There is an awkwardness surrounding Gerald J. Ford Stadium. SMU must lean on its defense while the offense breaks in a new quarterback and an almost entirely new offensive line … and they must find a way to do so while playing around the giant elephant sitting in the middle of the field.
- On December 4, 2011, SMU announced that they had accepted a bid to play Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
- On December 6, SMU head coach June Jones' agent said that, while Jones had met with Arizona State recently regarding their vacant head coaching job, he was "happy" at SMU.
- Also on December 6, SMU announced that it was joining the Big East conference, really an incredible move considering where the football program had been not too long ago.
- On December 7, word on Twitter was that Jones was pulling his assistants off of the recruiting trail to meet with him, allegedly because he was taking the Arizona State job.
- Later on December 7, a booster revolt led to ASU breaking off talks with Jones.
- On December 8, Arizona State focused its attention elsewhere, and Jones went back to being SMU's head coach, telling the Dallas Morning News, "I love where I'm at." (Also: it was God's plan.)
At times like these (and only at times like these), one almost wishes everyone was like SMU's former SWC mate Arkansas. The Razorbacks manage to figure out how to pack an insane amount of drama into just about every coaching move, but at least they stay officially quiet until the final move is announced. While initial reports are that things are fine in Dallas -- the Mustangs whipped Pitt in their bowl game, players all said the right things, etc. -- the awkwardness will remain for a while. If your significant other almost breaks up with you for someone else then decides not to, in part, because he/she was rejected, that doesn't result in a relationship on perfect footing. It results in couples therapy, actually.
Still, Jones is worth the awkwardness. In an incredibly short amount of time, he has made SMU relevant again. The Mustangs were 1-11 in 2007, the season before he took over in Dallas; and after just a one-year breaking-in period, they have been to three consecutive bowls, their first three since 1982-84 (and their first since their late-1980s death penalty). They scored a Big East bid. They matter again, to some degree, in the Texas landscape. And, technically speaking, they kept Jones after he was wooed by major programs. But in what might have been a year of stagnation at SMU anyway, there is now another factor, albeit a temporary one, to overcome.
[T]o be sure, SMU's revival under June Jones has been nothing short of miraculous. Not only did the Mustangs break through for eight wins and a bowl victory (their first since 1984) in 2009, but they did not give away many gains in 2010. Teams that surge forward in one year tend to regress a bit the next, but SMU did not. The Mustangs advanced to the Conference USA title game via tie-breaker over Tulsa, though Central Florida's defense precluded them from celebrating their first conference title in 26 years.
Beyond everything else, even horizontal steps should still be considered progress for the 'stangs, who have won almost as many games in the past two seasons (15) as they had in the previous six (16), and more than they won from 1989 to 1995 (13). Whether 2011 will see horizontal or vertical progress, however, remains to be seen. […]
SMU is still in a bit of a danger zone in terms of program health. The best predictor of future success is past success, and the Mustangs have only managed a little bit of it. Once you have reached three, four or five straight solid seasons, you can start to feel comfortable about your program's long-term health. Until two years ago, SMU was horrid.
The good news, of course, is that recruiting is on the upswing. Rivals.com ranked their 2011 class second in the Conference USA, mere decimal points behind that of Central Florida and just outside of the overall Top 50. … The overall experience of the squad, though, will be strong. SMU returns 18 starters, and while the lack of big-play potential on offense could be a concern, the ceiling for the defense is pretty high.
The 2011 season saw SMU take another slightly vertical step, improving its record by 1.5 games and easing into the F/+ Top 55. Despite Jones' run-and-shoot reputation, the Mustangs' offense was still quite mediocre, especially after they lost star running back Zach Line for the final three games of the season. But a tough defense improved from 56th in Def. F/+ to 32nd, mastering the art of the 3-4 defense and raising its game in the red zone. A wonderfully experienced linebacking corps should dominate once again, but a rebuilt offense (and the aforementioned awkwardness, I guess) will determine whether the Mustangs are capable of taking another step forward.
In last year's preview, I wrote that one of the primary storylines regarding the SMU offense was whether quarterback Kyle Padron could avoid killer mistakes (sacks and interceptions) enough to thrive.
Back in the late-1980s, I rode the passing game to success on Tecmo Bowl by pulling the same thing everybody else did -- running straight backwards with my quarterback until my receivers were sufficiently open downfield, them calmly chucking the ball 85 yards (or 120) for a touchdown. Unfortunately, Kyle Padron was too busy "being born" and "learning how to walk and talk" to play Tecmo in the late-'80s and early-'90s, so he was unaware of the effectiveness of this quarterbacking ploy. He should have perhaps tried it; maneuvering around close to the pocket and waiting for his receivers to get open just got him hit a lot in 2010.
Padron had struggled through portions of 2010 thanks to the rare trait of being too patient, and SMU needed him to adapt. He did not. The Padron era lasted just two drives into the 2011 season. On his first pass attempt of 2011 against Texas A&M, he was sacked. On his next attempt, he was picked off. After completing two passes for 14 yards on the next drive, he was sacked again, then picked off again. Six pass attempts, seven net yards, two turnovers.
Enter J.J. McDermott. The senior righted the ship to an extent -- he was sacked just 5.6 percent of the time and picked off just 3.4 percent (Padron: 13.0 percent in both sack rate and interception rate). He was far from spectacular, but he did complete 60 percent of his passes and unearth a couple of relatively explosive targets in Darius Johnson and Cole Beasley. Unfortunately, he was indeed a senior. He ran out of eligibility and Padron transferred to Eastern Washington, leaving a void a few yards behind center.
