete for championships,” Lashlee said.
SMU has one of the more exciting young quarterbacks leading the offense in redshirt sophomore Preston Stone, who backed up Tanner Mordecai, now at Wisconsin.
In one start last year for an injured Mordecai, Stone completed 11 of 17 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown of 75 yards to Rashee Rice and no interceptions in a 45-34 win at Tulsa.
“This is kind of Preston’s moment, and it feels like he was made to be the quarterback at SMU,” Lashlee said. “He’s a leader, he’s a winner, he’s athletic, he can hurt you with his feet, he is really smart and makes all the throws.”
Lashlee did caution that the 6-foot-1, 209-pound Stone will be a first-time starter.
“Now it is just a difference that he is the guy and just how quickly he can gain that experience,” Lashlee said.
One of the real defensive leaders, according to Lashlee, will be graduate transfer safety Jonathan McGill from Stanford. Last year, he had 55 tackles, seven pass breakups, and an interception while starting all 12 games for the Cardinal.
“Jonathan should be one of the leaders on this team,” Lashlee said. “He was a captain at Stanford, played a lot of football there, and played at Copley High School, about 20 minutes from SMU, and wanted to come home. He is a really good player, and his leadership has been really good for our defense.”
SMU is one of the signature programs in the AAC, which means there has been speculation that if there is future expansion among Power Five schools, especially the Pac-12, that SMU could be a possibility.
Being located in a major market such as Dallas and already considered among the top Group of Five football programs (and remember, football drives expansion), SMU has a lot of positives.
“If conferences are talking about your school or even media, then they see the value in the city of Dallas, the education, the prestige, and the tradition of a school like SMU. And we have been winning, so I think it’s a complement to our school, our city, of what it has been and what it can be again,” he said.
Of course, while he can’t do anything about outside speculation, Lashlee understands the task at hand.
“The reality is that we’re in a tough league, the American,” he said.
So all that about potential conference realignment will sort itself out, but for Lashlee, he comes back to the No. 1 priority: winning an AAC title.
“It’s been almost 40 years since we won a championship,” he said. “In a school with the tradition we have, we have to get that done.”
Again, this is not a prediction, but a statement on what consumes this coach and his team.
“So does that mean we are going to win it? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, but we feel like we’ve got a roster that gives us a chance to compete for it.”