Still No Cigar
Tantalizingly close last season, nothing but a bowl will satisfy SMU in `07
Aug. 8, 2007
By Carolyn Braff
Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for CSTV.com.
SMU was so close last season it hurt. The Mustang program has never really been the same since coming off of the NCAA-imposed Death Penalty in 1989, but in the fifth season of head coach Phil Bennett's tenure, the Mustangs had stopped thinking about punishments and started thinking rewards.
Since going 0-12 in 2003, SMU has steadily increased its win total each season, leading up to last year's 6-6 finish in which the Mustangs became bowl-eligible for the first time since 1984. A cruel game of numbers kept them home in January, but with a conference-high six players on the All-Freshman team, SMU is ready to end its slump, and end it now.
"It's been a long time coming, without question," head coach Phil Bennett says. "As I tell the kids, nothing's guaranteed, it's what you make it. We have made improvement, not as fast as we would have liked, but I do take into consideration that we've done it the right way. Last year we had a few missed opportunities, so improvement is the word for us."
With 18 starters returning from a team that posted the school's highest win total in a decade, expectations for improvement have not been this high in years.
Nearly every offensive playmaker returns from last year's young team, headlined by sophomore standout quarterback Justin Willis. Last year's Conference freshman of the year and a freshman All-American, the offensive MVP passed for 2,047 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, breaking a school record for TD passes in a single season. His 158.4 passing efficiency rating ranked him second in the conference and 10th among BCS quarterbacks.
"He's multi-dimensional," Bennett says of Willis. "He doesn't have a rocket arm but his accuracy is very good. He has a good feel for the game and the ability to make big plays is there. He makes everybody on the team better and we're never out of it with him."
Willis combines with sophomore wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to create a dangerous scoring tandem. Sanders was also a freshman All-American last year, both as a wide receiver and kick returner, and caught more touchdown passes (nine) than any freshman ever at SMU. He broke a 29-year-old school record for consecutive games with a touchdown catch (six) and is the first Mustang to record more than 150 receiving yards in a single game since 1998.
"We bring a lot of excitement," Sanders says of his tandem with Willis. "He's already electrifying at quarterback; he's probably one of the top young quarterbacks in the nation right now. We hang around each other so much, the chemistry is always going to be there. But it's not about me and Justin this year, it's Justin and the whole receiving corps."
Sanders and Willis spent the summer reviewing film from every play of every game in 2006, focusing on routes and timing. Another benefit of a more mature roster is having the opportunity to push the players beyond their raw talent and work with them on strategy, which is exactly what the team's young stars intend to do.
"Last year I played on straight athletic ability," Sanders admits. "Now I know how to read coverages and Justin knows how to read coverages a little better, and that's going to help out in the long run."
Strategy is all well and good, but SMU must improve its consistency. The Mustangs never won (or lost) consecutive conference games last season, trading up weeks with down ones as injuries hampered the running attack and the team's ability to finish games. Junior DeMyron Martin led the team in rushing last season after earning freshman all-American honors in 2005, but missed five games last season with a foot injury, leaving the SMU run game lackluster at best.
The Mustangs' inability to finish hit rock bottom in the team's season finale at Rice. Unable to capitalize on two first-and-goal opportunities late in the game, SMU lost 31-27, and although the team remained bowl eligible, with more qualified teams than bowl spots, SMU was booted from the post-season lineup.
"Last year when we were going into the fourth quarter up five points, we would end up losing by less than five points," Willis says. "It's about finishing and that comes with maturity. Last year we had a bunch of young players that played for the first time, including me, so things were new for us, but this year, I think we can overcome it and be a finishing team."
Finishing games will also require the defense to be at full strength. If all-conference defensive end Cory Muse can stay healthy, he should have a heck of a season - Muse played on an injured knee for the last five games, missed two all together, and still managed to rank third in the league in sacks, with seven.
Acknowledging all of his young players' accomplishments, Bennett isn't satisfied with dwelling on the success of last season, nor should he be.
"Our big word right now is extra," Bennett says. "We've got to go above and beyond what we've done before. It doesn't stay the same, you make it better or you let it go worse. I think we have to have great team chemistry. If every position can improve five percent, that's like compound interest - your team becomes so much better."
Improving five percent will be harder than expected with this lineup of opponents. SMU has one of the hardest schedules in the conference, opening the season with a visit from Texas Tech. In the meat of the schedule, SMU has the three toughest conference games available, all on the road - at Southern Miss, at Tulsa and at Houston.
"I'm one of those one-at-a-time guys," Bennett says, not looking too far ahead in the 2007 schedule. "That Tech game sticks out because it's the next one. Our focus is towards the conference. We want to get better and your early season games you've got a Big 12 school, so getting started will be big for us."
With the team's big focuses on getting started and finishing, SMU has got the season pretty well covered. The goal for 2007 is clear: it's time to jump the .500 hump and go bowling.
"We haven't been to a bowl game in 20 years - it just has to happen," Sanders insists. "Three years ago when I first got here, a bunch of people didn't think we could win. They said `yeah, we can win,' but this year everyone knows that we can compete with any team in the nation."
Competition is one thing; finishing games is another. If the Mustangs can capitalize on the maturity gained by their young talents in the off season, they should be legitimate contenders in the tough C-USA West and should reach that ever elusive bowl game.
For SMU, close just won't cut it anymore.