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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. 56: S.M.U.

Don’t lie: it was a little awkward. Begin with the widely-held presumption that once June Jones signed up for S.M.U., taking on the biggest challenge in college football, he was enlisting for good – that this would be his last stop in a topsy-turvy coaching career. And remember that Jones is rewarded handsomely for his services, thanks to a few influential and deep-pocketed university supporters, and has as much job security as any coach in the country. So when Jones says that he’s all in, that he’s committed to making things happen at S.M.U., it’s with a high degree of surprise that you hear that he’s hours away from finalizing – nay, had already finalized – a deal with Arizona State. No, that’s not the awkward part. The awkward part is when the deal falls apart, and Jones strolls back into Dallas, whistling as if nothing ever happened. That’s a little awkward.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Dallas, Tex.

Nickname
Mustangs

Returning starters
10 (3 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 47

2011 record
(8-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 48

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Baylor
  • Sept. 8
    Stephen F. Austin
  • Sept. 15
    Texas A&M
  • Sept. 29
    T.C.U.
  • Oct. 6
    at UTEP
  • Oct. 13
    at Tulane
  • Oct. 18
    Houston
  • Oct. 27
    Memphis
  • Nov. 3
    at U.C.F.
  • Nov. 10
    Southern Miss.
  • Nov. 17
    at Rice
  • Nov. 24
    Tulsa

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell As expected, S.M.U. did not share the same rarified air as Conference USA frontrunners Houston, Southern Mississippi and Tulsa. That trio had their way with the Mustangs, with each win coming by at least 24 points – by a combined 85 points as a group. And as expected, S.M.U. did have its way with lesser non-conference talents and the ugly portion of Conference USA during the regular season. What was unexpected, however, was this: S.M.U. 40, T.C.U. 33. Another unexpected victory came during bowl play, when the Mustangs whipped on demoralized Pittsburgh, 28-6. So you’re left with two ideas of S.M.U. in 2011: one team that couldn’t sniff the conference’s best while trouncing its also-rans, and another team that could knock off T.C.U. in Fort Worth and top a B.C.S. conference foe during bowl play.

High point The win over T.C.U. on the first Saturday of October. Ignore the idea that the Horned Frogs would have had their way with S.M.U. had the two met in November. For that Saturday, S.M.U. asserted itself against a team that after years of dominance in the series had little reason to take the program seriously. It’s not a stretch to say that the wins over T.C.U. and Pittsburgh – along with the program’s recent renaissance – did much to convince the Big East that S.M.U. was worthy of an invite.

Low point The losses to Tulsa, Southern Mississippi and Houston. The gap between those teams and S.M.U. was as wide as the gap between S.M.U. and, say, Rice. Good news: the Mustangs won’t have to play the Golden Hurricane and Golden Eagles after this coming season. Bad news: the series with Houston will continue.

Tidbit S.M.U., along with the Cougars, Boise State, Memphis, San Diego State and U.C.F., will join the Big East in 2013. The Mustangs are 7-2-3 all-time against teams that currently make up its new league, though only one of those wins, last year’s bowl victory over Pittsburgh, came against a team then part of the Big East – and Pittsburgh isn’t long for the conference, remember. The Mustangs are 0-0-2 against Temple, tying the Owls in 1942 and 1946; 1-0 against Syracuse, taking a 16-6 decision in 1932; 1-0 against Connecticut, back in 1989; 2-0 against Louisville, beating the Cardinals during the program’s heyday in 1983 and 1984; and 3-2-1 against the Panthers.

Tidbit (21 or more points edition) The Mustangs went 8-0 last fall when scoring first and 8-0 when scoring 21 or more points. Over the last three years, S.M.U. is 26-3 when scoring 21 or more points. Five of the six losses – three came in 2010, three in 2009 – came against non-conference competition: to Texas Tech, T.C.U. and Navy in 2010, and to Washington State and Navy in 2009. The Mustangs’ lone Conference USA loss since 2009 when scoring 21 or more points came to Marshall in 2009; the Thundering Herd outscored S.M.U., 35-31.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 OT Kelvin Beachum (Pittsburgh), WR Cole Beasley (Dallas), CB Richard Crawford (Washington), OG Josh Leribeus (Washington), CB Bryan McCann (Oakland), CB Sterling Moore (New England), P Thomas Morstead (New Orleans), WR Aldrick Robinson (Washington), WR Emmanuel Sanders (Pittsburgh), K Matt Szymanski (Kansas City), TE Taylor Thompson (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

June Jones’ college quarterbacks
1. Colt Brennan (2005-7).
2. Timmy Chang, Hawaii (2000-4).
3. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii (2001-2).
4. Kyle Padron, S.M.U. (2009-11).
5. Dan Robinson, Hawaii (1999).

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), 24-28 after four seasons with the Mustangs. As the last three 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 regular 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 S.M.U. 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; when he was hired, Jones’ salary made him by far Conference USA’s highest-paid coach. Thus far, he’s deserved every penny. But after three straight bowl berths, it’s time for S.M.U. to make a run at the Conference USA crown.

Tidbit (coaching edition) S.M.U. suffered a tough loss when offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was hired at U.C.L.A., robbing the Mustangs of one of the nation’s premier recruiters. The program also lost wide receivers coach Dan Reinebold, who left for the Montreal Alouettes – to be its defensive coordinator, believe it or not. U.C.L.A. and the Mustangs eventually swapped line coaches, with Bob Palcic coming over to S.M.U. after spending the last four years with the Bruins. To replace Reinebold, Jones hired former Houston assistant Jason Phillips, who will also be given the title of co-offensive coordinator – though Jones will continue to call plays. Phillips’ value goes beyond the field: he immediately replaces Klemm as the program’s top recruiter.

Players to watch

As of today, S.M.U. has three quarterbacks on the roster. Two are redshirt freshmen. A third, sophomore Stephen Kaiser, had his redshirt burned so he could make one single pass attempt in the Mustangs’ bowl win over Pittsburgh – though I could see why Jones might have wanted to create some eligibility separation between Kaiser and two redshirt freshmen. So, as of today, S.M.U.’s quarterback situation lies somewhere between dire and ominous. You can see why former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert put the full-court press on his studies in order to become eligible in time for this coming season.

He’s already hit one stack of books. Up next lies the daunting task of learning Jones’ offense, one that makes the quarterback a direct extension of the head coach himself – it’s an offense that demands production, even if it’s a system that makes it easier for a quarterback to reach his full potential. That’s one thing Gilbert has in spades: potential. Unfortunately, outside of one half of unexpectedly poised football in the 2010 B.C.S. national title game against Alabama, Gilbert’s potential has been completely and utterly unrealized.

He’s just one of several high-profile quarterback recruits to roll into Austin and disappoint; in that regard, Gilbert is just a face in the crowd. But he’s more than that: the anointed successor to Colt McCoy, Gilbert rode a wave of optimism into his first starting season, in 2010, but then saw his once-promising career crash down in a cascade of turnovers. He threw 17 picks in 2010, completing less than 60 percent of his attempts, and threw another pair against B.Y.U. in the second game of last season before losing the starting job for good.

Unrealized potential. But Gilbert will get a second life from Jones, the quarterbacking guru who once revived another career once considered more unsalvageable than Gilbert’s heading into 2012 – that of Colt Brennan, who Jones turned from mammoth disappointment into Heisman finalist. Before dismissing Gilbert for his often inept turn at U.T., keep two things in mind. One, don’t ignore the talent. Yes, recruiting rankings are skewed, and not just in the idea that five-star prospects are really two stars in disguise; a recruit headed to Texas is also going to get more love than one heading to Baylor, for example. Secondly, Gilbert is going to get far better coaching under Jones than he did with the Longhorns.

He’s not perfect. And most likely, Gilbert isn’t going to turn into the star most predicted he’d become entering his sophomore season. Gilbert is simply a tremendously talented quarterback for a school like S.M.U. and a system like the one the Mustangs run. He’s also Jones’s latest reclamation project.

The uncertainty surrounding Gilbert’s ability to grasp this system is mirrored elsewhere, to a different degree. S.M.U. lost a tremendous amount of talent and experience off of last year’s offense, most notably on the offensive line – see below for more. But S.M.U. returns enough talent at the skill positions to keep this offense rolling, even if that hinges both on Gilbert and the Mustangs’ ability to rebuild up front. While the new quarterback gets his feet wet, S.M.U. will lean on the proven production of senior running back Zach Line, the former short-yardage back who has added another dimension to this offense over the last two years.

