It’s been a long two decades for the SMU Mustangs. Since their pre-death penalty run of success in the early 1980s, SMU has gone without a postseason appearance since 1984, when they finished up a five-year run in the national spotlight.
After going 5-6 and 6-6 in 2005 and 2006 and just missing out on that elusive winning season and bowl game, it looked like 2007 could’ve been a big year. Instead, it was a big disappointment, as the Mustangs went 1-11 and winless in Conference USA at 0-8.
Even though six of those losses were by 10 points or less, it wasn’t enough to keep Phil Bennett on the sidelines, as his tenure came to an end after six seasons.
But there’s reason for optimism in Dallas, as the Mustangs have a new head coach in June Jones, who turned Hawai'i from an also-ran into a premier program. Will he be able to do the same with SMU?
Coach: June Jones (0-0, 1st year at SMU, 75-41 in nine seasons at Hawai'i)
Key Returnees: QB Justin Willis, WR Emmanuel Sanders, RB DeMyron Martin, OL Mitch Enright, OL Sean Lobo, OL Tommy Poynter, DE Youri Yenga, DL Serge Elizee, LB Will Bonilla, LB Justin Smart, CB Bryan McCann, FS Tyler Jones, SS Rock Dennis, DB David Haynes
Key Losses: RB James Mapps (suspension), FS Bryce Hudman (suspension), WR Zack Sledge, WR Columbus Givens, LB Wilton McCray, DL Cory Muse, DB Jonathan Lindley, WR/DB Devin Lowery, DB Brandon Jones, LB Damon Hurst
Aug. 29 @ Rice
Sep. 6 Texas State
Sep. 13 @ Texas Tech
Sep. 20 TCU
Sep. 25 @ Tulane
Oct. 4 @ UCF
Oct. 11 Tulsa
Oct. 18 Houston
Oct. 25 @ Navy
Nov. 8 Memphis
Nov. 15 @ UTEP
Nov. 29 Southern Miss
Key Game: Sep. 20 vs. TCU
The previous week's game against Texas Tech could be an intriguing one if SMU starts 2-0, but what better way to usher in a new era than to lay the wood on your archrival? The last time SMU hosted TCU, they upset the 22nd-ranked Horned Frogs 21-10 in 2005.
Last season, SMU held TCU to only seven points on offense, but a blocked punt TD and a pick-six were the difference in a 21-7 TCU win. This year, things could be much, much different if the Mustangs are riding high on confidence heading into this one, as they should be.
During their run in the '80s, a potent running attack led by the likes of Eric Dickerson and Craig James was the hallmark of SMU’s offense. The Pony Express will be back in business, but the new generation will keep in step with today’s technology and go more by air than ground.
The biggest beneficiary of the new wide-open, pass-friendly offense is QB Justin Willis. In his first two seasons, Willis has been one of the bright spots of the team, blossoming into one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.
As a freshman, he threw for 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions on the way to being the conference’s Freshman of the Year. Last season, his numbers suffered a little as he threw the ball a lot more (414 times, up from 270 in 2006) in shootout after shootout, but he did rack up 2,944 yards and 25 touchdowns.
He was a sore spot as well, thanks to off-the-field issues that caused him to be suspended indefinitely until recently.
With Willis on the field, Jones has his guy. If he can get the interceptions down (18 in 2007) and focus on the game, he could easily be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
What gives Willis that extra dimension is his ability to make plays on his feet. Jones had a fairly mobile QB in Colt Brennan, but Willis, who led SMU with 699 yards rushing last season, is much more of a running threat.
Willis’ leading receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (74 catches, 889 yards, nine TDs), is back, and a 1,000-yard season is definitely within reach. Top running back James Mapps (suspension) will have to be replaced, but that will allow senior DeMyron Martin to make the starting job his once and for all.
The key for SMU is going to be defense, which had a big hand in last year’s struggles, giving up 39.8 points and 498.7 yards per game. Granted, they did have to replace Justin Rogers, Adrian Haywood, Joe Sturdivant, and Reggie Carrington, but there’s no doubt that the D took a big step back after a solid year in 2006.
However, several starters are back this year, and the other likely new starters all have some level of experience, so defensive improvement is a good bet. Safety and co-leading tackler Bryce Hudman is another player currently suspended indefinitely, but on the bright side, Rock Dennis is back after missing all of 2007 with a shoulder injury, and should start at strong safety.
There’s talent throughout the defense, from Yenga (six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) up front, to Bonilla (82 tackles, two INTs, two forced fumbles) and Smart (29 tackles, 2.5 for loss) at linebacker, and Bryan McCann (four interceptions in 2007) in the secondary. Smart and Jones (51 tackles, 4.5 for loss as a freshman) should provide plenty of big hits this season.
Special teams isn’t a concern in the least. Thomas Morstead is the conference’s top punter (44.6 yards per punt last season), and the strong-legged senior is also a reliable placekicker (26 of 38 field goals, 77 straight PATs made).
So what will it take for the Mustangs to end their bowl drought?
Winning the close ones is what will take SMU over the top. In the last three seasons, they've suffered 13 losses by ten points or fewer (four in 2005, three in 2006, six in 2007). If they want to take the next step, winning those games is a must.
If the defense isn’t a liability, the potential is certainly there for the Mustangs to make a challenge in C-USA and contend for a postseason berth.
Jones has engineered a major turnaround before, and with a great deal of returning talent in place, you can count on his Mustangs to take a big step forward this season.