After suffering through an 0-12 season in 2003, the third winless season in SMU history, all the Mustangs can do is move up. But can they? That is the big question as head coach Phil Bennett enters his third season.
One of the major problems for SMU is its schedule. The Mustangs open the season against three teams that went to bowl games last season -- Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State. SMU tried to change the schedule by replacing Oklahoma State, but it was too late in the spring to find another team. SMU expects a schedule better-suited for its young team in 2005.
The Mustangs return 22 players who started at various times last season and should have several freshmen in their starting lineup this year.
Bennett said the main priority for his program, at this stage, is improvement at all positions, especially at quarterback. The Mustangs struggled at that position last year, using three different starters. Bennett settled on Chris Phillips, but SMU recruited two junior college quarterbacks to add some competition and depth to the position.
Bennett changed the offense, hiring Rusty Burns from Cincinnati, who will implement a one-back West Coast offense with the goal of running 80 plays per game. SMU scored in double figures just seven times last season and scored only 13 offensive touchdowns.
Defensively, SMU showed some signs of life, holding Baylor to 10 points, Nevada to 12, and Fresno State and TCU to 20. But the unit also gave up 40 points or more on five separate occasions. The defense has to perform better for SMU to win games. Bennett said this fall will be the first time since he's been at SMU that he will be able to employ his nickel package.
"I didn't have the personnel," he said. "Now I have the speed at linebacker and cornerback that should help us. I know as a team we're getting better. You can't hide from the fact we went 0-12, but we will get better."
OffenseThe Mustangs must get more production from an offense that ranked last in the nation in scoring last season, averaging a paltry 11.2 points per game.
Phillips, a sophomore who started five games last year, will get the first opportunity to run the Mustangs' new spread offense. If he struggles, junior college transfers Tony Eckert and Jerad Romo could take over. Eckert is the better of the two transfers because of his quick release and his ability to throw the deep ball. Phillips has a strong arm but isn't as accurate. Bennett said he might play both quarterbacks this season.
"Chris has gotten so much better since last year," Bennett said. "I really like how he worked hard in the offseason and viewed tape and improved how he throws the ball."
Foy Munlin, a junior, has emerged as the starting tailback. A transfer from Texas Tech, Munlin is big enough (5-foot-11, 236) to handle the rigors as the lone back.
Receiver Matt Rushbrook missed the spring with a knee injury and is questionable for the beginning of the '04 season.
The offensive line was a mess last fall, but new position coach Ronnie Vinklarek should have at least two dependable leaders in Darrin Johnson (left tackle) and Chris Urbanus (right tackle).
DefenseThe defensive line was relatively strong a year ago, but Bennett would like to see his guys apply more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Mustangs totaled just 12 sacks in '04 -- not a good number for a team trying to win games with its defense. Tackle Allan Adami, an All-WAC pick last fall, is the unquestioned leader. He recorded 75 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss.
The linebacking corps could be the strength of the defense. D.D. Lee, who tied for the team lead with 100 tackles last season, has been moved to the strong side after playing in the middle in '03.
Cornerback Rolando Humphrey and safeties Jamey Harper and Alvin Nnabuife return. The star of the secondary, however, could be corner Charles Akinyemi, a transfer from Air Force who started one game with the Falcons in 2002.
SpecialistsPlacekicker Chris McMurtray impressed the coaches in spring workouts, and he is coming off of a solid sophomore season in which he hit 10-of-14 field goals. Punter Ryan Mentzel averaged 38.3 yards last year, and his job is in jeopardy. Ricky Joe Meeks, a backup quarterback, will get an opportunity.
Final AnalysisThe Mustangs heard all summer about their 0-12 record and anemic offense. Burns isn't guaranteeing any victories, but he is quite certain his West Coast offense will enable the Mustangs to be more productive in '04. SMU has some talent at tailback and in the receiving corps, but Burns will have to settle on a quarterback -- likely Phillips -- to create some continuity.
The Mustangs probably won't win any of their first three games -- all against bowl teams from a year ago -- so they will likely set a new school record for consecutive defeats (14). SMU's first chance for a victory might be the WAC opener against San Jose State on Sept. 25.