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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: SMU

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about SMU...
2006 Record
6-6 (4-4 C-USA/ Fourth, West)
Past Five Years
17-41 (14-26 WAC/C-USA)
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (8 Offense, 5 Defense)
Best Player
The Mustangs have a couple of productive linebackers, Reggie Carrington and Wilton McCray, but there’s no way to get around Justin Willis’ 26 to 6 TD:INT ratio as a redshirt freshman in a role typically awarded to whichever rag-armed Dallas vagabond can remain upright whilst defenders envision flames licking his fattened body as it revolves on a spigot, apple stuffed in his mouth. Willis threw for multiple touchdowns in seven of his nine starts and was usually the first rushing option in the spread option, too, which ought to mirror his position on the all-C-USA team if he wards off the dreaded Slump of Sophmoros.
Bizarre Tradition
SMU upholds the ubiquitous Texas tradition of hook-fingered hand signs with its "Pony Ears," but the focus here is on the university’s "Mustang Corral," an actual wilderness-type retreat for incoming freshmen to have FUN, start meeting people right away, learn what it means to be a Mustang and generally, you know, bootscoot:
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Far as I can tell, Oct. 13 will be SMU’s first ever game against Southern Miss, AKA scrolling ticker acronym apocalypse. At least one network can be relied upon every season, without fail, to refer at some point on its scoreboard to Southern Miss as ‘SMU,’ or, less often, Southern Methodist as ‘USM.’ The mistake is easy to spot if the viewer already knows who one or the other happens to be playing on any given weekend. But what’s the recourse if some ticker intern screws this one up? All reports from Hattiesburg are to be met with skepticism unless corroborated with video evidence.
Recall the episode of The Simpsons when Monty Burns lost his entire fortune and was briefly relegated to pauperdom in a retirement home. Frustrated at first, he quickly earned his money back again, seemingly on the up-and-up but actually, we learned, through the disgusting, environmentally-wretched manufacture of "slurry." SMU hovering around .500 again is something like that - the long, painful recovery from the 1984 "death penalty" looks perfectly innocent now, but who knows what lurks deep in the heart of the program once deemed so corrupt it was no longer fit to exist?

The first thing that needs to happen in this preview, because there's so much gushing talk below of vast, rapid improvement, is to establish where the Mustangs are coming from: the depths of skid row. SMU 2001-2004 was a toothless layabout, the winless '03 'Stangs devolving into one of the most unclean I-A products in memory, unfit even to set foot on a field named for a former overmatched but well-meaning president a booster with a name very similar to a former overmatched but well-meaning president. "Vast improvement" puts them at roughly street level, in rumpled but passable clothes. A bowl game is a comfortable, low level office job, and they've sercured an interview, etc. What I'm saying is, they're on the way up the proverbial ladder, Craig James is still on national television, and I'm keeping one hand near my money clip.

Every day in every way, SMU is getting better and better.
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What's Changed: The Mustangs' defensive line was the best in Conference USA at getting to the quarterback, or into opposing backfields in general, mostly a result of departed linemen Adrian Haywood and Justin Rogers. That pair was credited with 49 tackles for loss and 27 sacks the last two years while anchoring by far the best rushing, total and scoring defenses of Phil Benett's tenure (stil just 75th in total defense, 71st scoring) and were both all-conference as seniors. End Cory Muse had seven sacks opposite Rogers and might hold that line, as they used to say, but the other three starters are noobs.

What's the Same: Redshirt freshman Justin Willis split time with JUCO transfer Corey Slater in the first two games, awful defeats at Texas Tech and, worse, North Texas in which the offense averaged 230 yards and 4.5 points. Willis started nine of the next ten - he was suspended at UTEP after being apparently accused of a hate crime for deploying "a derogatory term for a homosexual" and then punching his target on campus - and was a revelation. Shield your eyes from SMU's quarterbacking record this decade, except the last line:

Pass Off. (Rank) Pass Effic. Comp. %
2000 209 (64) 100.6 (102) 52.5
2001 157 (97) 103.3 (92) 52.1
2002 159.3 (98) 100.9 (106) 52.1
2003 131.3 (112) 89.9 (116) 46.6
2004 208.7 (65) 110.0 (96) 54.4
2005 176.1 (96) 107.9 (94) 52.5
2006 194.3 (65) 150.1 (17) 64.2
Pass TD INT Total Off. Scoring
2000 13 22 325.0 (85) 15.1 (108)
2001 10 11 313.4 (102) 20.6 (95)
2002 11 18 341.6 (90) 17.3 (113)
2003 7 15 260.7 (117) 11.2 (117)
2004 11 17 333.9 (90) 18.4 (107)
2005 10 8 308.3 (104) 20.8 (94)
2006 29 10 319.5 (79) 27.1 (40)

All of these numbers are significantly better when applied only to Willis, who's dragged down by Corey Slater's four interceptions and measly 45 percent completion rate in very limited action. SMU also averaged just ten points in the games Willis and Slater split time or Willis didn't play at all. But in the nine games Willis played start to finish, SMU averaged almost 33 points and was never held under 21, a mark it hadn't even reached on average in at least six years. Even with Slater dragging the whole down, scoring, pass efficiency, completion percentage and touchdowns to interceptions were off the charts compared to what they had been. Which was, without reprieve, pathetic.

