No. 8 ranked Texas A&M opens the 2011 season against SMU next Sunday night in a sold-out Kyle Field.
Many Aggie fans see A&M's lofty preseason rank, are taking SMU lightly, and expect an A&M rout. They see a 7-7 SMU team made up of all 2- and 3-star recruits, only three years removed from consecutive 1-11 seasons.
But make no mistake, this is an experienced, well-coached, dangerous SMU opponent.
This is probably the toughest opening game for the Aggies since they face No. 19 ranked Urban Meyer-coached Utah in 2004, a game the Aggies lost 41-21.
With SMU still recovering from an NCAA death penalty and after enduring a 1-11 season under Phil Bennett in 2007, in early 2008 the Mustangs spent $10 million signing June Junes up to be their new head football coach for the next 5 years. June Jones had compiled a 76-41 record at Hawaii in nine seasons and had just led Hawaii to an undefeated 2007 regular season and birth in the Sugar Bowl.
After enduring another 1-11 season in the first year under Jones, Jones led SMU to the biggest turnaround in college football in 2009, producing an 8-5 season and Sheraton Hawaii Bowl victory, SMU's first bowl game in 25 years.
Last season's 7-7 finish, which included a first appearance in a Conference USA championship game and a second consecutive bowl game, was considered a disappointment by SMU faithful.
SMU's run-and-shoot offense is designed for big sscoring plays and quick-strike drives. But too often in 2010 the Mustang drives stalled or missed opportunities downfield. An offense that ranked 33rd (of 120) in the country in total offense with over 414 yards per game ranked just 74th in scoring (25.4 points / game).
Last year's 7-7 SMU team that could easily have won 10 games, with SMU outgaining their opponents in 5 of their 7 losses.
June Jones considered leaving SMU for Maryland during the offseason but decided to stay at SMU, citing unfinished business.
The 2011 SMU team is very experience, returning 18 starters, including three starters who had sat out last season.
While Texas A&M gets a bevy of 4-star and a few 5-star recruits, June Junes has rebuilt the SMU program using 2- and 3-star recruits. There's no doubt that Jones has 'coached up' the talent he has at SMU. This year's SMU team has almost as many first and second team All-Texas selections (8) as Texas A&M (9), per Dave Campbell's Texas Football.
The SMU offense is led by junior quarterback Kyle Padron (6-4, 230), who passed for 3,828 yards and 31 TDs and was the team's second leading rusher as a sophomore. Padron is a Davey O'Brien Award Watch List quarterback and will be looking to cut down on the 14 interceptions he threw last season. True freshman Connor Preston (6-0, 200) is projected to be Padron's backup.
SMU's single-back offense is manned by 230-pound Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award Watch List running back Zach Line (6-1, 230). Line was recruited as a linebacker in Jones' first recruiting class in 2008. After being used as SMNU's short-yardage back in 2009, Line became the main man in 2010, rushing for 1,494 yards and averaging over 6 yards a carry as a sophomore. Depth is an issue at running back with Line's backup, Daryll Fields having gained only 28 yards last season.
SMU's 4-receiver run-and-shoot offense is made for and depends upon a deep receiving corps. While SMU lost its top receiver, Redskins draft choce Aldrick Robinson who totalled 1,301 yards and 14 TDs, they return two wide receivers in on the Biletnikoff Award Watch Lists in Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson that totalled 165 receptions for 1,905 yards last season. SMU will be looking to replace the departed deep threat of Robinson with an expanded role for Darius Johnson and possibly with redshirt freshman Der'rock Thompson who is said to be the fastest man on the team. 2009 starter Terrance Wilkerson (42 catches, 527 yards) returns after sitting out last season due to academics. Keenan Holman is the likely 4th starter at wide receiver.
