When SMU coach and run-and-shoot enthusiast June Jones brought in Hal Mumme, the father of the Air Raid, as an offensive coordinator last year, people expected fireworks. It wasn't clear whether they would be a dazzling display of color and beauty, or a destructive mess of M80s and cherry bombs. But there would definitely be fireworks on the Hilltop.
It turned out to be a little of both. After struggling early on, quarterback Garrett Gilbert finally started clicking in the SMU offense and produced by far the best stretch of football in his roughly 11-year college career. Jeremy Johnson and Darius Joseph each caught over 100 passes, while Johnson and Keenan Holman both topped 1000 yards receiving. The Mustangs won four of five after a 1-4 start to give themselves a shot at bowl eligibility.
Unfortunately for SMU, Gilbert was lost for the year in that last game, at USF, and the Mustangs' offense flatlined without him. SMU was terrible running the ball all year (Gilbert was the team's leading rusher) and backup QB Neal Burcham was not ready to play. Despite beating USF 16-6, the Mustangs lost their last two games to finish 5-7, including a brutal 34-0 loss* at Houston and a 17-13 loss to a deeply disinterested UCF team in an ice-cold finale.**
* - I mean, do you know how bad you have to be as an Air Raid team to get shut out? And against that tepid Houston defense? Burcham was just horrible.
** - After a major ice storm hit Dallas the day before the game, SMU decided to let anyone who could make it to the stadium come in for free. Not many people took them up on the offer. I would have done it because I'm a lunatic, but it was impossible for me to get there.
Some regression can be expected from the SMU offense. If Jones decides to cut all the Air Raid elements out of the offense, it makes Burcham's job harder because the run and shoot requires deeper drops, deeper patterns, and more coordination between passer and receiver. (In 2012, with the run and shoot, Gilbert only completed 53% of his passes. Last year with the Air Raid included, he hit 67%.) That in turn puts pressure on SMU's offensive line, which has to break in two new guards. Johnson and Holman are both gone at receiver. And they're probably still going to struggle running the ball with no clear option at running back.
Ironically, SMU's defense might be their strength. The Mustangs return virtually their entire two-deep on the defensive line and at linebacker. SMU's defense ran hot and cold (mostly cold) last season and didn't make many big plays. They really struggled against the run, while linebacker blitzes supplied much of the pass rush. (Jonathan Yenga led the team with six sacks, and only end Beau Barnes had more than two on the defensive line.) With basically everyone back, they may improve simply because of more reps and experience.
In the secondary, which was shaky to begin with, SMU loses its top two corners and their strong safety. Without safety Jay Scott and corners Kenneth Acker and Chris Parks, SMU's secondary totaled only eight pass breakups and three interceptions last year. The Mustangs may have to rely on their front seven creating havoc before the ball is thrown to cover for their weak defensive backs.
Both sides will probably be glad this matchup is late in the season. USF has many of the same issues as SMU, particularly its inexperienced secondary, although they will attack the other's weaknesses much differently. Who knows if Burcham or Mike White will even be starting for their respective teams by then? Can either team get its offense untracked by then? Or will we have another brutal, low-scoring slugfest on our hands? We shall see.
USF and SMU meet on Saturday, November 15 at Ford Stadium in Dallas. Many, many, many good seats remain.