I am very glad that Zach Line is no longer a SMU Mustang and I feel the same way about Margus Hunt. Thankful is a good word. The downside is that head coach June Jones has added Hal Mumme to his coaching staff and that does bother me as I have respect for both Jones and Mumme as coaches and the ability to teach and I am very interested to see how and if the concepts of the run-and-shoot are meshed with the Air Raid offense.
The Mustangs are coming off four straight bowl appearances and I consider that to be a highly complimentary thing about SMU, despite the opponent. And just so you get used to it, SMU now plays in the All-American Athletic Conference as they are no longer part of Conference USA.
I always write this disclaimer because opposing fans get very sensitive about their teams, but I write these previews to educate myself and the folks that read more so than to really try to preview a particular team. I will invariably get things wrong and emailing me (doubletnation AT gmail DOT com) or dropping a comment to correct something would be fantastic.
One more editorial note. I am also very late in getting these done. I took a long time trying to do something different and create some sort of new form for previewing teams. I hope the ideal is self-explanatory, but I thought it would be neat to rate the various sides of the ball and whatever on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the absolute best at whatever. I got the idea from looking at The Verge and how they rate new computers and phones, down at the bottom of the page. I thought it would be interesting to try to do something like that here. I couldn't replicate what The Verge did, but I tried to do something on my own. Overall, the ratings are a mix of what the team did last year, plus returning players, plus whatever else. I used the color codes to differentiate the ratings. I hope you like the format.
|Offense - Run | Even with Zach Line, the SMU run game only accounted for 132 yards rushing a game, with Line gone, I don't feel like I can avoid downgrading what SMU is going to be able to do offensively on the ground. According to the game notes from the Hawaii Bowl, the Mustangs will only return two starters on the offensive line, LT Ben Gottschalk and C Taylor Lasecki. I think that will prove problematic for SMU (as it will for Texas Tech). The top two returning running backs had only 22 carries all year last year. Luke Seeker is your more traditional and smaller running back, while Rishaad Wimbley is not traditional at all as he's all of 6-0/260. That should be an absolute load. SMU is very much hoping that Traylon Shead, a JUCO All-American at Navarro JC is going to solve a lot of problems. Shead originally committed to Texas, but transferred to Navarro to spend his sophomore year and is now at SMU. Shead is also a bigger back, 6-2/225, so Texas Tech should have their hands full trying to contain some much bigger backs. Still, even with a terrific runner in Line, SMU was only 92nd in the nation in rushing offense. I don't know how much Shead and three new offensive line can improve this.
|Offense - Pass | I don't know how much longer Jones is going to stick with Garrett Gilbert, but the results last year for SMU were very much middle of the pack. I don't know if Jones will make a move this year, but Gilbert wasn't very good, but the only options really behind Gilbert was a redshirt freshman in Conner Preston. Gilbert led the 62nd best passing offense and had a 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio (15 for each). I just can't believe that Gilbert gives SMU enough production at the quarterback spot, although Gilbert was significantly better in the second half in the season, I don't know if he can sustain that. Maybe Mumme helps solve some of these problems, but without a somewhat reliable running game, I don't know if Gilbert can replicate what he did as a junior. The other problem for Gilbert is that he's getting sacked at an awfully high rate, 2.62 per game. As mentioned above, with two new interior offensive linemen and a new right tackle, I don't know how that's going to play out over the course of the season. WR Jeremy Johnson returns and he was the leading receiver for SMU, as does Der'rikk Thompson and Keenan Holman. That's three of the top four receivers from last year that are returning to the Hilltop.
|Defense - Run | SMU was fantastic against the run last year. Seriously, they had a terrific front seven and they were 15th in the nation in rushing defense. You're probably wondering why I'm giving them such a low grade and it is because SMU is replacing five of their front seven, including All-American Margus Hunt. Also gone is DE Kevin Grenier, NG Torlan Pittman, DE Margus Hunt, MLB Taylor Reed and WLB Ja'Gared Davis. That's the entire defensive line (SMU runs a 3-4) and two of the starting linebackers. Like every fanbase, you sorta think that the guys coming back are going to be just fine, but going into the season, I can't justify that. I do thnk that Randall Joyner is a very good player. He's undersized, 5-10/228, but he's very good, finishing with 93 tackles last year.
|Defense - Pass | CB Kenneth Acker might be the best player on the team. Acker was fifth on the team in tackles last year at cornerback and had 3 interceptions last year. The entire secondary does return for the most part as CB Chris Parks returns opposite of Acker and SS Shakiel Randolph and FS Jay Scott return as well. SMU was 109th in passing defense last year, so I expect some improvement because of the returning starters, but they most likely won't have the pass rush that they had last year, which wasn't all that great, only averaging 1.85 sacks a game, which was good for 70th in the nation.
|Special Teams | Both the punter and kicker return, although SMU was only 79th in net punting last year behind the leg of Mike Loftus. K Chase Hover made 62% of his field goals and 47 of 49 of his extra points. Acker is going to be the primary punt returner and I expect him to be terrific at that. Thompson led the team with 16 kickoff returns last year and he averaged almost 26 yards a return.
|Intangibles | This intangibles portion is going to be a catch-all for coaching, where the game is played, etc. So I really like June Jones. His methodical style of having the quarterback run over for each play sometimes drives me a bit batty, but Jones is really good at what he does and I think he is a very good head coach. I think that Mumme might help the passing situation and maybe he can get Gilbert to take advantage of a more short or medium passing game as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach. Defensively, I think that SMU comes back down to earth after having a fantastic defensive line. I think to maintain that #15 rush ranking will be problematic for the Mustangs and the defensive success of a team is greatly increased if they can stop the run. I don't see that happening this year for SMU.