Last fall, Line followed up his breakout 2010 campaign with another gem: 1,224 yards and 17 touchdowns, both totals good for tops in Conference USA – in fact, Line was the only back in the league to rush for more than 925 yards. And these totals came in only 10 games, as Line missed the final three games of the season with a foot injury. Now back at 100 percent, Line will continue running through, over and around defenders as a senior. And before you think that he’s merely churning up yardage against the weaklings of Conference USA, consider this: Line averaged 137.0 yards per game last fall against Texas A&M, T.C.U. and Southern Mississippi, each of which finished in the top 25 nationally against the run. That he did so while S.M.U. struggled to land consistent quarterback play proves how underrated Line is on a national level.

But as last season proved, S.M.U. does need to identify a capable reserve. As was the case in 2011, sophomores Rishad Wimbley (178 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Jared Williams (180 yards) will need to produce if called upon. The good news? Line is so good late in games that S.M.U. doesn’t often go to the second level of backs – though the pair was needed in November and December.

The Mustangs’ four-receiver set lost two valuable pieces in Cole Beasley and Terrance Wilkerson. If the passing game is going to click under Gilbert, S.M.U. needs a breakout season from sophomore Der’rikk Thompson (30 receptions for 411 yards), who steps into Beasley’s role in the top group. He’s joined there by senior Darius Johnson (79 for 1,118 and 8 touchdowns), who, like Thompson, served in a secondary role as a freshman – a much smaller role than the one Thompson held last year, even – before breaking out during his second season in this offense.

S.M.U. is excited about Thompson’s potential in this offense, and you can see why. With his physical gifts, all Thompson needs to do in order to reach all-conference status is streamline his consistency; he disappeared at times last fall, as freshmen often do. And with Johnson demanding attention, Thompson will have every opportunity to make a splash. S.M.U. also returns juniors Keenan Holman and Jeremy Johnson (16 for 146), giving this offense a pretty clear starting four. Further depth comes from younger players like sophomore Arrius Holleman and redshirt freshmen Darius Joseph and Ronnell Sims.

It’s not crazy: S.M.U.’s recent climb has as much to do with a rejuvenated defensive effort as it does with Jones’ impact on this offense. Last fall, the Mustangs finished second in Conference USA in total defense, first in yards per play allowed, fourth against the pass, second against the run – 23rd nationally – and fourth in scoring, giving up less than 23.5 points per game for the first time since 1985. The offense got the headlines, even if some were of the negative variety; the defense just went to work, putting together one of the most underrated efforts of any group in the country.

The offense has to address the quarterback situation, find complimentary options at receiver and complete an overhaul up front. While the Mustangs attack these issues, they’ll again call on this defense to not only keep them in games but also carry this team to victory. With coordinator Tom Mason and the backbone of last year’s front seven back in the fold, this defense looks up to the challenge.

First, this defense must embark on a slight rebuilding project up front – the Mustangs run a 3-4, so it’s not as ambitious as task as it might be elsewhere. Slight might also be an understatement: S.M.U. might have lost starting ends Taylor Thompson and Marquis Frazier, but in seniors Kevin Grenier and Margus Hunt (28 tackles, 7.5 for loss), the defense has two experienced and productive new ends to move into the starting lineup. In fact, based on both history and potential, the Mustangs might land better play at the position.

Simply put, Hunt has the size, strength, agility and athleticism to be one of the best 3-4 ends in the country. You’ve seen his physical gifts in flashes thus far, on special teams and in certain packages, so there’s no doubting Hunt’s ability to put forth an outstanding final season; the key will be locating the consistency to go with his athleticism, as S.M.U. will call on Hunt to be the anchor up front. Grenier, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, is a similarly large, lanky former starter who needs only to remain on the field to give S.M.U. some substantial production.

This pair will flank senior nose tackle Torian Pittman (37 tackles, 6.0), an honorable mention all-conference pick a season ago. It’s natural to think that Pittman will be even better in 2012, especially when flanked by another pair of strong ends. Despite the losses, this line could physically dominate the line of scrimmage against most of Conference USA.

