How SMU has shocked college football with a surprising undefeated start to 2019

The last time SMU started 6-0, we pretty much knew how the Mustangs got there. Those were the days of gifted Trans Ams and a governor overseeing a pay-for-play scheme. The Mustangs were basically the best team money could buy.

That was 1982.

And while the NCAA's death penalty wouldn't come for another five years, a culture had been established. (Please watch "Pony Excess" for a history lesson.) So any criticism of how SMU is getting it done now should be muted.

"We have 21 graduates on our team. You know what I'm saying?" SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. "I'm sure there were SMU teams way back when that weren't quite built that way."

From cheaters to (world) beaters, it seems that was the case. Not only is Dykes playing by the rules, he is expertly taking advantage of them.

SMU has been working the transfer portal like a farmer plowing a field. There are 35 transfers at SMU, one-third of the roster. If that isn't the most of any FBS team, it's darn close.

"I don't know that, when we took the job at SMU, that's the way it was going to be," Dykes said this week. "It was the way it turned out."

The direct result is the Mustangs' first AP Top 25 ranking since 1986. SMU's hope is to make its first major bowl since those Pony Express days of 1982. 

This trip would presumably be scandal free.

When Dykes arrived two years ago, he was getting back to familiar territory. Texas is his home state. His dad, Spike, coached Texas Tech for 14 years. Sonny has recruited the state for years. After being fired at Cal following the 2016 season, the man who recruited, developed and coached Jared Goff spent a year as an offensive analyst at TCU.

It took a confluence of Texas football talent and NCAA freedom to make this the best SMU season since MTV ruled the airwaves.

At some point, it was determined SMU would fill its roster holes with transfers. All programs do it. Dykes figured he would utilize three or four a year. Now there are almost three dozen transfers either playing or sitting out the required year-in-residence for undergrads.

It can be argued with some authority that SMU wouldn't be back in the national conversation without former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele and former West Virginia receiver Reggie Roberson, the Mustangs' leading pass catcher.

The leading tackler, linebacker Patrick Nelson, transferred from Illinois. Kicker Luke Hogan is also from West Virginia.

Dykes said Roberson -- from Mesquite, Texas -- was sort of the pied piper. The receiver got a transfer waiver to be eligible immediately, leaving West Virginia when both parents back home became ill.

"All of the sudden, he became the poster child," Dykes said. "He just knows everybody. He started talking to other players."

Dykes and SMU have no shame, nor should they. This is part of what the transfer portal has become -- a one-stop shop both for athletes wanting a change and programs looking to rebuild.

Use it at your peril … or as a foundation for a program.

Pre-portal Texas Tech basketball used four transfers to the get to the national championship game. Ohio State (Justin Fields) and Oklahoma (Jalen Hurts) are in the top 10 with transfer quarterbacks fresh out of the portal.

"Our first year here, we all of a sudden started getting kids that were reaching out to us," Dykes explained,
"through a high coach or a teammate, just kind of saying, 'Hey I'd like to come back home.'"

Dykes relied on the expertise of Jeff Jordan, his director of player personnel. Jordan is the former head coach at nearby Garland High School who, during his down time, scouted for the Dallas Cowboys for 25 years.

"It's almost like you have a salary cap guy," Dykes said. "You have to have a guy who monitors the transfer portal."

Jordan is that guy. "You knew [the portal] was going to be pretty big. But I think it caught everybody by surprise on how big it actually has become," he told the Dallas Morning News.

Yeah, but there are other big cities with bigger programs that could target transfers as a philosophy. USC, anyone? Miami?

TCU and North Texas are in the Dallas Metroplex, too, supposedly with access to the same Lone Star transfers.

SMU has beaten both this season. Coincidence?

"It shows how well a job Coach Dykes has done with that club," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It's great to be able to get talent, but you've also got to be able to mesh your team together. There's chemistry. Give a lot of credit to the guys who do that."

SMU's situation is more organic. It just seemed to happen naturally. Three years ago, Buechele was leading Texas to a season-opening overtime win over Notre Dame. That same season, he lost the starting job and coach Charlie Strong was fired.

Buechele isn't even supposed to be here -- like, at all. He told reporters while at Texas that he was born despite his father -- former major leaguer Steve Buechele -- getting a vasectomy.

Back to football. The native of nearby Arlington, Texas, is leading the AAC in passing. Hogan is on his third school; he started out at Houston. He made his first career field goal in a 41-38 upset of TCU on Sept. 21.

Throw in Dykes' Air Raid offense, and SMU becomes more of an attraction. Dykes is one of the leading practitioners of the offense having worked for both Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.

This is ultimately what the transfer portal has wrought for SMU: It is one of two teams in the country that is bowl eligible. The other is Ohio State. Both are 6-0.

Dykes is only the second SMU coach to have a winning record at any point (10-8) since that death penalty came down in 1987.

More history: Saturday's rally from three touchdowns down entering the fourth against Tulsa marked the 10th time in college football history that had ever happened, according to ESPN. The previous record of teams trailing by that margin going into the fourth quarter: 9-3,000.

The portal debuted a year ago allowing players to bypass the usual "permission" to transfer from a coach and/or school. Athletes merely had to notify the departing school that they were putting their in the online portal.

Coaches have complained about "free agency" and questioned the loyalty of departing players. But there isn't one of them who wouldn't take one of those "disloyal" players if he could make his team better.

"I was glad to see the portal happen because I think it cleaned up some things that were happening with transfers," Dykes said. "It made it good for the players. It made it clean. That was a good move by the NCAA because I always thought there was some underhanded stuff going on."

The downside of leaning too heavily on transfers is that it can impact the locker room and disrupt the delicate balance of roster management.

Dykes begins each day by taking out a spreadsheet that shows how that balance is working. Depth chart meets transfer portal meets recruiting.

"In a weird sort of way, it fixed our roster," Dykes said.

"We're not taking kids who got kicked off other teams, bad attitudes or anything like that. We're taking kids who are coming home to play in front of their friends and family. And getting a master's degree at SMU [for graduate transfers] means something from an academics standpoint."

It's almost hard to remember there was a time not too long ago that SMU teams weren't quite built that way.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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