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Mid-Major Monday: Mustangs Were Made for Runnin' and Shootin'

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When June Jones' name first surfaced as a possibility to end the marathon search at SMU last December, I reacted like most people probably did:

    They do seem "interested" in June Jones, who could conceivably stop over in Dallas during his flight to or from the Sugar Bowl to informally laugh as close to [SMU AD Steve] Orsini's face as possible.
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Um, yes. From that perspective – most successful coach in his alma mater's history bailing off the peak of an unprecedented run of success in a paradise of mai tais and hula girls for a last place team in Dallas with zero winning seasons in 20 years post-death penalty – SMU seems like a kind of late career vanity project. Jones' first year at Hawaii was the greatest single-season turnaround in NCAA history, from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in 1999, a repeat of which would cement his legacy as second tier savior par excellence.

But then, given the awful state of affairs in the islands, facility-wise, and the staggering amount of production following him to the mainland for a shot in the NFL, Jones' short-term prospects are at least as high with the Mustangs. If they know anything about SMU at all, most fans at large probably associate the Mustangs with running backs – Doak Walker, the Dickerson-James "Pony Express" that preceded the Great Retribution in the early eighties. Consider, though, the trend Jones inherits offensively:

You don't have to try to untangle all that. The takeaway is that, prior to 2006, no aspect of SMU's passing game ever finished near the top half of the rankings nationally; for the most part, they didn't even crack the top third. But then there's the last two years, when the numbers have been above average across the board – a tribute almost exclusively to date to the multi-talented Justin Willis, who's doubled as the team's leading rusher both years, too. Willis accounted for 63 percent of the Mustang offense in '06 and 72 percent in '07, is the first player at SMU to attempt 400 passes in a season, and if he fails to improve at all, he'll still finish this year second on the all-time yardage list, and first in touchdowns, with a year to go. Jones has his quarterback; Willis is bigger than Colt Brennan and a much better athlete on the run.

Not taking factoring in the last two, off-the-charts seasons, Jones' offenses in Hawaii averaged 34 points per game on 366 passing from 2000-05, about 100 yards and a touchdown better than SMU last year. If Brennan and record-smashing Timmy Chang before him were products of Jones' system, Willis should be, too. Even if it takes a year to put it together (which it didn't for Brennan, who led the nation in passing yards his first year in 2005), he's back in '09.

That's the good news. The bad news also begins with Willis: his interceptions skyrocketed as a sophomore, up to 18 from a paltry six as a redshirt freshman, while his touchdowns leveled off (26 in '06 to 25 last year). More than that, he's something of a loose cannon, eligibility-wise. He was reinstated to the team last week after being suspended almost immediately upon Jones' arrival for academic stuff and missing "team functions," which is not nearly as bad as his suspension in 2006 for allegedly beating up a kid to whom Willis cordially referred as "fag" (or "stalker," depending on who you ask). There's also a better than even chance he posted his own recruiting video to YouTube, which must say something about something, you know, Freudian or something, that is probably not good.

Kid smashed every record at the ten-and-under camp, but the scouts have their doubts.
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The bigger point, though, is that the offense is more or less good already, and quarterback-dependent, without the laying of Jones' hands. It scored 28 points or more seven times last year after a decade of failing to even average 21 points, and topped 40 points four times. The problems with Willis are very, very middling small potatoes compared to a) attempted rape, the charge Brennan escaped in Colorado before finding more hospitable accommodations in Honolulu, and, most especially, b) SMU's defense, which was arguably the worst in the nation if you consider the schedule. It won't do to say, "Every defense in Conference USA was terrible," though that's basically true, since SMU was awful even by those low, low standards. If you were wondering how a generally successful offense can lose games in which it scores 45, 34, 42 and 52 points, respectively, it's because it allowed 48, 41, 43 and 55 in the same games, to the likes of UTEP, Tulane, Rice and Memphis.

But as far as immediate turnarounds go, that scenario is something of a gold mine – at 1-11, SMU was a classic "margin" team, losing three games in overtime, another by six points in the final minute and another by one point on the last play of the game, which the Mustangs led by two touchdowns at the beginning of the fourth quarter. They were 20 points and an extra possession or two over five games from breaking even. Not that he weighed those factors before he accepted the job – certainly June is excited to be a Mustang for the fans, and the community, and the, uh, sake of Mustang-ness – but it's a shrewd move from a sinking ship to a likely rising one: if the defense is just a little better (which it must be, returning starters be damned, according to the laws of nature), and the offense is just a little better (which it likely will be, with Jones' prolific scheme and a still-maturing Willis), SMU could easily come out of the chute firing for that long-awaited bowl game.

It should come close, anyway, which probably would have happened under any competent coach, as long as he kept Willis out of the doghouse and in the lineup. Preferably with a lead foot for a playcaller. Not that that diminishes any of the heavy lifting: if it happens under Jones, he won't be just a lucky coach in the right situation at the right time. He'll be two for two where the sky was falling in.