A bigger question mark is this secondary, which must replace a pair of starters in cornerback Richard Crawford and free safety Chris Banjo – without question, the Mustangs’ top two defensive backs a season ago. But even with this pair starting every game but one – Banjo missed the Memphis game – the secondary accounted for only three interceptions all season. Even if the pass defense remains strong in other areas, this secondary must do a better job forcing turnovers.

The leadership mantle passes from Banjo to senior strong safety Ryan Smith (65 tackles), a steady three-year starter whose experience alone makes him one of the most valuable cogs in this defense. Last year’s nickel back, junior Jay Scott (21 tackles), moves up a level to replace Banjo at free safety; he won’t match Banjo’s production, but Scott’s past game experience gives him a leg up over a traditional first-year starter.

Picked on early last fall – as teams threw away from Crawford – junior cornerback Kenneth Acker (63 tackles, 1 interception) began turning the corner down the stretch, highlighting the idea that he’s ready to put a full season together as a second-year starter. I really like the Mustangs’ options on the other side; it looks as if Jones and this staff have attacked this position on the recruiting trail. One potential starter is a transfer, however: after sitting out last season, former Nebraska transfer Lazarri Middleton is a strong contender to fill Crawford’s shoes. He’ll continue to battle sophomore J.R. Richardson, junior Chris Parks and three incoming freshmen during fall camp.

With Hunt and company up front and a sterling linebacker corps, S.M.U. can tout one of the top three front sevens in Conference USA – I’d say that U.C.F. has the best, but the Mustangs and Southern Mississippi are nipping at the Knights’ heels. While S.M.U. lost Victor Jones, a former starter on the outside whose career was cut short due to back injuries, it does return the same four linebackers who started the final four games of last season: sophomore Stephon Sanders (26 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and junior Ja’Gared Davis (83 tackles, 12.0 for loss, 5.5 sacks) on the outside, juniors Taylor Reed (101 tackles, 9.5 for loss) and Cameron Rogers (69 tackles) in the middle.

Not much needs to be said: Davis is a monster, an outside linebacker who can impact the game both rushing the passer and dropping into coverage; Sanders had his rocky moments as a rookie, but will be better for this experience as a sophomore; Rogers is all substance, little flash; and Reed is your prototypically productive, attacking 3-4 inside linebacker. It’s an absolutely super group.

Last year’s already substandard special teams results are skewed by two factors: one, Crawford’s solid average on punt returns was greatly impacted by one return against U.C.F., and two, junior kicker Chris Hover’s strong percentage on field goals does not reflect the fact that he is not reliable outside of 35 yards. So the Mustangs don’t excel on special teams. But they should in the return game and on coverage, as Jones and this staff have enough young talent to add speed and athleticism on special teams.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line A troubling combination: S.M.U. not only breaks in a new line coach but a brand-new line, having lost the five seniors who combined to make 63 starts a season ago. In a way, however, this isn’t a terrible time to bring Palcic into the mix; he might be new, but so are the vast majority of linemen battling for a major role in 2012. That’s one positive way to look at things. More realistically, this line is a major concern for an offense that must land strong pass protection while clearing the way for Line in the running game in order to be successful.

With all five starters gone, S.M.U. will place a premium upon experience – any experience. So it’s not surprising at all that the line will be rebuilt around three seasoned linemen, none more important than senior Blake McJunkin, who earned all-conference honors as a sophomore. He did so at center, and was back in the middle last September before an ankle injury cut his season down after three games. Looking ahead, S.M.U. could either keep McJunkin at center, where he’s not only most comfortable but also an all-conference talent, or move him over to right guard. A second experienced lineman, junior Ben Gottschalk, is a solid choice at left tackle after backing up Kelvin Beachum last fall – let’s hope he learned a thing or two from the multiple-time all-conference pick. He’ll have to fend off redshirt freshman Kris Weeks, with the winner bookending the line with senior Bryan Collins, who started last year’s regular season finale at right tackle.

If McJunkin remains at right guard, that leaves S.M.U. needing to find answers at center and left guard. One reason why moving McJunkin became an option was the solid spring play from redshirt freshman Taylor Lasecki, who has added more than 30 pounds since arriving on campus. While he’s young, having McJunkin to his right to help with calls and protection packages would help Lasecki ease into a starting role. At left guard, the Mustangs will go with senior Jordan Free, who played in 23 games as a freshman and sophomore, starting once, but pulled a disappearing act last fall.