Enter Garrett Gilbert. You remember Mr. Gilbert, right? All-world high school prospect who signed with Texas? Introduced himself to the world by getting subbed in for Colt McCoy one drive into the 2010 BCS Championship, puking all over himself (metaphorically, not literally), nearly pulling a boot-and-rally in the second half, setting the bar quite high for the 2010 season, then throwing 17 picks on the way to a 5-7 finish? That Garrett Gilbert? He is in the process of pulling a Keith Olbermann, completing 27 hours of class at Texas this semester to graduate and become immediately eligible to play for SMU this fall.
Honestly, at Texas, Gilbert never really showed much of the blue-chip promise announcers were legally required to say he possessed every time he threw a good pass -- his arm strength is far from "hand cannon" range, and a career completion of just 56.7 percent is a mark against your accuracy even if your receiving corps isn't very good. Still, he is easily the most accomplished quarterback projected to dress out in an SMU uniform next fall; his three primary competitors for the starting job (sophomore Stephen Kaiser, redshirt freshman Conner Preston, incoming freshman Neal Burcham, all three-star signees once upon a time) have thrown a combined zero passes at the collegiate level. Gilbert has to be considered the presumptive starter until proven otherwise.
Whoever does win the starting job, however, could be running for his life. Most contributors on a line that ranked 32nd in Adj. Line Yards and 40th in Adj. Sack Rate (one of the best combined rankings of any mid-major offense) have departed. Senior center Blake McJunkin has 26 career starts, and guard Bryan Collins has 10; the six players who just left, including NFL Draftees Kelvin Beachum and Josh LeRibeus, had 184. Hell, there are only two other returning lettermen on the line. This is, to put it kindly, an issue.
If the line is at least semi-competent, SMU probably has the skill position players to move the ball pretty well. They come in all shapes and sizes. You've got 240-pound Zach Line, who in under three full seasons has amassed 2,907 rushing yards and a plus-27.5 Adj. POE (meaning he has been over four touchdowns better than the average back given his carries and opponents. You've 185-pound sophomore running back Jared Williams and 280-pound sophomore running back Rishad Wimbley, each of whom carried more of a load when Line was injured and helped to prevent total offensive collapse. You've got 5'10 senior receiver Darius Johnson, who averaged 14.2 yards per catch (and 7.7 adjusted yards per target) last year, and incoming 6'3 freshman Gehrig Dieter, a three-star early-enrollee. The receiving corps has thinned out a bit -- two of the top three targets (Beasley, Terrance Wilkerson) are gone -- but with Johnson back, they've got a headliner, and they have plenty of former three-star recruits to fill in the ranks.
In his four years at SMU, June Jones has brought in quite a few three-star recruits on the offensive end of the ball. On defense, that has not necessarily been the case. No matter: the SMU defense has still been a major strength over the last two seasons. A linebacking corps that could be one of the best mid-major units in the country (no matter the position) consists of three-star sophomore Stephon Sanders and a wealth of former two-star players like Taylor Reed, Ja'Gared Davis and Randall Joyner.
Of course, the recruits are noticing. This year, SMU brings in two three-star linebackers (Lincoln Richard and Damien Neroes) and three three-star defensive backs (junior Daniel Roundtree and freshmen Shakiel Randolph and Ty Law). And if replacements can be found at defensive end (the top two tacklers, Taylor Thompson and Marquis Frazier, are both gone) and cornerback (since-departed Richard Crawford defended 15 passes last fall, a top-25-in-the-country total), a fifth consecutive year of improvement is possible.
As with many 3-4 defenses, SMU's is a linebacker-friendly attack. Returning linebackers combined for 32.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, three interceptions, 18 passes broken up, four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries last fall. They could have to take up more of the pass-rushing duties if the Mustangs cannot find a fast end to put opposite enormous (6'8, 295 pounds) senior end Margus Hunt, but Reed, Davis, Sanders and company are ferocious. They were wonderfully efficient against the run (21st in Rushing Success Rate+), and thanks in part to since-departed safety Chris Banjo, prevented big plays in the passing game (22nd in Passing PPP+). This is obviously a nice combination in the pass-heavy, explosive Conference USA.
The defense bailed out a hit-or-miss offense on multiple occasions and may have to do so again this fall.
SMU's is an odd schedule. They play five teams that are either FCS or projected to rank 104th or worse. The Mustangs also play four teams projected 30th or better. Their season, then, will likely be defined on the three opponents in the middle; if they can win two of three against Southern Miss (No. 46) and Tulsa (No. 47) at home and UCF (No. 49) on the road, they could once again reach the 7-8 win plateau without pulling any sort of major upset. We'll set the bar, then, at what is quickly becoming a rather comfortable eight wins.
With such an oddly-segmented schedule of sure wins and sure losses, it is likely that SMU will end up with a familiar win total this fall. Still, the Mustangs have potentially the most fierce, proven defense in the league, better than even Central Florida's. And as UCF has shown, you can win a lot of conference games with defense and hit-or-miss offense. The ceiling for SMU, with a strong D and a five-star quarterback, is quite a bit higher than most of its soon-to-be former C-USA rivals. But that offensive line is an enormous concern, a red flag too big and bright to ignore. It will almost certainly prevent any sort of major surge, but there are worse things in the world than entering a major(ish) conference on a four-year bowl streak, and SMU should accomplish that in 2012. If they can maneuver around that giant elephant on the 50-yard line, anyway.