2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: A steady hand from June Jones has turned SMU into a team that has consistently competed for a spot in the postseason. Last year was no different as the Mustangs went 6-6 in the regular season and earned an invite to the Hawaii bowl.
The year didn't start off strong though as the Mustangs were just 1-3 at the end of September after suffering defeats to in-state foes Baylor (59-24), Texas A&M (48-3) and TCU (24-16). The lone win in the first month came against Stephen F. Austin (52-0).
The Mustangs got back to form once league play began in Conference USA, winning three of their first four games, including wins over UTEP (17-0) and Houston (72-42). Road blocks in away games against UCF (42-17) and Rice (36-14) were the low parts of a shaky start to November but a surprising 35-27 win over Tulsa to end the month pushed the Mustangs into bowl contention.
Led by multi-faceted quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who threw for 212 yards and a score and also rushed for 98 yards and an additional touchdown, the Mustangs earned their third bowl win in the last four seasons with a 43-10 trouncing of Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl.
OFFENSE: If SMU hopes to continue its success in terms of postseason appearances during its move to the American Athletic Conference, Gilbert will have to replicate the type of production he had in Hawaii on a weekly basis.
Gilbert completed just 53 percent of his pass attempts last season, while having the same amount of passing touchdowns as interceptions (15). A portion of the blame for his struggles was on his inexperience as a starter. Now a senior, Gilbert, who rushed for eight touchdowns as well last year, needs to show he can be a consistent passing threat which will make his mobility that much more lethal.
"I noticed last year by middle of the season he was finally starting to get a little bit of his confidence back," Jones said of Gilbert. "So I'm excited about him. He's a leader. He's a great kid, and he has the skills to go to the next level."
A hurdle that Gilbert will have to overcome is not having the luxury of turning around and handing the ball to Zach Line. The bruising back and his 1,278 yards are gone leaving a big hole in the SMU running game. Outside of Gilbert the Mustangs got just 94 total rushing yards from other backs last season. The hope is that former Texas Longhorn Traylon Shead will make the transition smoothly to a starting role. Shead played in junior college last season and didn't see much playing time with the Longhorns.
Jones made his name in crafting strong passing attacks. That wasn't the case last season as the Ponies ranked sixth in C-USA and 62nd nationally with 235.3 yards per game. Getting more production out of the receiving corps could help matters. Jeremy Johnson led the team with 787 yards and five touchdowns last season, ranking second on the team with 64 receptions. He will be back, as will speedster Der'Rikk Thompson, who pulled in 41 balls for 535 yards a year ago.
The line will be retooling with left tackle Ben Gottschalk and center Taylor Lasecki the only returning players with starting experience. Gottschalk is as solid as they come. The rest of the rotation will be made up of players looking to prove themselves.
DEFENSE: Far from a defensive juggernaut, SMU did excel in one phase last year. That was in stopping the run, as the Mustangs ranked at the top of C-USA and 15th nationally in rush defense (117.9 ypg). The benefits of that type of production were nullified by the team's porous passing defense (278.2 ypg).
All three starters from the defensive line that were paramount to the run defense are gone which could lead to a big drop off. Beau Barnes is a senior that will be called on to step up as a leader quickly. The defensive end had two tackles for loss and a sack last year.
In the 3-4 system that SMU runs, getting solid play from the linebackers is key and that could help the fall off at defensive line as SMU has some strength in that area. Randall Joyner and Stephon Sanders are each returning starters. Joyner is the team's leading returning tackler (93) and can also be a factor in coverage as he collected three interceptions. Sanders had 48 tackles, 5.5 of which went for a loss. Kevin Pope and Robert Seals will fill out the other side of the formation.
The secondary is similarly packed with productive returning starters. Both of the cornerback spots are manned by seniors with Chris Parks and Kenneth Acker back in Dallas. Parks had 48 tackles and seven passes defended last year, while Acker was even better with 50 stops, three interceptions and a team-high 15 passes defended. Jay Scott (76 tackles, 11 passes defended) will be at the strong safety spot in his senior season. Junior Hayden Greenbauer is the only non-returning starter in the secondary though he was solid when he was on the field last season (27 tackles, INT).
SPECIAL TEAMS: SMU has both its place kicker and punter from last season back. That isn't exactly a good thing though, as Chase Hover connected on just 18- of-29 field goal attempts and missed a pair from inside 30 yards. Mike Loftus averaged 41.9 yards per punt attempt but the Mustangs were in the bottom half of the country in net punting.
Acker has a ton of speed and athleticism so he will handle punt returns and may even be called on to play some receiver. Thompson returned a team-high 16 kickoffs last season and though he did not have a touchdown, did average a strong 25.7 yards per return.
OUTLOOK: For SMU, bowl games have begun to be an expectation. However despite the four straight trips to the postseason, Jones has not had more than eight wins in a season. His job is certainly not in danger but making sure to keep the Mustangs at that level will be key in the coming years. That will be tougher than usual this season.
"We're excited about being in this conference. I think the level of play is a step up from what SMU has been involved with Conference USA," Jones said. "I believe that we're going to have to play some pretty good football to be competitive at this level."
SMU plays perhaps the toughest non-league schedule of any team in the conference. The Mustangs begin the season with a home game against Texas Tech and also play on the road at TCU and Texas A&M in the first four games of the season. SMU will get a rough welcome to the American Athletic Conference when it faces Rutgers to open the league slate. In November, the Mustangs play three of four games on the road as well, though they benefit from not having conference favorite Louisville on the schedule.
Gilbert has shown flashes of brilliant play and Shead could be productive but the offense just might not have enough punch to get SMU over the hump. Missing so much up front on defense won't help much even if the back end is solid. Getting to a fifth consecutive bowl game is going to be quite a challenge this season.