The 2013 SMU Mustangs land at No. 81 on our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews fresh off a 7-6 finish in the team’s final season in Conference USA and entering into their first season in the new Big East Conference. After a 43-10 thrashing of the Fresno State Bulldogs and a solid spring practice slate, the Mustangs are riding high into the summer, but not without serious questions to answer.
Team leaders like Zach Line and Margus Hunt have moved on to the NFL, leaving large holes on both sides of the ball which must be filled, but the concerns don’t stop there. With only one returner in the secondary, unproven talent must rise to the task quickly in Dallas for SMU to build on positive momentum in 2013 and continue to re-build a once-proud program with plenty of potential.
Some unexpected injection of talent from a former Southwest Conference rival could add some spark to an offense that was run-heavy last season but showed signs of balance that were encouraging.
The SMU offense revolves around former Texas Longhorns signal caller and fifth-year senior Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert threw for 2,932 yards last season with 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. These numbers could have been stronger if it weren’t for a plague of dropped passes throughout the season that stalled many of the more important SMU drives in their tracks.
The SMU offensive line is a major source of concern as all five spots up front are up-for-grabs. With the loss of all-everything running back Zach Line to graduation the running game is a concern and a line that’s in flux won’t help. Gilbert will be required — by default, not choice — to use his feet more often in 2013.
Gilbert’s capable of picking up yardage on his feet, but if he has to too often, it’ll be a troubling development. Another former Longhorn, graduate student Thomas Ashcraft, promises to pay huge dividends here this fall in keeping Gilbert on his feet and off his back.
Junior Rishaad Wimbley may be tasked with keeping the running game on track in 2013, and could be joined on occasion in the backfield by another Texas transfer, former Lone Star high school star Traylon Shead. In fact, some reports suggest Shead may be the No. 1 guy.
In the SMU four-wide, spread offense, senior wideouts Jeremy Johnson (67 catches, 679 yards & 3 TDs in 2012) and junior Der’rikk Thompson (41 catches, 535 yards & 4 TDs in 2012) are the top returners. More consistent production from both guys — along with senior Keenan Holman — will be essential to the Mustangs’ overall success on offense in 2013.
The concerns on the defensive side of the ball for the 2013 Mustangs begin and end with the secondary. The youngest unit on the team will be led into a new era by senior cornerback Kenneth Acker, who was one of the better cover guys in C-USA last season. He will be joined by senior safety Jay Scott who finished fourth on the team in tackles in 2012 with 76 and showed flashes of brilliance which will be needed this fall.
Beyond these two, the other spots in the secondary are for the taking. Corner J.R. Richardson could be one of the guys to rise to the occasion, but more must rise for the SMU defense to avoid major issues which are compounded by the need for depth at linebacker.
The production of the linebacking unit during spring practice impressed June Jones and his staff and there is guarded optimism for 2013. Led by senior Randall Joyner — who finished second on the team in tackles for 2012 with 93 — SMU will look to fill holes left by three starters last season, including Taylor Reed, who was the team’s overall tackler with 97 last season.
The Mustangs lose a wealth of production on the defensive line from 2012, but have developed depth behind-the-scenes which should ensure a smoother transition into Big East play in 2013 than some may have expected.
The 2013 schedule opens with a bang as the Mustangs take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders at home, followed by a Week Two matchup in Dallas with Montana State. Road games in late September against the Texas A&M Aggies and TCU Horned Frogs precede the Big East opener against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at home on October 5th.
If the Mustangs can somehow manage a 2-2 split — although it isn’t likely — through the pre-season schedule, another trip to a bowl game in 2013 is within their sights. Our prediction is they fall back below .500 this season given all the questions to answer and a first season in unfamiliar territory.