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NCAA Football Preview - SMU Mustangs

By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: There was a lot to like about the Mustangs in 2013, their first as a member of the American Athletic Conference. They were an offensive juggernaut, as is the norm when June Jones is calling the shots, and put up big point totals all year.

Unfortunately, the offensive firepower wasn't enough to push them into the postseason, ending a four-year bowl streak for the program, the longest such stretch in school history.

A brutal first four games put SMU in a deep hole, as losses to Texas Tech (41-23), Texas A&M (42-13) and TCU (48-17), and a 31-30 escape act against Montana State didn't present much promise. A 55-52 overtime loss to Rutgers, in a game with no shortage of offense, kept the Mustangs down once AAC play began. However, they finally got their act together the rest of the way, going 4-3 in the final seven contests, with two of the losses coming by a combined seven points against Cincinnati and UCF.

"This is a very competitive conference," Jones said. "There's a lot of talent. So the challenges are just to keep getting better. You have to keep getting better. It still comes down to the locker room and the chemistry within the locker room to winning. Those are the things we spend a lot of time on."

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Garrett Gilbert was SMU's version of Johnny Manziel last season. The quarterback piled up the second-most total yards in the country (379.5 ypg) trailing only Fresno State's Derek Carr. That production came even with him missing the last two games of the year. He won't be taking a single snap in 2014 as he is off to the greener pastures of the NFL.

Neal Burcham was brought in as the backup during those final two contests, but this year he will be taking over permanently. Jones runs a complicated and intensely-quick offensive scheme, and Burcham will need to adjust and improve with just as much speed as the system he will be running. Burcham struggled last season, throwing 4 interceptions in as many games. For now, the job is his, although there are plenty of options waiting in the wings.

"The most important thing is to get the quarterback to play at a high level," Jones said. "One of those guys that doesn't have the experience in what we're doing has to grow up real fast. We rely on the past. We're going to throw the football."

The offense lost more than just Gilbert, with talented receiver Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman both gone as well. Darius Joseph and Der'rikk Thompson will now step in as the primary targets. It is an awful lot to live up to considering Johnson and Holman tallied 1,112 and 1,037 yards, respectively, last season. For their parts, Joseph and Thompson combined for 1,267 yards and 7 touchdowns on 135 receptions, with Joseph snagging 103 of those balls. Stephen Nelson and Jeremiah Gaines will also get targeted often, considering the Mustangs run with a slew of receivers in their formations.

Kevin Pope had 91 tackles, the second most on the team last year. Now he is slated as the starting running back. Pope did not have a single carry in the first 10 games last year, but he had 17 over the last two and turned those into 89 yards. Pushing him for carries will be Prescott Line (332 yards, 3 TDs), who is the top returning rusher.

Helping to ease Burcham and Pope's transition will be an offensive line that returns three starters in offensive tackles Chauncey Briggs and Kris Weeks, as well as center Taylor Lasecki.

DEFENSE: Despite piling up nearly 440 yards of total offense each week, the Mustangs were unable to blow by many opponents last year. The defense's inability to make stops was one reason. They allowed 412.6 ypg to foes and had one of the worst opponent third-down conversion rates (.412) in the AAC.

A secondary weak in experience isn't likely to help SMU makes drastic changes in either area. Safety Hayden Greenbauer is the only returning starter of the group and he only had 40 tackles last season. The rest of the unit is green, with a number of sophomores, such as Horace Richardson, topping the depth chart.

With the secondary being a group of youngsters and Pope now on offense, coordinator Tom Mason will need to rely on his defenders up front to make improvements. The defensive line will likely live up to that, with Beau Barnes (13.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks), Zach Wood (49 tackles, 6.0 TFL) and Darrian Wright (2.0 sacks) all productive starters back for another go.

The linebacking corps also has plenty of starting experience, led by top returning tackler Stephon Sanders (86). Sanders also led the team in tackles for loss, racked up 3.5 sacks and had an interception to boot. Helping him out will be Jonathan Yenga (49 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks), who is excellent in blitz packages, and Robert Seals (25 tackles, 2.0 sacks).

SPECIAL TEAMS: Mike Loftus handled punts and kickoffs last season and Chase Hover took on field goal duties exceptionally well (18-of-21). All three of those jobs will fall to junior Cody Rademacher this season. There will also be new blood in the return game with JaBryce Taylor and Kenneth Acker now gone.

OUTLOOK: SMU has to be given a ton of credit for the schedule it plays. Yet again it features contests with Baylor, Texas A&M and TCU, all in the first four weeks of the season. The Mustangs will then begin their trek through the AAC schedule, beginning at East Carolina. Four of their final seven games are at home, although one of the road tests is at UCF.

There is not as much to like about this year's Mustangs team. Their quarterback is new, their running back started on defense most of last season, and there are a bunch of new faces in the secondary and on special teams. The bright side is the talent at wide receiver and the depth in the trenches. All in all it looks like a bowl game could be within reach, but it will require Jones' squad to claw for every inch.

08/22 13:03:03 ET

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