Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 56 SMU Mustangs

The countdown to the 2012 college football season marches on.  Today we preview the No. 56 team on the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series, the SMU Mustangs.

June Jones built a reputation as a Mr. Fix it, similar to Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction.  The head coach turned Hawaii into a nationally viable program before bolting to the biggest turnaround gig in college football, SMU.  A revival after decades of obscurity due to the death penalty,the ‘Stangs are on the right track.  Jones has guided SMU to three consecutive bowl games appearances after a 23 year absence.

Impact Players

Offense

The Mustangs will sport a new quarterback in 2012, but not an unknown by any means.  Garrett Gilbert, a transfer from Texas,  looks to rebuild a soiled reputation.  The one-time successor to Colt McCoy,  Gilbert struggled to gain the confidence of the UT coaching staff with constant interceptions and lopsided losses.  Jones will hand his spread offense and trust, to a once heralded top recruit.  Gilbert is also recovering from shoulder surgery so immediate success is up in the air.

SMU returns two starting receivers, sophomore Der’rikk Thompson and senior Darius Johnson.  Johnson will lead a receiving unit more than capable of turning quick short routes into big gains.  Both Johnson and Thompson averaged 14.2 yards a reception in 2011.  Keenan Holman will be asked to carry a higher workload this season but that could be a good thing.  The junior may have had only five receptions last year, but averaged 21.6 yards with a td.

Gilbert will be assisted by star senior running back Zach Line in the backfield.  Line had an exceptional 2011 rushing for 1,224 yards and 17 td’s.  A perfect fit for Jones’ run-and-shoot, Line had 15 receptions last year, aside from being Conference USA’s best rusher.

If there is an obvious issue for the Mustangs it will be the offensive line.  None of the five starters in 2011 return, putting a great deal of pressure on Gilbert and Line to make up the difference.

Defense

While Jones is renowned for building offensive heavy programs, it is the defense of SMU that could provide the most formidable unit.  In 2011 the Mustangs D was ranked 27th in the nation.

Senior defensive end Margus Hunt is candidate for all-conference honors and has huge upside.  Hunt stands 6’8″ and is a former all-discus junior world champion.  The entire linebacking corps returns to the 3-4 scheme.  Among the four projected starting backers, three are seniors, Cameron Rogers, Taylor Reed, and Ja’Gared Davis.  Reed is a tackling machine totaling 101 last year.  Davis led the team in tackles for a loss at 12.

Sophomore J.R. Richardson and junior returning starter Kenneth Acker are the likely first team duo at corner.  Senior strong safety Ryan Smith will once again anchor the backfield.

Schedule

SMU’s non-conference schedule is a throwback to the old Southwest Conference days.  The season begins at Baylor September 2nd.  Stephen F. Austin is the token cupcake in week 2 before home games against Texas A & M and TCU.  A 2-2 showing to start the year will be an accomplishment.  The conference schedule is mostly favorable as the road games are all winnable, at UTEP, UCF, and Rice.  Houston, Memphis, Southern Miss, and Tulsa will be played in Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

Although there were flashes shown of a typical high octane offense in 2011, Jones’ crew better step their game up.  Conference USA has plenty of teams that can light up the scoreboard.  In SMU’s losses in 2011, the offense managed 14, 3, 7, 17, and 7 point totals.

Because the non-conference schedule is so difficult, the Mustangs must rack up wins in-conference.  Six wins are almost a given assuming the Mustangs can protect their home-field.  This is the last season in Conference USA before SMU joins the Big East in 2013.  The Mustangs have a decent shot at competing for a conference title before they leave.

SMU’s biggest hurdle will be overcoming a completely revamped offensive line and Gilbert playing like the blue-chip prospect he was supposed to be in Austin.  Bowl game?  Yes.  Conference title?  Possible.  A top 20 finish?  Don’t bet on it.

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