When June Jones came to SMU in 2008, he was charged with overcoming two decades of misery. While the Mustangs have broken through to make it to three straight bowl games, another challenge to relevance has risen on the opposite end of I-30: Gary Patterson and his TCU Horned Frogs.
With cross-town rival TCU rising to national prominence, the Metroplex's other team has quietly gone from awful to decent. But while SMU's ascent appears to have plateaued at middling bowl appearances, the Frogs have won Rose Bowl and become a regular member of preseason top 25's.
After another solid but not spectacular season, June Jones' rebuilding project seems to be stuck in a rut. In a middling conference, the Mustangs again failed to progress from small conference good to dominant. The run and shoot offense has made statistical marvels of the likes of Kyle Padron, J.J. McDermott and Zack line, but the victories haven't piled up quite as quickly as the yardage.
While it would be easy to point to Jones' system as a gimmicky offense that puts too much pressure on the defense, that's not necessarily the case. The system and the wideouts in the system have done a great deal to improve the team, but the truth is Jones hasn't been able to find the proper triggerman for his offense. While Padron and McDermott had their moments, neither was a consistently reliable option behind center.
With a extreme emphasis on the passing game, Jones needs a Colt Brennan-like player behind center. Someone needs to step up and show the accuracy to keep the chains moving, the clock running, and the defense off the field while the offense puts together drives on a consistent basis. And those struggles to find that player are reflective of the greater issue of attracting talent.
To take control of their league, the Mustangs need a serious talent upgrade. The gang of future accountants have done a nice job getting SMU to where they are, but if the program is to take the next step, they'll need more firepower. While Jones has brought in some talent, the squad is by no means loaded with elite level players. And when you're located in Dallas, Texas that means you're not recruiting well enough.
Over in Ft. Worth, Gary Patterson developed a strategy to overcome the school's anonymity among major recruits -- recruit speed and teach them to be defenders. His focus was the defense, and he figured out a way to get the talent he needed to dominate on that side of the ball. Patterson wasn't getting five-star guys, but he found the right talent. So far, Jones hasn't found what he's needed, and he's still making do with lower level talent.
To be fair, the SMU program is still in the rebuilding phase and there are several obstacles that go with that. Even so, there needs to be a shift in gears away from two and three star prospect recruiting classes and towards the higher end players. After a third straight bowl trip, the team was a middle of the pack recruiting school -- in Conference USA. That's not good enough.
Part of the result must be attributed to Jones' attempt to desert the Mustangs for Arizona State. Since he'll struggle selling stability going forward, he needs to generate success so he can peddle wins and progress. Texas import Garrett Gilbert gives Jones his best shot at delivering those wins, and just in the nick of time. With plenty eyes on Gilbert this year, this season's campaign will provide Jones with his best chance to parlay some national attention into meaningful success.
Though the quarterback and greater talent pool problem is the most glaring issue, the external factors at work are just as important in determining SMU's ability to compete with the big(ger) time programs. The stadium is nice, but small. Even still, the stadium has remained largely empty for games against teams not named TCU.
The first challenge is putting fans in the stands. While the boulevard attracts a sizeable crowd of thirsty fans, they struggle to make it inside. That should pick somewhat with the higher level football, but wins and more meaningful games are just as important.
Secondly, the stadium needs to be more of a spectacle. If you want big-time college football, you need a big time home field. A lot of the top prospects the school needs to recruit played in more awe-inspiring stadiums in high school. Ford Field is a nice foundation, but the capacity is shameful by big-time college football standards.
The importance of a stadium cannot be overstated. It is the physical representation of the program that sets the tone for the school, a cathedral dedicated to the program. A glorified high school stadium is not the proper platform for a team attempting to make it to the big-time. For a revealing contrast, look no further than the massive renovations that have gone on to get Amon Carter ready for the Big 12.
In theory, the move to the Big East should help in every lacking facet of the program. Money for the stadium, more intriguing match-ups for fans and the opportunity to play in a power(ish) conference for recruits.
The real issue is whether all these things can line up at the same time. SMU will have a small window to avoid becoming known as the perennial cellar dweller in their new conference and they need capitalize on their newfound momentum in short order -- win games, attract recruits and generate excitement. If not, an above average Conference USA program will become an average Big East outfit, and more importantly, an afterthought in their own city.