Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: It was an anticlimactic year for the Mustangs in 2011, as SMU finished with an 8-5 record after losing just one time in its first six outings.
June Jones began his fourth year at SMU with a humbling loss to the Texas A&M Aggies (46-14), but guided his team to five consecutive wins over Texas-El Paso (28-17), Northwestern State (40-7), Memphis (42-0), TCU (40-33), and UCF (38-17) after that.
However, the Mustangs showed they were not among the Conference USA's elite yet when they dropped two games in a row to Southern Miss (27-3) and Tulsa (38-7). An expected victory over Tulane (45-24) was followed by a pair of disappointing defeats to Navy (24-17) and Houston (37-7). The Mustangs regrouped in the regular-season finale by edging Rice (27-24) to ensure a winning record.
Although SMU failed to make it three straight C-USA West Division crowns, it was extended an invitation to the BBVA Compass Bowl to take on Pittsburgh. The Mustangs dominated the Panthers (28-6) which led Jones to flirt with the idea of bolting for Arizona State. However, the Mustangs' retained their successful head coach, who will be in charge for their final tour through C-USA, before moving to the Big East in 2013.
OFFENSE: The Mustangs might have an all-league caliber player in former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert. The junior started as a freshman for the Longhorns in 2010, but Texas finished with a 5-7 record. He then missed the majority of 2011 after undergoing shoulder surgery. Despite his lack of success at Texas, Gilbert's high school career made him the top quarterback prospect from the class of 2009. A change of scenery which is accompanied by the air-it-out philosophy of June Jones could lead to big things for the quarterback just as it did for Colt Brennan at Hawaii.
Gilbert will have pressure alleviated by the rushing ability of Zach Line (6-1, 230). The Mustangs' power back led C-USA and ranked seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game (122.4) last season before a foot injury ended his year prematurely. Rishaad Wimbley (6-0, 260) is Line's backup. The converted nose guard is a big time weapon in short-yardage situations.
The offensive line might be the biggest question mark with a glaring lack of experience. Senior guard Blake McJunkin (6-2, 300) needs to be the leader up front or Gilbert and Line will struggle.
SMU retained its leading receiver Darius Johnson (1,118 yards, eight TDs) and has a viable number two option in Der'rikk Thompson (411 yards, three TDs). Thompson's speed is going to be a difference maker for the offense, which will use four and five wide receiver sets frequently.
DEFENSE: Defensive success is not necessarily what June Jones has been known for throughout his career, but SMU finished second in C-USA in total defense (340.0 yards per game) last season. The three-man defensive line is highlighted by the imposing figure of DE Margus Hunt (6-8, 295). The senior defensive end is still learning the intricacies of football as he just began playing in 2009 after a career as a champion discus thrower. Hunt is one of the top end prospects in all of college football due to his pairing of elite size and athleticism.
While Hunt lacks experience, the linebacker corps returns four starters and two second-team all-conference players.
"Overall, the linebacking crew has a chance to be one of the best I've ever had anywhere." said Jones.
The senior tandem of Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed lead a very deep position that is vital to the attacking defensive philosophy. Ryan Smith (safety) and Kenneth Acker (corner) return to their starting positions in the secondary. Smith recorded 65 tackles last season and Acker made 63 tackles. Sophomore J.R. Richardson will see more action this season as a cornerback being used primarily as a kick returner in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior Chase Hover made 8-of-10 field goal attempts and 38- of-40 PATs last season, but his longest kick was just 34 yards. Sophomore Mike Loftus once again provides a more powerful leg for kickoffs and is also challenging Matt Stone as the starting punter. Richardson was one of C-USA's top kick returners last season, but his need at cornerback might limit his usage on special teams.
OUTLOOK: SMU will face obstacles early on in 2012 as it has Baylor, Texas A&M, and TCU on its September schedule.
The Mustangs also have to go on the road to Texas-El Paso and Tulane to begin their C-USA season. Jones and his squad face both of top West Division competitors, Tulsa and Houston, at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. The team will be tested on November 3 as well in Orlando by UCF.
SMU is in great position to return to its throne atop the C-USA's West Division one last time. Jones has led the program to a 17-7 record in league action over the past three seasons and picked up his 100th career win in the most recent bowl game win. Gilbert's lack of success at Texas as an underclassman is not enough to dismiss his potential to bloom into a superstar.
Jones has done a terrific job restoring SMU and with a strong team on both sides of the ball, could give the school its first league title since its 1984 Southwest Conference co-championship.