Twelve months ago, this was one of the most experienced lines in the country. Today, it’s one of the rawest groups in the nation, one that could end up being a major nuisance if Jones and Palcic can’t find answers during fall camp. S.M.U. can’t feel good about going up against Baylor, T.C.U. and Texas A&M in September.

Game(s) to watch

S.M.U. will win one game in September, against Stephen F. Austin, but it’s very difficult to see how a far more inexperienced team – and one with large question marks on offense – can knock off any one team out of Baylor, T.C.U. and Texas A&M. Perhaps the Mustangs would have a shot later in the year, when the offensive line has rounded into form, but not early. The schedule is nice in one way: three of the team’s most winnable games – Memphis, Tulane and UTEP – come on the road. That gives S.M.U. games against Southern Mississippi, Tulsa and Houston at home, which will help. But with a slow start in the making and a very tough November up ahead, it’s vital that S.M.U. go at least 3-1 in October. If you say that the Mustangs start 1-3 and go 2-2 in November – against a group of U.C.F., the Golden Eagles, Rice and Tulsa – a 3-1 mark in October would sneak this team into bowl play.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell S.M.U. has too many questions to address before September to be picked to take home the Conference USA West division. But, in a way, that the majority of the Mustangs’ issues – everything outside of special teams play and finding two new starters in the secondary – are found on the offensive side of the ball bodes well for this team; Jones is one of the great offensive minds in college football, after all. But this offense, with its holes, will test Jones more so than any group since his debut season. For starters, S.M.U. needs Gilbert to step right into the void from day one – and not only produce but stay healthy, as the situation behind Gilbert is extremely troubling. Most of all, this offensive line is going to loom large throughout this season: S.M.U. is going to get ripped apart early, but the hope is that the line rounds into form by the start of conference play. The good news is that as this offense develops, the defense is strong enough to win games. I love the front seven: it’s time for Hunt to become a star; his line mates, Grenier and Pittman, are consistently solid; and the linebacker corps is outstanding. While the secondary breaks in two new faces, the line and second level will offset any decline from the pass defense – or even lead to an improvement against the pass, should Hunt and Grenier augment Davis to beef up the Mustangs’ pass rush. The bottom line: S.M.U. is a bowl team that will dominate the league’s bottom half but must patch up its offensive holes before running with Tulsa, Houston and U.C.F. in the race of the Conference USA crown.

Dream season The Mustangs knock off Baylor and T.C.U. – again, for the latter – and head into Conference USA at 3-1 overall. While the U.C.F. defense puts the clamps down, this offense is amazingly productive despite the question marks heading into the season. The loss to the Knights is the only conference setback S.M.U. suffers all season, and the Mustangs head into a Conference USA title game rematch at 10-2, 7-1 in league play.

Nightmare season S.M.U. loses to every good team on its schedule: Baylor, T.C.U., Texas A&M, Houston, U.C.F., Southern Mississippi and Tulsa. Throw in a loss at UTEP and you have the program’s first season with at least eight losses since 2008, Jones’ first year with the program.

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.

S.M.U.’s all-name nominee C Blake McJunkin.

Word Count

Through 69 teams 267,283.

Up Next

Who is No. 55? Tomorrow’s program holds a career winning record against three of its eight conference opponents this season; unfortunately, this team gets two of those opponents on the road – though the third game, the season finale, comes at home.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    I’ll guess Tennessee. Seems right for them.

  2. M Meyer says:

    I think it’s Virginia. They haven’t come up yet, right?

  3. David says:

    Texas A&M, with career winning records against Mississippi, Auburn, and Missouri, but career non-winning records against Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, and Alabama, is next.

  4. Parker says:

    “Secondly, Gilbert is going to get far better coaching under Jones than he did with the Longhorns.”

    ZOINK!

  5. justin says:

    I agree its Texas A&M. They get Ole Miss and Auburn on the road and Missouri at home. Missouri, the season finale, come at home.

  6. Ezra says:

    Margus Hunt is a freak of nature; he’s 6-8, 295, and immensely athletic.

    How do you block a 295-pound defensive end that has agility and speed?

  7. CJK5H says:

    Are you certain that there are only five?

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