UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — As the game neared its conclusion on Saturday, a pedestrian effort teetering into a 29-point blowout, Sonny Dykes could not help but think the scene in Ford Stadium would have been all but impossible two years ago.
The primetime television kickoff, the matchup of two Top 25 teams in Dallas, the capacity crowd (albeit at 25% in this coronavirus era), all of it would have never crossed his mind. To be competitive against the No. 9 team in the nation, that was even further on his imagination.
“In year one, if we were going to beat a team like Cincinnati, it would have taken a miracle,” Dykes said. “Now we are to the point where if we play at a high level, and execute, we will have a shot.”
The growth of the program has been swift and noticeable. SMU has played in two national primetime games in the last two seasons. It has compiled 5-0 starts in back-to-back years for the first time since 1982. The program has been in the Top 25 for 10 weeks in the last 12 months.
But Dykes will tell you there is a fine line between growth and a plateau. The natural step for any college program is to jump from accumulating wins to winning conference championships. It goes from an invitation to national prominence to proving it is deserving of the attention.
Two straight years, SMU has fallen short of that bar. Against Memphis last season, the highest ranked opponent on SMU’s schedule in 2019 and the site of College GameDay, SMU fell narrowly on the road. This year, SMU lost at the hands of Cincinnati — a team that most certainly be SMU’s highest ranked opponent and only primetime showcase.
The conference implications for both of these games ran deep. A Memphis loss derailed SMU’s chances of playing for a conference title. It is still unknown what the Cincinnati loss will do for SMU’s season trajectory, but for the time being at least it knocked SMU off the pedestal of being the American Athletic Conference’s best team .
“We still have a lot of season ahead of us,” Shane Buechele said, keeping most of his thoughts on the two games to himself.
“This is where you find out what your program is really about,” Dykes said, being more blunt about the situation.
That is really the question now as SMU wades into a game with Navy and then a road date with Temple in a short week. Will SMU take the next step? Will it have an opportunity to take the next step?
Dykes, at least to the first question, thinks the answer has already been partially told. He points to the fact that SMU has already beaten a Top 25 team this year in Memphis at home. Memphis is no longer ranked, but was No. 22 when SMU saw it back in early October.
There are other signs too that SMU could be ready to take another step as a program. SMU could have been more competitive, Buechele said, if it didn’t drop a season-high 11 balls on Saturday night. If the offense didn’t lose track of the clock before the half, a 42-13 score may look more even against Cincinnati. Maybe, if SMU converted even half of its trips inside Cincinnati territory into touchdowns, it would have been a different game.
“I think we showed that we can (win) these games. We showed that when we execute, we can drive down the field and score,” Buechele said. “We just have to do it.”
In other words, SMU is taking the “we beat ourselves approach,” to Cincinnati. Maybe not entirely, but SMU did not help itself to being competitive.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Dykes said.
Ultimately, though, the result was a loss. An ugly one at that.
“I think this is where we are right now. Our guys understand if we go out and we play well, we will have a chance to win. If we drop 11 balls, we will not give ourselves a chance to beat many people but less a Top 10 team,” Dykes said.
SMU has no currently ranked opponents left on its schedule. Cincinnati may be the lone opportunity it gets to answer these question in 2020. But Dykes sees progress in the loss.
“Overall I think we are making progress,” Dykes said.