The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 40: SMU
Coach: June Jones (24-28, entering fifth season at SMU; 100-68 overall entering 14th season at FBS level)
2011 record: 8-5 (5-3 in Conference USA, third in Western Division)
Look back: SMU has thrived during coach June Jones’ tenure, sustaining success after a long drought triggered by the NCAA death penalty sanctions that rocked a once successful program.
The Mustangs were hoping to build on the success of the 2009 and 2010 SMU teams tied for first in Conference USA’s Western Division and earned bowl invitations. SMU opened the season with a 46-14 loss at Texas A&M, then bounced back to win five consecutive games, beating UTEP 28-17, Northwestern State 40-7, Memphis on the road 42-0, No. 20 TCU on the road 40-33 in overtime and UCF 38-17. SMU then began to struggled, losing four of its next five games. The team lost 27-3 at Southern Miss, 38-7 at Tulsa, 24-17 against Navy and 37-7 against No. 10 Houston. SMU’s sole win during the stretch was a 45-24 win over Tulane. SMU closed out the regular season with a 27-24 win over Rice, placing third in Conference USA’s Western Division.
SMU faced a frazzled Pittsburgh team in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Panthers had just lost head coach Todd Graham, who had only been with the program one season, to Arizona State. The Pittsburgh players made their second consecutive bowl appearance without a full-time head coach expected to return the following season. SMU rolled to a 28-6 win over Pitt in the bowl game.
Early in the erratic season, Jones benched two-year starter Kyle Padron and moved senior backup J.J, McDermott into the starting role. Padron later suffered a season-ending back injury. McDermott thrived in Jones’ pass heavy system, going 272-of-455 for 3,421 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. Padron has since decided to transfer to Eastern Washington.
The season brought tremendous highs and lows for SMU off the field. In November, the school earned a coveted invitation to join the Big East Conference in all sports. In December, Jones had reportedly accepted the Arizona State job but school officials backed off after key boosters loudly complained he wasn’t a good hire. Graham would later be offered and accept the job. SMU athletics director Steve Orsini stood by Jones, welcoming him back to the program despite his obvious interest elsewhere and SMU boosters’ desire to boot Jones. The support of Jones was rumored to have contributed to SMU President R. Gerald Turner’s decision to fire Orsini.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 8/3
Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Key losses: QB J.J. McDermott, OL Kelvin Beachum, OL Josh LeRibeus, OL Bryce Tennison, OL Kelly Turner, OL J.T. Brooks, WR Cole Beasley, WR Terrance Wilkerson, DE Taylor Thompson, DE Marquis Frazier, CB Richard Crawford, S Chris Banjo.
Top returnees: RB Zach Line, QB Garrett Gilbert, WR Darius Johnson, WR Der’rikk Thompson, DL Torian Pittman, LB Stephon Sanders, LB Cameron Rogers, LB Taylor Reed, LB Ja’Gared Davis, S Ryan Smith, CB Kenneth Acker.
Strengths: Jones’ high powered offense is known for producing fireworks no matter who lines up at quarterback. Texas transfer quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who earned an NCAA waiver granting him immediate eligibilty for the upcoming season, is expected to take over as starting quarterback and has the potential to thrive at the quarterback position. He will get considerable help from strong running back Zach Line and returning receivers Darius Johnson and Der’rikk Thompson. Johnson has been named the offensive MVP for two consecutive bowl games.
The biggest surprise about SMU during Jones’ tenure has been its strong defense. Jones is known for focusing solely on offensive firepower, but the Mustangs ranked No. 27 in the nation last season in total defense, allowing 340.00 yards per game. The unit returns seven starters, including 2011 second team All-Conference USA linebacker Taylor Reed.
Weaknesses: SMU will have five new starters on the offensive line and a new starting quarterback. It’s tough for any program to succeed with so many young players operating close to the line of scrimmage. It is unclear what impact, if any, Jones’ failed move to Arizona State will have on the way he is viewed at SMU.
Outlook: Jones has proven to be adept at rebuilding programs. With other Conference USA schools enduring so many changes, SMU has the tools to compete for a league title next season.
Sept. 1 At Baylor
Sept. 8 Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 15 Texas A&M
Sept. 29 TCU
Oct. 6 At UTEP
Oct. 13 At Tulane
Oct. 20 Houston
Oct. 27 Memphis
Nov. 3 At UCF
Nov. 10 Southern Miss
Nov. 17 At Rice
Nov. 24 Tulsa
Rest of the countdown: