Ponies saddle up for stampede through new AAC

The once tattered SMU football program has experienced a significant turnaround since June Jones was hired as its head coach in 2008.

During their nearly 100 years of gridiron competition, the Mustangs have really had only two highly successful stints -- the first coming under the direction of coaches Ray Morrison and Madison Bell (1915-16, 1922-41, 1945-49, 163-84-30), and the second under Bobby Collins (1982-86, 43-14-1).

However, in the quarter century since, SMU has averaged just over three wins per season and of course, has the dubious distinction of being the only football program in collegiate history to receive the "Death Penalty" from the NCAA for repeated rules violations, that coming in 1987.

The Ponies were put out to pasture for the 1987 and '88 seasons, and returned the following year with an undermanned and outgunned roster. They struggled to find their footing for the better part of the next two decades before the administration had seen enough, and Jones was brought in to help get SMU football back on track.

During the lean years that preceded Jones' arrival, the Mustangs earned only one winning season and were consistently among the nation's worst teams. During the five years since, SMU has gone a respectable 31-34 and been to four bowl games, three of which it has won.

SMU, which won its division in Conference USA twice (2009-10), hasn't claimed an outright or shared conference crown since 1984 (Southwest Conference), but Jones is hoping that all changes now that his team has made the jump to the newly-named American Athletic Conference.

He knows it won't be easy, but the coach looks forward to the challenges that await.

"We're excited about being in this conference," Jones said at the inaugural AAC Media Day earlier this week. "I think the level of play is a step up from what SMU has been involved with Conference USA, and I believe that we're going to have to play some pretty good football to be competitive at this level."

In a league where the majority of teams have their signal callers back for another go, quarterback Garrett Gilbert's continued development will be the key to the Mustangs' success. The recent hiring of former Kentucky and New Mexico State head coach Hal Mumme as offensive coordinator should help in that regard, but it's Jones' influence most that will likely dictate just how high Gilbert ascends.

Gilbert threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 15 TDs last season, but he completed only 53 percent of his passes and was picked off 15 times. Losing former standouts Zach Line (277 carries, 1,278 yards, 13 TDs) and Darius Johnson (64 receptions, 787 yards, 5 TDs) hurts, but the return of leading receiver Jeremy Johnson (67 receptions, 679 yards, 3 TDs) should help assure a level of continuity. Jones has also done a nice job of recruiting, as there are a number of talented players ready to make their mark as well.

"We have I think five or six guys back on offense. And with our quarterback back, and a year under his belt, he'll be much, much improved, and I like what I see so far in the offseason of their work ethic."

SMU averaged more than 30 ppg in 2012, helping it go 7-6 overall and 5-3 in C- USA. The team's Achilles' heel however, was on the defensive side of the ball as the Mustangs were routinely torched through the air to the tune of 278.2 ypg and 27 TDs, ranking the unit 109th of the 120 FBS teams charted.

Despite that poor showing, Jones is genuinely excited about the prospects for his defense this season.

"We got a lot of good young players. We've lost six or seven guys on defense. But we have some young kids that are very talented that I think are going to be good defensive players."

SMU was picked by the media to finish eighth in the first American Athletic Conference preseason poll, but if Jones, Gilbert and company have their way, the Mustangs are hoping they can blaze a trail that eventually leads to league supremacy.