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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. 57: Southern Methodist

Move over, Pony Express. There's a new sheriff in town, and he'll win clean at S.M.U.

No, I’m not going to say that Junes Jones is the best coach in the country. All I’m saying is this: Should that title be put up before a committee, Jones is getting some votes for first. He may have my vote, especially after seeing how far he has taken Southern Methodist in his two seasons with the program. We all know the story: Pony Express, boosters gone wild, bags with dollar signs, probation, exile, afterthought. One winning record from 1989-2008, and 23 losses in its last 25 games to boot. Two years later, S.M.U. holds an eight-win season – most since 1984 – and a bowl win.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Dallas

Nickname
Mustangs

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 102

2009 record
(8-5, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 59

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 5
    at Texas Tech
  • Sept. 11
    U.A.B.
  • Sept. 18
    Washington St.
  • Sept. 24
    T.C.U.
  • Oct. 2
    at Rice
  • Oct. 9
    Tulsa
  • Oct. 16
    at Navy
  • Oct. 23
    Houston
  • Oct. 30
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 6
    at UTEP
  • Nov. 20
    Marshall
  • Nov. 27
    at E.C.U.

Last year’s prediction

I’m still not ready to anoint S.M.U. capable of making a bowl appearance, but I am confident we’ll see a much better on-field product in Jones’s second season. With another year under their belts and a set of recruits to install in the system, I think the Mustang offense will be better this fall than last, but the offensive line remains a concern. Likewise for the defense, which returns eight starters but lacks quality depth and playmakers to stop some of Conference USA’s most explosive offenses (Houston and Tulsa, for instance). Over all, I predict S.M.U. to make a three-game improvement: 4-8, 3-5 in conference play. The program’s not there yet, but its on its way. The team couldn’t ask for a better coach running the show.

2009 recap

In a nutshell As one would expect, the Mustangs won games in 2009 because of the offense, which scored a school-record 380 points. However, take note of the great strides taken by the defense: S.M.U. allowed 99 less points in one more game than in 2008, or an average of roughly 11 less points per game. The scariest thought for the rest of Conference USA? Last year’s team was not nearly as deep as is this year’s team, and this year’s team is not nearly as talented or deep as the team will be in 2011. I’d say get your kicks in now, but that time may have already passed.

High point Where to begin? The most impressive victory of the season was a 28-21 home win against East Carolina, the eventual conference champion. Yet the most satisfying win was a stunning 45-10 victory over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. If I may quote myself, I put it thusly in my bowl preview heading into the game: “My heart says June Jones and S.M.U., but my head screams Nevada.” June Jones can flat-out coach.

Low point Satisfying, competitive play from start to finish. There was no low point, just one long, continuous high. Yes, S.M.U. struggled against T.C.U. Everyone struggled against T.C.U. Another one-sided loss, by 23 points at Houston, came about largely due to three S.M.U. turnovers.

Tidbit It had been 23 seasons since S.M.U. last won eight games in a year; 25 years, if you count the program’s two-year absence from play following the N.C.A.A.-mandated death penalty. A whopping 54 teams won at least eight games last fall — that sounds like an abnormally high number — with S.M.U. suffering the second-longest drought between eight-win seasons. Who was first? The answer will be revealed near the bottom of this post, right above the hint for tomorrow’s preview.

Tidbit (Mustangs edition) I touched on the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 in last year’s preview, though I thought about removing it due to its lack of football-related content. (Usually doesn’t stop me.) Well, about six months later, I had the opportunity to meet a person in a social setting who was very passionate about horse preservation. Needless to say, this person was extremely impressed with my knowledge of the 1971 legislation. Another example of how the Countdown can have a positive effect on your life.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 CB Bryan McCann (Dallas), RB Shawnbrey McNeal (San Diego), P Thomas Morstead (New Orleans), LB Justin Rogers (Kansas City), WR Emmanuel Sanders (Pittsburgh).

Arbitrary top five list

John Wayne westerns
1. “The Searchers,” 1956.
2. “Red River,” 1948.
3. “True Grit,” 1969.
4. “Hondo,” 1953.
5. “Stagecoach,” 1939.

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), 9-16 after two seasons with the Mustangs. As last season 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. 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, losing their last 18 games under Jones’s 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 short list.

Players to watch

A mid-season injury to incumbent starter Bo Levi Mitchell opened the door for sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron; he never looked back. Despite being an unproven freshman, Padron illustrated poise and awareness far beyond his years, throwing for at least 225 yards in six of his seven starts, with his only total below that mark coming in his college debut. He simply got better and better as his gained more experience, culminating in his 460-yard performance in the bowl win over Nevada. A year older, a year wiser, and with Michell — who has since transferred — out of the picture, Padron will challenge the 4,000-yard mark as a sophomore.