Phil Bennett was in his fifth year as head coach, Rusty Burns in his fourth as coordinator, Bobby Chase, Reynaldo Perrellin and Zack Sledge in their second as a starting receiving corps. The gap between their previous futility and viable competence was spanned solely by gay-baiting Justin Willis. Well, Willis and another redshirt freshman, Emmanuel Sanders, who had eight touchdown catches from his classmate (though only one catch of any variety over the final two games).

Our Long Sub-Regional Nightmare Is Over: It was a very different team outside of Gerald Ford Stadium last year: at home, the Mustangs were 5-1, losing only to eventual league champion Houston and busting up Tulsa's conference title hopes in November with probably its best overall performance of the season. GJFS was also the site of significant, double-digit upsets over TCU and UTEP in 2005. On the other hand, SMU was just 1-5 on the road, only winning at Tulane and getting wiped out at North Texas by eighteen. Not very comforting to Texas Tech, coming into Dallas to open things up on Labor Day, but all the typically tough conference games - Southern Miss, Tulsa, Houston - and TCU are on the road.

It's good to be Vincent Chase, and even better to be around Vincent Chase.
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Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Whatever else happens, at least the the Mustangs can count on excitement from up-and-coming tight end Vincent Chase, who secured the starting job on the condition his just-graduated older brother, Bobby, can move into his swanky dorm along with another pair of friends from back home in Irving. Just until Bobby earns another starting job, of course. He's not too old. And If James Cameron calls, Vince - or what's the college equivalent, Mack Brown? - just take the call. They don't feed you on an indie set.

Also: SMU's athletic department keeps a blog on Blogspot, Mustang Musings, where we learn compliance guru Jeff Konya is a Bob Marley fan, and not afraid his acknowledgment of his admiration of the marijuana-championing radical in a post decrying "inconsistent themes" by the NCAA might constitute an "inconsistent theme" of its own. But "Power to the Man," in this case: at least he's in the public sphere tweaking the Association and not just dumping press releases on there.

SMU on YouTube: Specifically, it's a sort of paean to Bobby Chase's performance in last year's mid-week tilt with UAB, but stylistically, this tribute defies description:

When he dropped the middle screen at got a little dusty in the room. Should be played with sound, for the record.

See Also: Chase's catch and release and catch touchdown against UTEP ... John Facenda is the voice of the NFL, and of God, and also of this pre-death penalty showdown between the No. 2 Mustangs and Texas Tech in 1982. Music City Miracle? Eat your heart out, Kevin Dyson ... And did Justin Willis post his own Signing Day video?

Best-Case: The Mustangs have found themselves stuck two consecutive years at 4-4 in C-USA, which seems about right again but could improve over the .500 hump if Willis remains healthy and as consistent as last year. If that happens, the two likely Sun Belt victims, North Texas and Arkansas State, will provide all the nourishment SMU needs to get past the door of a bowl game for the first time since the Pony Express days, 1984. An opening upset of Texas Tech would set the wheels in motion, practically and psychologically, and raise hopes to the level of a division championship. Depending on what happens with the new regime in Tulsa, that's better than a distant possibility.

Worst-Case: Last year's defensive line accounted for a lot, and was still only medicore on a big picture basis. If the new guys cause a reversion there, or if Willis regresses into a state more nearly resembling a typical SMU sophomore quarterback, the bowl-wishin' party will be over. Again, I think the Tech opener at home is essential to the tone of the season and needs to be at least competitive; another blowout could send everything off the tracks. There are no specifically guaranteed wins - the result of losing to North Texas and Rice - but it's safe to say with the expectations things will be beyond bleak if the victories dip back below four.

Non-Binding Forecast: Willis is one of the two or three most valuable players in the conference and might make SMU a C-USA West contender by his very efficient presence alone. We may also have seen the extent of his lightly-recruited powers. If it repeats its home performance and steals one on the road - not Southern Miss, god forbid, but maybe Houston or Memphis - SMU could be right in the mix into late November. Tulsa is the division favorite until further notice, but expect the `Stangs to be back in a bowl game at 7-5, at last. And count the change in the ash tray.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia