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SMU WEEK: A second-look preview

A pre-season look at SMU, from SMU WEEK at Frogs o' War.

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Are you sitting down?

SMU’s defense was just as good as TCU’s last season. Really—look at the numbers.

Both schools’ rush defenses (TCU allowed five more yards per game), pass defenses (TCU allowed two yards more per game), and pass efficiency defenses performed about the same. SMU generated about half a sack more per game, but allowed about a point and a half more on the scoreboard.

The difference between the teams last season (taking the season as a whole) was on offense. SMU racked up about 40 more yards per game than the Frogs, but were much less efficient in the air, and nowhere near as potent as the Frogs on the ground. The average scoreboard tells the tale: TCU averaged over 40 points per game; SMU under 26. Both of these offensive outputs were about average in recent years for each team.

Of course, TCU’s defense significantly improved after the SMU game—that loss was a come-to-Jesus experience for the team in many ways. Also, of course, these season totals for TCU’s defense represent the Horned Frogs’ worst showing in years, and SMU’s best in years. So a return to normal—by either team—will mean a return to big disparities.

Big disparities were normal for TCU and SMU since the Revival; so normal, in fact, that SMU’s ’05 and ’11 wins both were notable upsets. This hasn’t been a rivalry of equals since the two teams were equally horrible—and Bill Clinton was still in the frat White House. But the teams’ overtime battle last season may have been SMU’s long-sought announcement that it is catching up on TCU.

And it may not have been; here’s why.

SMU’s defense probably is going to be as good—or better—than it was last season. And likely it will be carrying the team—again—because of SMU’s very shaky situation at quarterback and along the offensive line. The defensive line in Tom Mason’s 3-4 scheme will have three seniors starting, two of which are known difference makers, tackle Torlan Pittman and end Margus Hunt. Mason thinks Hunt will be a first round pick, and calls the 6-8, 295 pound Estonian "unblockable." If he’s not the biggest defensive end in the nation, I’d like to see who is. Backup tackle Aaron Davis has squatted 800 pounds. He will miss the over-the-top attempts to block kicks; it was a specialty of his until the play was banned this off-season.

Behind the beef is a pretty good linebacking corps, led by senior weakside linebacker Ja’Gared Davis, who is one of the best linebackers TCU will face all season. Davis and seniors Taylor Reed and Cameron Rogers (both of them 6-0, 230) are facing TCU for their fourth times. The only underclassmen in the starting front seven is strongside linebacker Stephon Sanders, a sophomore (6-2, 230).

None of these guys is truck-sized, but they’re productive, and have powered SMU’s rise in rush defense rankings from 70s and 80s in 2009 to the low 20s last season. If anything, SMU will improve on the ground.

The secondary is less experienced. Kenneth Acker returns at corner, and Ryan Smith at safety. Newly starting are J.R. Richardson, a sophomore corner, and Jay Scott, a junior safety. Richardson is 5- 9, 184, and is one of the fastest pure sprinters on the team. He tries to play as aggressively as he can.

There’s fruitbasket turnover on the offense, and it starts on the line, which graduated all five starters last season, and got a new coach to boot, Tom Palcic. The veterans are tackles Ben Gottschalk, Bryan Collins, Kris Weeks, and guards Taylor Lasecki, Christian Miller, Jordan Free and Blake McJunkin. The young guns are tackles Seaver Myers and Christian Chamagua, and guards Chase Walling, Sam Rice, and Chauncey Briggs. How they shake out into a two-deep is anybody’s guess. Gottschalk and Weeks are competing for starting left tackle.

Probably Garrett Gilbert will be throwing the ball. He’s got to complete a huge spring/summer class-load to graduate and be eligible to play in 2012, but if he does, he’s the man. He’ll be the third new QB at SMU in as many years. Gilbert is recovering from (a second) shoulder surgery, but may not be playing at 100% come fall drills. (In 7-on-7 he looked good.) Redshirt freshman Connor Preston is competing with Stephen Kaiser for the backup spot.

Then the old familiar faces—Zach Line in the backfield, and Darius Johnson, Der’rikk Thompson, Keenan Holman, and Jeremy Johnson at receiver. Line twice led C-USA in rushing, and returns healthier than he was most of last season. He’s a big back, 6-1, 230, and is playing now to impress his "little" brother Prescott, now on the team. Darius Johnson (5-10, 175) caught 79 passes for 1118 yards last year. Keenan Holman is healthy after repeatedly spraining his ankle last season.

Probably SMU is going to field the best pass rush and rush defense that it’s had in ages. The secondary, which was suspect last year, probably will be again—but a healthy pass rush will alleviate this weakness substantially. How do you stop a 295-pound very athletic defensive end?

The offense is harder to predict with any confidence. How those five new starters gel on the line will dictate how comfortable Garrett Gilbert can be in the pocket, which will dictate how much teams can stack the box to stop Zach Line. SMU may be a balanced, talented, dangerous opponent for the Frogs; or it may be a one-dimensional team in rebuild mode; Baylor, Stephen F. Austin, and Texas A&M each will face SMU before TCU does, so there’ll be plenty of good film to discern how the Mustangs have processed all of the turnover.

Look for TCU win reclaim the Iron Skillet; but don’t look for a detailed prediction of exactly how.