2011 Record: (8-5, 5-3 in C-USA)
Head Coach: June Jones (24-28 at SMU, 100-69 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season BBVA Compass Bowl: beat Pitt 28-6
Big Name Opponents: 9/2 at Baylor, 9/15 vs Texas A&M, 9/29 vs TCU
Stat to Cheer: 33 sacks (most in in C-USA)
Stat to Fear: -1.23 turnover margin (last in C-USA); 16 takeaways (11th in C-USA)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 3; Defense: 7; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Taylor Reed (101 tackles, 4 sacks), LB Ja'Gared Davis (84 tackles, 6 sacks), DE Margus Hunt (28 tackles, 3 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Zach Line, WR Darius Johnson, OT Blake McJunkin
Inside Scoop with Ponyfans.com:
CFBZ: June Jones had some very heavy flirtation with Arizona State in the off-season but returns to SMU to remain head coach. What are the feelings around campus towards Jones heading into the season?
Ponyfans.com: There are some who still feel a little betrayed that Jones would talk to another school, but such is the price of having a coach who gets the Mustangs to three straight bowl games after two decades during which a bowl never was really even a consideration. Campus administrators and many fans, however, realize that what Jones has done in addition to the three bowls (two of which he won); after inheriting a team that didn't fit his system and stumbling to a 1-11 mark in his debut season, he has gone 23-17 in the three years since at a school some have called a "coach killer," a place where coaches' careers end in less than glorious fashion. The athletic director who hired him, Steve Orsini, was fired in May, so Jones will have to establish a relationship with his new boss, but most administrators and many of the deep-pocketed alumni who pay his salary are generally glad Jones remains in Dallas.
CFBZ: In 2011, SMU started 5-1 before finishing just 2-4 down the stretch. What were the biggest reasons for the teams slide at the end of the regular season?
Ponyfans.com: The biggest factor probably was health. At the beginning of the season, quarterback J.J. McDermott, who took over the position during the season opener, was relatively healthy, and it showed as he guided the Ponies to a fast start, including a win over cross-town rival TCU on the Horned Frogs' home field in Fort Worth. As the season wore on, however, McDermott got more and more banged up; at times, he barely practiced during the week, if at all, doing everything he could to patch himself together in time to play each Saturday. He lost a lot of velocity off his fastball, which is a death sentence who relies almost exclusively on his arm's strength and accuracy because of limited mobility. Sure enough, given the time to heal during pre-bowl preparations, McDermott returned to good health and led the Mustangs to a relatively easy 28-6 victory over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
That win was made more impressive by the absence of running back Zach Line, the two-time Conference USA rushing champion who had to shut down his 2011 season early because of a foot injury that required season-ending surgery. His replacements, freshmen Rishaad Wimbley and Jared Williams — ran well in his absence, but Line was more than a one-trick Pony (or Mustang); he also is a solid receiver out of the backfield, and an outstanding blocker and special teams player. As is the case with many teams, injuries really dictated SMU's performance.
CFBZ: J.J. McDermott was a senior last year and Kyle Padron has transferred to Eastern Washington. Who is in line to start at QB for the Mustangs this year\?
Ponyfans.com: Head coach June Jones likely will insist that the quarterback position, like all others, will be open for competition when the Mustangs begin preseason workouts in August. That might be true, but there are few, if any, who feel that anyone other than Garrett Gilbert, the transfer from Texas, will be taking snaps when the season begins. Once the highest-ranked quarterback prospect in the nation after a record-setting career at Austin's Lake Travis High School, Gilbert has the size, arm strength and pedigree of having played on the nation's largest stage (he famously stepped in for the injured Colt McCoy and performed admirably in the Longhorns' loss to Alabama in the national championship game at the end of the 2009 season) to take the position and make it his.
The only returning quarterback to throw a pass in a game, Stephen Kaiser, is transferring, so Gilbert will be challenged by redshirt freshman Conner Preston and walk-on Garrett Kristich, as well as incoming true freshman Neal Burcham. But it's hard to imagine the former Gatorade National High School Player of the Year and 2009 Male National High School Athlete of the Year not winning the job in time for the season opener.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Ponyfans.com: There is a lot of reason for optimism on the Hilltop — Gilbert is at the center of much of that optimism — but there also are a lot of questions that need to be answered. The Mustangs' best offensive player, Line, is coming off significant surgery. All five starting offensive linemen from 2011 are gone, including two (guard Josh LeRibeus and tackle Kelvin Beachum, Jr.) who got drafted in to the NFL. The second-leading receiver in school history, Cole Beasley, is trying to latch on with the Dallas Cowboys. Both starting defensive ends (Taylor Thompson and Marquis Frazier) have graduated, and two starting defensive backs (cornerback Richard Crawford and safety Chris Banjo) are gone, as well.
On the other hand, Gilbert's arrival brought instant credibility and hope. Line is back to lead a deep stable of talented runners. The Mustangs's new top receiver is senior Darius Johnson, of whom Jones has said, "he's the most talented receiver I've ever coached — even in the NFL." Frazier will be replaced as the starting right defensive end by former track star Margus Hunt, an athlete so rare he already is being projected as a first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft despite the fact that he only has played football for three years. Defensive coordinator Tom Mason brings back a defense that enjoys an embarrassment of riches at the linebacker spots, led by pass-rushing specialist Ja'Gared Davis on the outside and Taylor Reed inside, not to mention sophomore outside linebacker Stephon Sanders, who might end up being the best of the bunch.
Assuming relative good health, the 2012 Mustangs will be a team that should be significantly better at the end of the season than at the start, when the newcomers have to gel against a non-conference schedule that includes three formidable in-state foes in Baylor, Texas A&M and TCU. The Ponies, who are breaking in two new assistants in wide receivers coach Jason Phillips and offensive line coach Bob Palcic, should be able to compete with just about anyone in Conference USA (in their last year in the conference before moving in 2013 to the Big East), but will competing be enough if they get off to a slow start? Chances are the team will show its talent at the end of the year, but only after enduring some growing pains, making a pre-bowl mark of 7-5 very possible.
June Jones has definitely built up some credit over the last few years as he's been very consistent at SMU delivering seven wins (minimum) per year and going to a bowl for three straight years. Before June Jones arrived, the Mustangs had not been bowling since 1984!
Per Phil Steele, SMU enters the season as the least experienced team in Conference USA and 116th in the Nation. The inexperience is mainly going to come on offense, which is the strength of Jones. On defense, the Mustangs will put a team on the field that is fully of upperclassman (projecting seven senior starters and three juniors). At worst, I would expect the defense to be similar to last years squad.
The worries come in on offense as SMU is poised to hand the ball over to Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert had a very forgettable 2010 sophomore campaign as he threw 17 INTs versus 10 TDs and last year he faded away after playing in just two games. Can Gilbert bounce back from the disappointment that he faced at Texas after being such a hyped recruit? That will go a long way to how good the Mustangs can be this year. Another factor is going to be the offensive line as they return very little experience.
The early schedule is not kind to the Mustangs and they will dig an early hole that they have to climb out of. Their easiest early season game is against the runner-up from the FCS Championship Game (Stephen F Austin). Expect SMU to start 1-3. Another negative for the Mustangs is that they play two teams from the C-USA East that project to be in the running for the division title (So Miss and UCF). My expectation is for the Mustangs to match their 5-3 record in-conference from last year but I think they lose one game in the win column due to their out of conference schedule.
2012 Prediction: 6-6
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas