NCAA Football

           ***** NCAA Football Preview - SMU Mustangs *****
 By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
 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
 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
 08/21 12:06:05 ET

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