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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 47: S.M.U.

If I want to win one game, my pick would be Nick Saban. If I want to win one play, it’s Les Miles. One season? I’d take Chris Petersen. If I want to win at a school with all the built-in advantages you could possibly hope for, I’d take Saban, Miles, Stoops, Meyer and so on. If I want to win at a school against all odds, without hope, when everything seems built against you, not for you, I’d call June Jones, hand him a blank check, sit back, relax and watch the wins roll in. If I needed one coach to win where no on else could, I’d take Jones.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Dallas

Nickname
Mustangs

Returning starters
17 (9 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 57

2010 record
(7-7, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 65

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Texas A&M
  • Sept. 10
    UTEP
  • Sept. 17
    Northwestern St.
  • Sept. 24
    at Memphis
  • Sept. 30
    at T.C.U.
  • Oct. 15
    U.C.F.
  • Oct. 22
    at Southern Miss.
  • Oct. 29
    at Tulsa
  • Nov. 5
    Tulane
  • Nov. 12
    Navy
  • Nov. 19
    at Houston
  • Nov. 26
    Rice

Last year’s prediction

I’d put nothing past June Jones: not a repeat of last’s year mark, not a West division championship, not a conference championship, not even — and this would have been absolutely ludicrous to imagine prior to his arrival — a 10-win finish. Can we stop for a moment and consider how far the Mustangs have come in two short years? This program is no longer a punchline, no longer an automatic win, no longer a pushover, also-ran, laughingstock, what have you. S.M.U. is for real; if you’re not on the bandwagon already, space is filling up fast. I expect nothing more than consistent improvement from the Mustangs, beginning with more strides made in 2010 and culminating, in my opinion, with yearly status among the top two or three programs in Conference USA. Another strong Houston team and Tulsa’s projected improvement will prevent S.M.U. from taking the West division, but this program will be heading back to bowl play for a second consecutive season.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Let me tell you something: if you ever doubted June Jones, you deserve nothing but scorn. Too strong? Not quite. Jones, first at Hawaii and now at S.M.U., has made a distinct claim to being one of the top coaches in the country — not the top in Conference USA, not the top coach among the non-B.C.S. conferences, but the best coach in the country. If I’m making my list, Jones is certainly in the conversation; he’s no lower than fifth or sixth, just off the top of my head. What has he done with the Mustangs? The requisite rebuilding year in 2008; the bowl trip in 2009; a second bowl trip in 2010, complete with a West division title. Great coaches don’t grow on trees, but June Jones makes it look awful easy.

High point A 21-18 win over Tulsa on Oct. 9. When all was said and done, this victory ending up providing the head-to-head tiebreaker that gave S.M.U. the Conference USA West division crown.

Low point Losing to U.C.F. in the conference title game is an easy choice, minus one thing: S.M.U. reached the conference title game, which was enough to make anything that ensued afterwards merely gravy, win or lose. Instead, I’ll go with a 14-point loss on the first Saturday of November at UTEP, a team that barely crawled out of its shadow over the second half of the season.

Tidbit  Among the post-death penalty firsts for S.M.U. under Jones: first eight-win season; first back-to-back non-losing seasons; first bowl berth; first back-to-back bowl berths; first conference title of any sort; first season of more than 340 points; first two seasons with more than 340 points.

Tidbit (fun with numbers edition) If you’re looking for statistical improvement belying this program’s rejuvenation under Jones, you won’t really find it on the offensive side of the ball. Seriously: the Mustangs actually averaged fewer points per game last fall, 25.7, than they did in 2009, when they averaged 29.2 points per game. But the offense as a whole has been better, particularly on the ground: 138.8 yards per game last fall, up from 41.4 in 2008 and 109.8 in 2009. If you’re looking for the real reason why S.M.U. has gone from 1-11 to back-to-back bowl berths — not to mention from pre-Jones to today — you need to pay attention to what’s happening defensively. In 2008, the Mustangs finished dead last in Conference USA in total defense (479.5 yards per game), rush defense (225.6) and scoring (38.2 points per game). Last fall, S.M.U.  improved to second (352.9 yards per game), fourth (144.8) and second (25.6 points per game), respectively.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 CB Bryan McCann (Dallas), RB Shawnbrey McNeal (Washington), P Thomas Morstead (New Orleans), WR Aldrick Robinson (Washington), WR Emmanuel Sanders (Pittsburgh).

Arbitrary top five list

M.L.B. players born in Dallas
1. SS Ernie Banks (1953-71).
2. OF Keith Moreland (1978-89).
3. P Storm Davis (1982-94).
4. OF Ruppert Jones (1976-87).
5. P Jack Knott (1933-46).