It’s not often that S.M.U. has a receiver the caliber of Emmanuel Sanders, the four-year starter who obliterated the program record books. For that reason, his departure is one thing to keep an eye on. Nevertheless, despite losing Sanders, S.M.U. has the weapons — and the experience — to keep this passing attack running at a healthy clip. Begin with senior Aldrick Robinson, who after playing second fiddle to Sanders a season ago is more than ready to serve as S.M.U.’s top target. Robinson actually led the Mustangs in receiving yards in 2008, outranking Sanders, and his 17.0 yards per catch average paced the team a year ago. Juniors Cole Beasley and Terrance Wilkerson give the Mustangs a trio of pass-catchers with at least 40 grabs a season ago, and sophomore Darius Johnson — should he remain healthy — has the physical gifts to excel in this system.

The offensive line must replace multiple-year starting center Mitch Enright, no small task. Yet there is plenty to like up front, even, believe it or not, with what the Mustangs bring to the table at Enright’s old spot. S.M.U. has two options in the middle of the line: the first is junior Blake McJunkin, who started 10 games at center in 2008 when Enright went down to a hand injury; the second is junior Bryce Tennison, who has made 19 starts at right guard over the past two years despite battling injuries. The rest of the line is set. It’s an especially strong group at the two tackle spots, with Kelvin Beachum developing into one of the conference’s best blind side blockers and J.T. Brooks a pleasant surprise on the right side a year ago. When S.M.U. wants to run the ball with authority, it goes behind the left side combination of Beachum and Josh LeRibeus, the latter a mammoth-size weak side guard. Kelly Turner, a junior, is the favorite to replace Tennison at right guard; whether he takes the starting job or not, Tennison is remaining at center — but he’ll be a valuable reserve at each of the three interior spots.

If last year’s success breaking in the 3-4 defense is any indication, this S.M.U. defense should serve as a valuable partner to the high-powered offense. If the depth chart is any indication, even better days are ahead: it’s littered with sophomore and juniors, and features several athletic freshmen coming off redshirt seasons. This is particularly true at linebacker, where the Mustangs hope to combat the loss of leading tackler Chase Kennemer with a pair of talented sophomores destined for all-conference status.

Kennemer’s replacement at one inside spot in S.M.U.’s 3-4 set will be Taylor Reed, who made 57 tackles (4.5 for loss) despite serving in a secondary role in his debut campaign. Like his predecessor, Reed has a nose for the football: look for him — again, like Kennemer — to lead the Mustangs in tackles in 2010. He’ll be flanked on the weak side by Ja’Gared Davis, the second of two rising starts on this linebacker corps. A part-time starter last fall — he made five starts — Davis has the athleticism to excel on the weak side, which will call for the sophomore to use his speed to make plays in space. Rounding out the four-man linebacker grouping are seniors Youri Yenga (53 tackles, 5 for loss) and Pete Fleps (83, 7.5 for loss), the latter joining Reed in the middle, while past starter Justin Smart will provide depth — if not leapfrog past Yenga to reclaim his former starting role on the strong side.

The defensive line starts strong on the edges, begins to weaken as we move inside. The Mustangs put forth a pair of honorable mention all-Conference USA ends in juniors Taylor Thompson — an absolute physical specimen — and Marquis Frazier, a duo that combined to make 85 tackles (12 for loss) and 9.5 sacks a year ago. Beyond merely serving as space-fillers, often a job description for 3-4 linemen, both Thompson and Frazier have the ability to stand stout against the run while causing pressure in the backfield. This provides a sizable boost for this defense.

Here’s another name to watch for at end: sophomore Margus Hunt, a native of Estonia, set a new N.C.A.A. record last fall with seven blocked kicks. Hunt is a jaw-dropping athlete, one who trained with S.M.U.’s top-notch track team after winning gold medals in both the shot and the discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing; according to his university biography, he’s the first junior athlete ever to win such a gold medal double-dip. Even if Hunt does not take a single snap outside of on special teams, he’s an invaluable member of the defensive front. Such as it is, I expect Hunt — a newcomer to the game — to develop into a wonderful every-down end as well.

