Getting past the Cotton Bowl blues
It's never too early to look forward
to football season. Football is the Gospel for many West-Texans, and for many
scarlet and black-clad diehards, the speculation on the season to come begins at
the final gun of the last game season.
That task was a little easier after last season.
The prospects of 2006 were fresh in many of our minds no sooner than a wounded duck of a field goal flew no higher than 20 feet off the ground its entire flight before feebly crossing the uprights to seal Tech's third Cotton Bowl loss in three tries.
Needless to say, this year, after a nine-win season with a heart-wrenching finale, looking forward has been a little more therapeutic than anything.
Now it is here: a new season with some new faces and a new hope for continued growing success for the Red Raiders in 2006. The enduring question is quite simple: Will 2006 be a step forward or a step back for Leach's Red Raiders? That answer will, in part, begin to be seen September 2, when the SMU Mustangs come to town.
Mike Leach's Red Raiders are back to an out-of-conference schedule against teams that most of us have heard of, which is a bit of a relief considering the berating the team took from much of the media throughout 2005.
The Red Raiders will play three games against some good battle-tested D-I teams, and one filler game against a Division I-AA opponent, with most teams moving to a 12 game regular season in 2006. Today, we will look at the opponent for the season opener in Lubbock, the Southern Methodist Mustangs.
Saturday, Sept. 2 - 6:00 P.M.
All-time series: TTU 28-16
Last meeting: 2004 (TTU 27-13)
Mustangs 2005 Record: 5-6 (4-4) Conference USA
Head Coach: Phil Bennett (Texas A&M), 11-35, 5th season
Offensive Starters Returning: 8
Defensive Starters Returning: 6
SMU was a play or two from being a bowl-eligible team in 2005. They were also a play or two from being a mediocre 3-8. It just depends on how you look at it.
Still, the Mustangs made great strides in their first year in the new competitive Conference USA to their best season at 5-6 (4-4) since 1997 under 5th year Head Coach Phil Bennett.
It can be said, however, that the Mustangs were a great mystery in 2005. They boasted a 3-1 record against bowl teams, including a 21-10 drubbing of Metroplex rival TCU. That was the Horned Frogs only loss of a season, which saw them finish ranked 9th in the country in the Coaches' Poll.
The mystery lies in the fact that SMU dropped decisions to bad UAB and Marshall teams, and a quizzical 31-10 home defeat to a homeless, disoriented Tulane team that finished the year with only two wins. The Mustangs also lost a close game at home to improved Baylor (28-23) in the season opener, and were stomped out of College Station, 66-8, by Texas A&M, after a monumental second-half collapse in what had been a close game for much of the first half.
For most of the season with the SMU Mustangs, you just didn't know what you were going to get.
This notion was epitomized by a "Hail Mary" pass at the final gun to steal a win on the road against Alabama-Birmingham.
One thing is certain, though. While most of the season was erratic for the Mustangs, they did finish very strong.
Already eliminated from bowl contention, SMU reeled off three quality wins to close the season. The Mustangs dominated an inferior Rice team at home, and won games over two bowl teams at Houston and at home, dominating a strong UTEP team in their season finale.
SMU is a team that this year will look to spread out their opponents on offense, throw a lot of efficient passes, and use an athletic quarterback and running back in a read-option running game. On defense, they look to play aggressive and fast, even though they don't possess intimidating size. Bennett is known throughout his career for fielding strong defenses, while sometimes undermanned, as an assistant at Texas A&M and Kansas State.
So far, he just hasn't had the horses in his reign as Mustang head coach. No pun intended.
So, the $10,000 question is - What kind of team is SMU, really? Are they the team that was the only one in 2005 to beat TCU, and finished the year strong, or the team that was dominated at home to a horrific Tulane team?
The answer for 2006 lies in the players they have returning, and more specifically, according to Bennett, in the Mustangs new signal-caller.
The Offense: Multiple Spread
"It all starts with the quarterback, and we've got to find that guy," said Bennett on SMU's official athletic website during spring workouts. "We have several guys that are capable, but we have to find who is most consistent."
That, they did.
The hands-down winner of the quarterback battle in spring to replace outgoing senior starter Jerad Romo was red-shirt freshman Justin Willis. A highly recruited athlete from Denton-Ryan High School, Willis has impressed coaches with a mix of poise and athleticism in workouts. At 6'1", 197 pounds, Willis is considered to be a much greater rushing threat than Romo, but without any game experience he may be erratic throwing early-on in pressure game situations.
Chris Phillips, a junior, originally figured into the spring race for the starting QB slot, and to at least be a very viable backup. He is the only player on the 2006 SMU squad who has taken a snap in a NCAA football game, but probably wont see another since he was moved to the Ponies' "U End" position on offense. Tech fans may remember Phillips - he started the game against the Red Raiders in 2004, but was benched for the Mustangs' only touchdown scoring drive. He finished that game 12-28 for 109 yards passing, with 1 interception, and the Mustangs' leading rusher with 75 yards on 21 carries.