Coaching

June Jones (played college football at Oregon from 1971-72, at Hawaii from 1973-74 and at Portland State from 1975-76; degree from New York State Regents College), 16-23 after three seasons with the Mustangs. As the last two seasons have indicated, he’s one of the finest college coaches in the country. Jones went 75-41 during a highly successful nine-year stint as the head coach at the University of Hawaii, a period that culminated in a perfect 12-0 season and trip to the Sugar Bowl in 2007. Though the Warriors lost that game – by 41-10 to Georgia – Hawaii’s success earned Jones the national recognition he had long deserved. Though better than the situation he inherited at S.M.U., Hawaii was in mired in the worst stretch in program history upon Jones’ arrival, losing their last 18 games under his predecessor, Fred von Appen. Unlike in 2008, Jones won nine games in his first season at Hawaii, marking one of the best single-season turnarounds in N.C.A.A. history. After slipping back to 3-9 in his second season, the Warriors won at least eight games in six of the next seven seasons, including 23 in his final two seasons on the island. Though Jones was a perfect fit with the Warriors – he loved the community, and vice versa – he was continually frustrated by the lack of support from the university, whether that be in monetary reimbursement or, more importantly, even the most basic of facilities. When the Southern Methodist job became available, Jones saw it as a program that would spare little expense in creating the best environment available. They certainly didn’t skimp on his salary; Jones’ $2 million a year contract makes him by far Conference USA’s highest-paid coach. He deserves every penny: if Jones is not the finest coach in the country, he’s certainly on a very exclusive list.

Players to watch

You would be surprised to hear, if you weren’t already aware, that S.M.U. can run the ball with any team in Conference USA: seventh in yards per game – despite ranking 10th in carries per game – and second in yards per carry. No, this offense isn’t all flash, nine-nine-nine streaks to the end zone, but rather one that has a very fair balance of both run and pass. The passing game looks familiar; quarterbacks change but the run-and-shoot stays the same. What looks different is how well the Mustangs can run the ball behind a talented offensive line and a tough, squat back who led Conference USA in rushing a year ago.

Zach Line didn’t just lead the conference in rushing, garnering 1,494 yards on 244 carries: he left his competition in the dust, bettering his next-closest challenger, Tulane’s Orleans Darkwa, by more than 550 yards. Did you see this coming? Well, you did S.M.U. grow far stronger on the ground from 2008 to 2009, but there was no reason to think that Line, who rushed for 186 yards and 7 scores in a big-back role in 2009, would burst through in such a big way. That’s just what Line did, adding 17 receptions through the air, and he’s a crucial factor in this offense – as a running back, which we didn’t really see coming.

The offensive line has come a long way since 2008: that group couldn’t do anything right, run or pass, but the line has turned into a highly competent group over the last two years. There’s no doubt that this year’s offensive front will be the program’s best yet under Jones. This is due to one rather significant fact: five senior starters. That’s right, five senior starters. One, left guard Josh LeRibeus, is back on the field after missing last season with academic issues. How did LeRibeus spend his year away? By rededicating himself in the weight room and the training table, dramatically transforming his physique; already an all-conference talent prior to his physical changes, LeRibeus is a player to watch on this S.M.U. offense.

But he’s probably not the star of the offensive line. That honor is shared by bookend tackles Kelvin Beachum and J.T. Brooks, on the left and right side, respectively. Each have earned all-conference accolades in the past, Beachum twice, and they anchor this rapidly-developing front. Blake McJunkin, a two-year starter, does a fine job in the middle, with Kelly Turner joining him at right guard.

S.M.U. lost a game-breaker in Aldrick Robinson, who was one of the nation’s most consistent pass-catchers in 2010, but bring back an extremely steady option in senior Cole Beasley (87 receptions for 1,060 yards). Beasley isn’t like Robinson: he’s not going to tear opposing cornerbacks apart, just make catch after catch, be a consistent target and convert on third down, which makes him invaluable. Perhaps junior Darius Johnson (78 for 845, 6 scores) can step into Robinson’s shoes as the team’s next deep threat: he has that sort of potential, some have said, but we’ll see come the fall. This pair will lead the way: seniors Bradley Haynes (35 for 326) and Terrance Wilkerson, the latter back after missing last season, are another pair of experienced options. But look out for a bunch of underclassmen, at least a handful of whom will make an impact in 2011. This includes Keenan Holman, Ryan Walker, Jeremy Johnson and Stephen Nelson – each are in the two-deep.