An SMU team strength is their all-senior offensive line that averages 309 pounds and has a combined 116 games of starting experience. The SMU line features Outland and Lombardi Trophy Watch List left tackle Kelvin Beachum (6-3, 306), a 4-year starter rated the best offensive lineman in Texas per Dave Campbell's Texas Football. Center Blake McJunkin (6-2, 300) is on the Rimington Award Watch List. At left guard 2009 starter Josh LeRibeus (6-2, 310) returns after sitting out last season due to academics. LeRibeus is said to be a new man after going on a health kick and dropping from 380 pounds to a swelt 310. Rounding out the experienced offensive line are returning starters right tackle J.T. Brooks (6-5, 315) and right guard Kelly Turner (6-3, 315).
The SMU defense employs a 3-4 scheme and has talent, with 3 first-team and 2 second-team All-Texas players, per Dave Campbell's Texas Football.
Up front SMU has 3 huge defensive ends projected to be NFL draft picks, including Nagurski Award and Lombardi Award Watch List Taylor Thompson (6-6, 285). Thompson is a 3-year starter and returning first-team All-Conference USA selection, after posting 32 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks as a junior. Thompson has been named preseason first-team All-Texas by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
Junor defensive end Margus Hunt (6-8, 295) returns. Hunt is still a raw talent, having only been playing football for two years. Hunt is from Estonia and as a prep won gold medals in both the shot and the discus at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, becoming the first junior athlete ever to win a shot/discus gold medal double. Hunt came to SMU on a track scholarship but was convinced to try out for football in the Spring of 2009. As a freshman, Hunt blocked 7 kicks in limited duty. Hunt earned the starting job as a sophomore, recording 3 sacks, 45 tackles, 6.5 TFL's and blocking 3 more kicks, earning All- Conference USA honorable mention.
After starting at defensive end as a sophomore and nose tackle as a junior, Marquis Frazier (6-3, 285) is looking forward to returning to defensive end. Frazier had 51 tackles, 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks ast season and is able to move back to his preferred end position with the return of 2009 nose tackle starter Bryan native Torlan Pittman (6-0, 295), who had to sit out last season due to legal issues. Expect to see a 4-man rotation for SMU at defensive line between Thompson, Hunt, Frazier, and Pittman.
SMU returns two outstanding linebackers in Two Lombardi Award Watch List juniors Ja'Gared Davis (6-1, 225) and Taylor Reed (6-0, 230).
Ja'Garted Davis was a first-team All-Conference USA selection as a sophomorer after recording 90 tackles, including 62 solos, 9 sacks, 16 TFLs, and scoring 2 touchdowns. Davis has been named preseason first-team All-Texas by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
Taylor Reed. was named All-Conference USA honorable mention after posted 145 tackles (seventh highest total in NCAA) with 101 solos (third in NCAA), and notching 2 sacks and 4.5 TFLs. Reed has been named preseason second-team All-Texas by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football and was a high school teammate of Aggie running back Christine Michael.
SMU will face a challenge to fill the vacancies created by graduated linebackers Pete Fleps (123 tackles) and Youri Yenga (81. tackles). Attempting to fill these lineback slots are juniors Victor Jones (6-1, 230) and Cameron Rogers (6-0, 230), and redshirt freshman John Bordano (6-2, 225).
The SMU defensive backfield features the best defensive back in Texas, per Dave Campbell's Texas Football, in safety Chris Banjo (5-11, 205). Banjo is a 4-year starter at safety who last season tallied 92 tackles with 6.5 for loss, 2 interceptions, and six pass breakups, earning second-team All- Conference USA recognition.
Senior Richard Crawford (5-11, 195) returns at cornerback after recorded 59 tackles,4 interceptions, and averaging 9 yards a punt rerturn. Crawford has been named preseason second-team All-Texas by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. Also returning is junior safety Ryan Smith (5-11, 200) who posted 46 tackles, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble. Junior Keith Robinson (5-9, 170) will attempt to fill the other cornerback slot.
The kicking game is full of questions for SMU. A redshirt freshman is projected as the kicker, and like the Aggies, SMU is still search for a punter from a group of unproven candidates.