Phillips started eight games for SMU in his freshman and sophomore years before sitting out last year under a medical red-shirt due to a rotator cuff injury, which is much of the reason the SMU coaches moved him out of the QB depth chart. Red shirt freshman Eric Johnson and junior college transfer Corey Slater will back up Willis.
Tech fans should look for a steady dose of rushing and read-option from the Mustangs. It is unlikely the Mustangs' offensive coaches, who have been very pass-happy at times in recent years with Romo, will unleash the red-shirt freshman Willis for 40+ passes in his first college game.
They do add a very capable runner, unlike Romo, in Willis to the mix.
What SMU possesses in 2006 that they didn't two seasons ago when they played Tech, is the return a solid sophomore running back in DeMyron Martin. Last year he was an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American, and an All-Freshman Conference USA selection. Martin found the end zone nine times, and amassed 851 yards rushing on the year with 4.6 yards per carry, with not much offensive line help - creating a host of those yards on his own. Martin set a freshman rushing record for the Mustangs in 2005.
At 6-2, 215, Martin is a strong, fast, NFL-type running back, and also considered a formidable receiver out of the backfield, with two touchdown catches last year.
SMU is exceptionally deep at RB, with four players who can carry the ball. Still, the talented Martin should shoulder most of the carries for the Mustangs, which may be quite a few with an inexperienced, first-game quarterback at the helm.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
SMU starts four receivers in their spread offense, and returns all four starters from last season, much like Texas Tech, giving them quite a bit of depth and talent (while not near the caliber of the Red Raiders' top four) at these positions.
Bobby Chase (Sr.), Columbus Givens (So.), Reynaldo Pellerin (Sr.) and Blake Warren (Sr.) all return in 2006, giving the Mustangs an experienced, sure-handed receiving corp. Chase, Givens and Pellerin are all over six-feet-tall and athletic, possession receivers. Warren is 5-7, but very fast – and a great deep threat. The question will be getting them the ball efficiently with an inexperienced quarterback.
SMU also mixes in some sets with a tight end, and returns All-Conference USA honoree Ryan Kennedy to that position.
The Mustangs main problem in 2005 with
gaining offensive continuity was their inconsistent offensive line play. SMU
has three returning starters on the offensive line with Darrin Johnson (Sr.),
Ben Poynter (Jr.) and Caleb Peveto (Jr.).
Sophomore Tommy Poynter (Ben's brother) and junior Kenard Burley will be new starters on the offensive line in 2006.
SMU is somewhat undersized on the offensive front, and strong, physical defensive lines will pose serious problems to their offensive production, as they did last season. They were among the worst teams in the country in pass protection in 2005, allowing almost three sacks per game.
The one statistic that epitomizes the overall ineptness of the Mustangs' offensive line in 2005 is the fact that they gave up a staggering 89 tackles for a loss, ranking them 108th in the nation in that category.
The Offense - Overall
The Mustang offense looks to gain a little more punch in 2006 from mostly anemic production in 2005 with the addition of a very mobile quarterback, the return of four talented receivers, and an outstanding returning running back.
Still, SMU's major weakness when they have the ball is in the trenches, as an unproven, undersized, flat-out bad offensive line needs to make vast improvements for the Mustangs to really compete in Conference USA.
Nevertheless, the Mustangs bring a lot of talent to the skill positions – and with the casting of a new, athletic quarterback to the mix – Bennett and his staff will be able to run a more balanced offense.
How effective and how soon that offense will come to fruition will rely in large part on the offensive line protecting the untested Willis, and his development in throwing the ball. He will assuredly make some gaudy plays with his feet, and he, along with RB Martin, will bite off some big chunks of ground yards at times.
For the Mustangs to keep the ball away from the Tech offense, they must sustain good drives throughout the game. Willis will have to be comfortable in making solid throws to his experienced receivers early on – not an easy task in his first college game.
The Defense: Basic 4-3
A strong point last year, the linebacking corps could be a problem for SMU, as they will have to bring in two new starters to replace the group's two leading tacklers from 2005.
The lone returning starter at LB is junior Wilton McCray, who netted 71 tackles in 2005. He may move from his weak-side position to middle linebacker this year, depending on preseason workouts. Thrust into starting roles will likely be Reggie Carrington (Jr.) at the weak-side or middle position (also depending on fall workouts), who saw some decent playing time last year due to injuries, and Tony Hawkins (Jr.) is expected to start the strong-side LB spot.
Inexperience and learning new positions could rear its ugly head early on for the SMU linebackers early in 2006, but the Ponies do boast quick, athletic players in these spots with terrific pursuit that fit Bennett's "speed before size" philosophy.
The Mustangs bring back all four starters on the defensive front in 2006: Senior All Conference Performers Justin Rogers (DE) and Adrian Haywood (DT), along with junior Cory Muse (DE) and senior Brandon Bonds (DT). Rogers led Conference USA with 7 sacks in 2006.