And this brings us to Kyle Padron, who inhabits one of the more enviable positions in college football: quarterback for June Jones. He must take advantage of this opportunity, as so many quarterbacks before him have done. Last fall was a nice start for the junior, who threw for 3,828 yards and 31 scores as a first-year starter, but he can do more. How much more? The sky is the limit, not merely because of Padron’s own talent but also because of the help he’ll have along the way: Jones, most notably, but also a strong offensive line, a healthy running game and a solid receiver corps. All the pieces are in place for Padron to succeed; the only thing holding Padron back is himself, and as long as he plays with confidence he’ll be fine.

While not receiving close to the sort of acclaim that we see on offense, this defense just gets better and better every year: second-best in Conference USA last fall, there’s no reason to think why the Mustangs can’t be that good again in 2011. I was surprised that to see the defense play so well last fall, if only because a unit typically doesn’t take to a system change – S.M.U. went to 3-4 – in its first season, but rather its second or third. There were no growing pains defensively.

The three-man front is terrific. It’s a group led by all-conference pick Taylor Thompson (32 tackles, 4.5 sacks), a picture-perfect 3-4 end with the size to be terrific against the run and the athleticism to get to the quarterback. If we’re talking about athletic ability, the conversation begins and ends with Margus Hunt, Thompson’s opposite number at end and one of the most intriguing prospects in all of college football. Always a menace on special teams, where he stands as one of the nation’s best at blocking kicks, Hunt (45 tackles, 3 sacks) become a far more complete player in 2010.

Senior Marquis Frazier holds it down on the nose for the third straight season. There’s some nice depth here, notably in senior end Kevin Grenier, but also some nice younger talent coming up the pipeline. You may see a few redshirt freshmen play in 2011, such as end Beau Barnes and tackle Jordan Favreau, but the line as a whole is paced by the three experienced returning starters.

Two starters must be replaced at linebacker, so this position, more than any other on the roster, will have a slightly different look in 2011. One player who returns – and one player to watch on this defense – is weak side linebacker Ja’Gared Davis (90 tackles, 16 for loss, 9 sacks), who is absolutely one of Conference USA’s best. Can he keep up his pace without lost starters Pete Fleps and Youri Yenga? There’s no doubt he can, but Davis will land even more attention in 2011 than he did a year ago.

While Davis does it with flash, middle linebacker Taylor Reed is just steady, steady, steady. Reed led S.M.U. with 145 tackles last fall, setting a new program record and playing a tremendous part in this defense’s substantial improvement against the run. Reed and Davis: that’s a very impressive linebacker pairing. But there will be two new starters, though one, Cameron Rogers, has started a few games in the past. He’s penciled in alongside Reed in the middle, while junior Victor Jones will get first crack at taking over on the strong side.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary The pass defense continues to improve, but the Mustangs are clearly led on defense by the play up front, not an average secondary. The two are intertwined, of course, as the defense’s ability to get pressure in the backfield is of enormous benefit to the cornerbacks and safeties trying their best to hang with Conference USA’s more prolific passing attacks. I think the play along the back end will again take a slight step forward in 2011, but as today the defensive backfield continues the most significant question mark defensively. Say one thing about this year’s group, however: it’s very experienced. No one defensive player has bridged the gap from the bad old days to these glory days quite like senior free safety Chris Banjo, a starter since his freshman season and now, in 2011, a team leader. He made 92 tackles (6.5 for loss) last fall to go with a pair of interceptions, illustrating his willingness to stick his nose in against the run in addition to playing the pass. Joining Banjo at strong safety is junior Ryan Smith (46 tackles, 2 interceptions), with senior Justin Sorrell again serving as his backup. Perhaps the biggest addition to last year’s defense was cornerback Richard Crawford, a JUCO transfer who stepped right into a starting role and led the Mustangs with four interceptions. But Crawford can certainly get better, and will need to be a stopper at cornerback while S.M.U. breaks in a new starter to replace Sterling Moore and Bennie Thomas, who shared time opposite Crawford in 2010. Junior Keith Robinson looks like the starter, but his lack of experience — mostly special teams thus far — is a bit of a concern. That’s the only position really up for grabs: Banjo, Smith and Crawford are locked into starting roles.