As we’re all aware, it’s imperative that the 3-4 look have a presence over the center. As we enter the fall, S.M.U. faces question marks at the position. While sophomore Aaron Davis, a former transfer from Fresno State, was a nice surprise during the spring, he does not have the size to occupy blockers: at only 265 pounds, Davis could be pushed around on the interior of the line. Davis could overcome some of his size concerns with a quick first step, but such an advantage really only pays dividends in a 4-3 set, when Davis would be lined up in the gap. If S.M.U. opts for beef, not agility, it could turn to true freshman Mike O’Guin, whose 6’2, 321-pound frame is suited to play over the center.

Position battles to watch

Secondary I asked this question during the Ohio preview earlier this week: How will an opportunistic defense — one that ranked 16th nationally in interceptions — fare without its greatest assets in the secondary? It’s an issue S.M.U. must address following the departure of defensive backs like strong safety Rock Dennis and cornerback Bryan McCann, all-conference standouts who combined for eight of the team’s 17 interceptions a year ago. Let’s start with what we know: junior Chris Banjo returns at free safety, Sterling Moore at cornerback. This is not a bad foundation upon which to build a secondary. Expect the battle to start opposite Moore to be fierce: the Mustangs return contributors like senior Bennie Thomas and sophomore Robert Mojica — the latter made the most of his limited duty as a freshman — while adding JUCO transfer Richard Crawford, a player cited as one very likely to make an immediate impact. At strong safety, ground Dennis patrolled wonderfully last fall, S.M.U. can turn to redshirt freshman Jay Scott or sophomore Ryan Smith. Due to his limited experience, which involves all of a pair of tackles in six games, Smith currently holds the edge. Until proven otherwise — until this new group steps up against the talented offenses in Conference USA play — the secondary is a question mark.

Game(s) to watch

The West division may come down to the Oct. 23 game against Houston. The Cougars’ head-to-head tiebreaker against the Mustangs gave U.H. the division title last fall, and it doesn’t seem as if either team will suffer any decline in play after combining to win 18 games in 2009. The first month will also provide S.M.U. will a solid barometer of where it stands heading into the heart of Conference USA play.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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.

Dream season Jones continues to amaze. The Mustangs go 10-2, 8-0 in conference play, and earn its first spot in the Top 25 since the early 1980s.

Nightmare season How bad would S.M.U. have to finish to diminish the university’s faith in its coach? Short of an utter disaster – I’m thinking 1-11, or 2-10 – this program remains on the rise.

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.

Tidbit (answer edition) Thanks for reading. Your reward? The answer to the earlier tidbit. The answer is Temple, which waited 30 years for another eight-win season: the Owls, 9-4 a year ago, went 10-2 in 1979.

Up Next

Who is No. 56? While it’s 2010, I don’t think our next team will follow its coach’s trend to suffer during even-numbered seasons.

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Comments

  1. Zaboo says:

    How is the loss to WSU not the low point? SMU had a great season, but c’mon… any team with a winning record should not have lost to that hapless team.

  2. Eddie says:

    George O’Leary
    UCF

  3. birdland says:

    Sounds like the Knights of Central Florida are up next.

  4. pfz10 says:

    UCF Knights are no. 56. Or Nebraska

  5. george howley says:

    Northern Illinois may be on a downward cycle. What makes this site so interesting is the projection of the likes of a Purdue at 65-lower than Northern Illinois, UCFand many others. I am not a fan of Purdue but Notre Dame could get ambushed on the first Saturday in September.

    Paul: Remember that I’m ranking teams based on what I believe each team will accomplish on the season, not entirely on what team will beat another team on any given Saturday. For example, while even if I thought Tennessee would beat Northern Illinois, in my mind a 9-3 N.I.U. team has “achieved” more than a five-win Tennessee team. Hence my placing N.I.U. roughly 10-15 spots ahead of the Volunteers.

  6. Jim Narby says:

    #56 is nebraska.
    -jim narby

  7. Burnt Orange says:

    I think your characterization of Jones as one of the finest coaches going is dead on. Can you name another coach who has done a better job of turning around multple truly downtrodden programs? Parseghian, Hayden Fry, Jerry Claiborne (sort of) ? If Jones finishes it off at SMU he might top the list. I see the Ponies play fairly often and they are not that talented – yet, Amazing job by Jones.

  8. PonyFans.com says:

    Zaboo,

    The loss to WSU wasn’t really a low point to fans because at the time (near the beginning of last season) we had really low expectations. If you watched the game, SMU actually outplayed WSU (if you turned a blind eye to the picks thrown by frmr. QB Bo Levi Mitchell).

    Hopefully everyone will get to see a dramatically different outcome when WSU comes to Ford Stadium this fall.

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