The defensive front is solid, but not extravagant. They were strong in rushing defense last year, only giving up 142.6 yards per game – but not impressive in sacks as a team or tackles for a loss (ranked 89th and T-104th, respectively).
There is no doubt the defensive line is the Mustangs' greatest strength on defense, and will make a lot of plays to keep SMU in games. They can't, however, be relied on frequently when the rest of the inexperienced defense will inevitably be flat.
With only one returning starter from 2005, the secondary is the biggest question mark of the SMU defense next season – especially against pass-happy teams like Texas Tech.
They will have to contend with losing their starting free safety and both cornerbacks from what was already a weak secondary. They ranked 89th in the country, yielding 250 yards passing per game to opponents last year.
The lone returnee from the starting secondary, however, is a good one. SMU's leading tackler in 2005 (112), strong safety Joe Sturdivant (Sr.). He was 2nd team All-Conference USA in 2005, and is the defensive unit's leader.
Senior Randall Goode (5-11, 195), a backup at FS last year, will be coupled with stand-out Sturdivant in the deep secondary.
The cornerbacks, though, are a complete mess.
Junior Jonathan Lindley (6', 185), a back-up from 2005 will start at one corner. The other cornerback slot was won this fall in a battle of converted wide receivers by junior Devin Lowery (Jr. 5-11, 175). The Mustangs are so shorthanded in secondary personnel that four of their top five slots on the cornerback depth chart are held by first-year defensive players who were moved to defense from the Mustangs' deep WR ranks.
Defense – Overall
SMU's defense gave up an unexceptional 25.5 points per game, and 392.64 yards per game on defense in 2005. For those statistics to improve in 2006, the Mustangs will need incredible contributions from untested players in the fall.
Their strength is definitely consistency and experience on the defensive line, but the linebackers and secondary will be tested in the early phases of 2006. Don't expect the Ponies to blitz much and put undue pressure on their green secondary against the Red Raiders in Game 1.
Phil Bennett does have a reputation for developing new starters on defense in a hurry, however, as he once led the Kansas State defense to an overall ranking of 2nd nationally while only returning three starters from the prior year.
SMU loses both their starting place-kicker and punter this year.
After spring practice, last season's backup punter Thomas Morstead (Soph.) was at the top of the placekicking and punting depth-charts. Strong legged Kellis Cunningham is an incoming true freshman, and was competing for the starting kicking job during fall workouts. Going into Game 1, Morstead will handle field goal and punting duties, while Cunningham will be the kick-off specialist. That being said, kicking could be very erratic at times for the Mustangs – which could have a profound effect on the Mustangs red zone success of 2005 (leading the nation in red zone scoring efficiency, 93.8%).
The rest of the Mustangs' special team unit is solid. Their kickoff and punt coverage in 2005 is among the nation's best, and their return-game is solid as well.
The Mustangs return Freshman All-American kickoff returner Jessie Henderson, and speedster Blake Warren on punts.
SMU – Overall Summary
This spring the Mustangs have some glaring questions to try and answer to build on the success found in 2005.
A new, inexperienced quarterback and an inconsistent offensive line will be areas the Mustangs must augment to score more points in 2006. While offensive line play is something that is developed over time, college quarterbacks can be a very fickle thing. From the beginning, some have got it, and some don't – while some just take time to develop. Whether Justin Willis is the answer wont really begin to be seen until he lines up and takes his first NCAA game snap in a loud, intimidating Jones AT&T Stadium on September 2, an environment unlike anything the young quarterback has ever played in.
The defense is the more bothersome issue for the Ponies.
To beat Tech, you've got to pressure their quarterback and have solid secondary play – and SMU, while experienced on the defensive front, didn't pressure quarterbacks much in 2005. Their secondary is in unimaginable limbo this season, and is starting its year with the unenviable task of playing the most prolific passing-attack in the country.
In no uncertain terms, going into Lubbock for the season opener, the Mustangs will have to find a way to enhance that desolated secondary and callow linebacking group if they have any chance to compete with the Red Raiders.
The fact is, the Mustangs may be a pretty good team by the end of the year. In their first game in Lubbock, with holes in many key areas that, to be honest, just don't match up well with Texas Tech, it's hard to expect them to sustain their late-year success of 2005 starting out this season.
The Tricky Prediction: Texas Tech 45, SMU 16
The principal question may be whether the Red Raiders will cover the 20+ point spread during their season opener in Lubbock. Look for the athletic Willis and the talented running back Martin to make some plays to get SMU on the scoreboard. Still, the Raiders experience and depth in their front-7 will make it a long day for the SMU offense. Defensively, the Mustangs should put some good pressure on Graham Harrell at times in his first college start, but their secondary will indelibly be shredded apart by the Raiders passing attack. There may be a few "growing pains" for Harrell along the way in his debut, but the Mustangs have too many holes to stop Tech for 60 minutes.
Questions or comments? Email Aaron directly at Trickyleach@hotmail.com.