Game(s) to watch

The big games come on the road, minus a home date with U.C.F. on Oct. 15. S.M.U. heads to Texas A&M, T.C.U., Southern Mississippi, Tulsa and Houston. That is a serious road slate. The Mustangs will win a handful of those and fare well on the road, so a repeat bowl trip should come without much trouble.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell June Jones has said that this team will be his best yet, that his team is ahead of schedule, and that these Mustangs are good enough to make a significant push onto the national stage. I’m not one to quibble with Jones, and this schedule does present plenty of opportunities to make noise on a national level: Texas A&M, T.C.U., U.C.F. and others. But it’s this same schedule that gives me pause; and it’s this same schedule that has me penciling the Mustangs in at this spot, right inside the top 50 teams in the country, instead of inside the to 35 or 30, where I wish I had the guts to put them. I have to go with my head here, not my heart, when I say that I don’t think S.M.U. can finish the regular season better than 8-4 in 2011. Again, it’s primarily because of this schedule. Texas A&M has too many horses; T.C.U. is young, but still is way farther along than the Mustangs; U.C.F. comes at home, but the Knights are the defending conference champs, not to mention a team that handled S.M.U. last fall; and Houston, Tulsa and Southern Mississippi all come on the road. As said above, the schedule is no joke. If every game was played on a neutral field, I think S.M.U. could win nine or 10 games. The offense is superb. The defense continues to improve, though the secondary remains a concern. And the coaching… well, the coaching is absolutely first-rate, bar none, no questions asked. Can Jones work enough magic to lift the Mustangs beyond the tough schedule and back into the Conference USA title game? You better believe it. But the safer bet is to place S.M.U. a shade below Houston and Tulsa. This team is light-years ahead of where it was only three years ago — an entire galaxy removed from where it stood just five years ago. And S.M.U. will be better even if the record doesn’t reflect much improvement.

Dream season The climb continues; Jones wasn’t kidding. The Mustangs finish the regular season 11-1, losing only to Texas A&M.

Nightmare season Anything less than another bowl trip would be a disappointment, though I think 6-6, with five wins coming in Conference USA, wouldn’t be terrible.

In case you were wondering

Where do S.M.U. fans congregate? The best place to talk S.M.U. football is undoubtedly Pony Fans, a fan site that not only provides a solid message board but also original content for its visitors. You can also check out Pony Pride and Pony Stampede. All ponies, all the time.

Word Count

Through 74 teams 219,269.

Up Next

Who is No. 46? One former member of the school paper at tomorrow’s university went on win a Pulitzer Prize for his work detailing the development of the Boeing 757.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. John Irons says:

    Washington.

  2. Ezra says:

    and for the photo atop the post: TCU’s Davey O’Brien!

    L’il Davey’s Frogs never lost to the ponies, and won the national title in 1938.

    Also, the return of Torlan Pittman to the defensive line (tackle) this season is a big deal.

    Paul: The O’Brien picture made a lot more sense when I was working on the preview, which included a piece about T.C.U. and S.M.U., how the Mustangs want to imitate the Horned Frogs, etc. But the tidbit ran too long, so I pulled it in favor of running it prior to the T.C.U.-S.M.U. game this year. So the picture doesn’t make a lot of sense to go with this preview. But it’s a very cool picture.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    The Warshington Huskies are tomorrow. Way too high for them if you ask me.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    Padron is on the Davey O’Brien Award watch list and that fact alone speaks volumes about Jone’s coaching brilliance and system. Padron is a smart player with some physical limitations. Still, if he stays healthy and continues to start, he will end up fourth or higher on the DI career passing yards list.

    The big question for the Ponies, is can they eventually catch TCU under Jones ?

  5. Ezra says:

    this Frog fan is glad SMU doesn’t come to town earlier than the 5th week, and not after a difficult game.
    SMU is as difficult an opponent as any on TCU’s schedule not named Boise State.

  6. Adam Nettina says:

    Anyone get a sense for how Jones has helped SMU with in-state recruiting? I know he won’t often go toe to toe with the upper teir BCS schools, but at the same time – with resurgent Baylor and Houston – one would think he has a lot of competition for the under the radar guys who’ve slipped to the TCU’s of the world for the past decade.

  7. Burnt Orange says:

    @ Adam Nettina – on in state recruiting, SMU has surged the past two seasons after a slow start under Jones. I would say they have left Rice in the dust and have caught UH. They have a ways to go to catch Baylor but they are closing the gap rapidly. Most of the signees are second tier Texans ( they used to be mostly third tier guys) but they also seem to sign 4-5 out of state guys, including some three star types in recent years. I want to say SMU has relaxed the stringent post Death Penalty academic requirements at the request of Jones but cannot recall where I heard that.

  8. Ezra says:

    SMU relaxed its academic standards for athletes before Jones arrived; it “clarified” its stance again prior to last season, when six (?) of Jones’s recruits did not qualify according to SMU, even though they met the NCAA standards.

    That clarification was in Jones’s favor, meaning the standard for football athletes (others too? I dunno) was lowered again.

    Jones’s 2011 class was the best at SMU in a long, long time. It compares well with Baylor and Houston, but is still a notch below Tech and TCU.

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