This SMU team is projected by Dave Campbell's Texas Football to go 9-3 this season.
Texas A&M will face a hungry SMU team looking for a huge national TV upset against Texas A&M and/or TCU this year.
While the SMU starting lineup has lots of experience and talent, there is a huge dropoff in both once you look beyond the starters.
But that talent and depth is getting better. The SMU media guide boasts of Jones' improved recruiting, citing the 2011 incoming class as having 21 three-star and above recruits, nearly a 30% bump from the 2010 class, which had 16 such signees, a figure which itself surpassed the number of such recruits in the 2007 (4), 2008 (4) and 2009 (7) classes combined.
SMU will need these young 2010 and 2011 signees to step up and provide critical depth if SMU is to challenge teams like Texas A&M and TCU.
Mike Sherman and the Aggies know how dangerous and unpredictable the opening game of a season can be.
Just 3 years ago, the Aggies opened the 2008 season as a prohibitive favorite against Arkansas State.
Arkansas State had never beaten a Big 12 opponent in its 14 attempts and Texas A&M had a 20-game winning streak in home openers.
In what will go down as one of the most embarrassing losses in Texas A&M school history, Arkansas State came back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to ruin Mike Sherman's debut as Texas A&M's coach with a stunning 18-14 win over the Aggies at Kyle Field.
SMU is a much better team than the Aggies faced against Arkansas State that night three year ago.
Of course, this 2011 Aggie team is also much better than that first team Mike Sherman took into battle in 2008.
For more detailed SMU bios, see this SMU Team Preview we published last week.
SMU 2011 Projected Starters
QB Kyle Padron (6-4, 230) Jr, 2L (2-star 2009)
RB Zach Line (6-1, 230) Jr, 2L (2-star LB 2008)
WR Terrance Wilkerson (5-10, 180) Sr, 2L (2-star QB 2007) or Der'Rick Thompson (5-11, 185) Fr, RS (3/2-star 2010)
WR Keenan Holman (6-1, 185) So, 1L (2-star 2010)
WR Darius Johnson (5-10, 175) Jr, 1L (2/3-star 2009)
WR Cole Beasley (5-9, 180) Sr, 3L (2-star 2008)
LT Kelvin Beachum (6-3, 306) Sr, 3L (2-star 2007)
LG Josh LeRibeus (6-2, 310), Sr, 2L (3-star 2007)
C Blake McJunkin (6-2, 300) Sr, 3L (2-star 2008)
RG Kelly Turner (6-3, 315) Sr, 3L (2-star 2007)
RT J.T. Brooks (6-5, 315) Sr, 3L (2-star 2007)
LDE Taylor Thompson (6-6, 285) Sr, 3L (3-star TE 2008)
NT Torlan Pittman (6-0, 295) Jr. 2L (2-star 2008)
RDE Marquis Frazier (6-3, 285) Sr, 2L (3-star 2009 JC) or Margus Hunt (6-8, 295) Jr, 2L (Estonia)
BUCK Cameron Rogers (6-0, 230) Jr, 2L or John Bordano (6-2, 225) Fr, RS (3/2-star 2010)
SLB Victor Jones (6-1, 230) Jr, 2L (2-star 2008)
MLB Taylor Reed (6-0, 230) Jr, 2L (2-star 2009)
WLB Ja'Gared Davis (6-1, 225) Jr, 2L (2-star 2009)
LCB Richard Crawford (5-11, 195) Sr, 1L (2/3-star 2010)
FS Chris Banjo (5-11, 205) Sr, 3L (2/3-star 2008)
SS Ryan Smith (5-11, 200) Jr, 2L (2-star 2008)
RCB Keith Robinson (5-9, 170) Jr, 2L (2-star RB 2008)
PK Mike Loftus (6-1, 204) Fr, RS (3/2-star 2009)
P Matt Stone (6-1, 195) Jr, SQ or Mike Loftus (6-1, 204)