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September 21, 2013

Tarp's pregame thoughts

-A little backstory first: SMU spent big money…well, at least for the Mustangs given their lack of it…on bringing head coach June Jones from Hawaii in 2008 after his success there in being the first coach to take a non-BCS team to a BCS bowl. Jones won just one game his first season but has taken the Mustangs to four consecutive bowls since then. He's never achieved the same level of achievement that characterized his tenure in the islands but then again as he found the reason for the payday…SMU is a much tougher job. It's in a city dominated by pro sports with a small alumni base in state where everyone in the country recruits. In addition, academic restrictions put in after the Mustangs obtained the death penalty in 1987 have resulted in them dropping signees on the verge of the start of the season which has not helped their relations with Texas high school coaches.

It frustrated Jones to the point that he tried to leave for Arizona State after the 2011 season and Jones and the Sun Devils had a deal worked out that was reportedly quashed by major donors (which eventually led to a change in athletic directors as well). Jones returned to SMU and took the Mustangs to another bowl game last year. However, he now has only one year left on his contract and he is facing a fan base and donors unhappy with him over his attempt to leave.

Combining a coach who wants out with a fan base who want him out isn't conducive to having a motivated coaching staff. SMU squeezed by FCS program Montana State 31-30 two weeks ago and had to score with 12 seconds left to win the game. Montana State is ranked number three in FCS and is very comparable to Sam Houston…and the Aggies wiped out the Bearkats by 37 points.

-Even though Jones is known for running the Run N' Shoot offense, SMU actually made a bowl game last season on the strength of its defense. The Mustangs ranked in the top half of Conference USA last year in all major categories in 2012 even though they're not overly big in their front seven (they start a 258 pound defensive end in a 3-4 defense). In addition, they have a pretty good run defense for CUSA (they gave up less than two yards a carry versus Texas Tech). They have given up a lot of big plays in first their first two games (37 over ten yards), haven't forced a single turnover, and are allowing opponents to complete nearly 70% of their passes. Their inside linebackers are all of 5 foot 10.

Against A&M, SMU will go with more of a 3-3 look with a nickel back. They'll play a lot of man to man in the secondary and fill the box to stop the run which is why they're statistically better against the run and give up a lot of big plays. In fact, if you'll remember, SMU shut out A&M during the first quarter of last year's game by manning up the Aggies' receivers. They'll probably put Kenneth Acker (a 195 pound senior) on Mike Evans. However, as with last year, that means that A&M will get the ball down the field for big plays. In addition, given the Aggies' significant size advantage up front, A&M should be able to run the ball no matter what.

Linebacker Randall Joyner and cornerback Chris Parks have been injured and are game time decisions. Joyner is pretty good by SMU's standards but his presence or absence isn't going to affect the game that much.

-I'll warn you up front; don't read too much into A&M's performance today versus SMU on defense. For one thing, the Mustangs start Garrett Gilbert on offense. We all know about Gilbert and again to spice things up in a game in which A&M will easily cover a 28 point spread, here's another backstory.

I first became acquainted with Gilbert before his sophomore season at the state 7 on 7 tournament. He was one of the better quarterbacks at the event with a great arm and I had no idea who he was at first….in fact, no one really did. Of course, by the end of his junior season, everyone knew who he was as he led Lake Travis to a state title and later on committed to Texas. However, one thing that jumped out at me watching him as a junior and senior was that Lake Travis always rolled him out to the playside in 7 on 7 events. That's something no one ever does because there is no pass rush in 7 on 7…but it does cut down on a quarterback's options in terms of reading defenses (easier) and gets a quarterback who has a less than stellar arm closer to his intended receivers (making his throws easier). Also, you could tell by watching him roll out that he wasn't that mobile.

He reportedly had shoulder surgery prior to his senior season and was still recovering from it at the state 7 on 7 tournament…it was really evident watching him throw. Everyone was using the surgery to make excuses for him because he was rated so highly but even then there were warning signs even then that he wasn't as good as he was made out to be.

His performance at the 2009 national championship game was considered a sign of good things to come even though he was a turnover machine (I thought he did well considering Texas threw him out there after having thrown so few passes during the season). During the following season at Texas, he didn't get any protection, had no running game, and no experienced receivers. Even so, it was easy to see despite a lack of help that he wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. He didn't have a great arm and he wasn't that mobile but the big thing was that he didn't make great decisions and protect the ball. As in the national championship game, he was a turnover machine except that it carried forward over the course of a season. He would literally jump start opposing teams' offenses with turnovers and Texas went from playing for a national title to being a losing record.

He got injured the next season, lost his starting job, and subsequently transferred to SMU. I had literally written him off as a lost cause and to an extent, he's still not very functional…he ranked dead last in passing efficiency last season in Conference USA. He holds the ball too long, takes sacks (eight in the first two games this season), and doesn't throw it downfield in order to try to cut down on his mistakes (no interceptions so far but only one touchdown and just 6.4 yards per attempt). Without an injured Traylon Shead, he's been the main down to down ball carrier for SMU which is a role he's really not suited for physically or athletically.

But give him this…he still goes out there and gives it his best shot. He led the Mustangs to a bowl game last season. He led them on a game winning drive two weeks ago. He could have totally disintegrated and taken down SMU's program much like he's perceived to have taken down Texas' and it didn't happen.

-Again, don't read too much into what A&M does today on defense. Under new offensive coordinator Hal Mumme (who helped invent the Air Raid), SMU has moved away from Jones' run and shoot which was more of a vertical attack to one with shorter, safer routes. That's resulted in SMU not turning over the ball but they don't take many shots downfield either (of course, that could be due to Gilbert's limitations as well…it's hard to tell).

SMU's offensive line is probably the worst that A&M has faced so far this season. It's young and only one of the starters goes over 300 pounds…think Rice without the experience. Even a struggling A&M front seven should be able to slow down the Mustangs and get a little pressure on the passer, particularly if A&M's coverage holds up. The Aggies will probably trot out an alignment more akin to what they used versus Rice and Sam Houston since they are facing a spread team…a six man front with nickel Toney Hurd playing a big role. Kirby Ennis should be able to command double teams and free up A&M's linebackers moreso this week than last week.

Will there be any major changes for A&M? Most people at A&M's press conference didn't think so given what defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. Keep in mind that guys like Ennis and Julien Obioha are still recovering from off season surgery which probably has reduced their effectiveness from last season. Steven Jenkins and Devante Harris returned from suspension last week and got better as the game went on. Snyder said that A&M would stay with same three man rotation at safety which included starters Clay Honeycutt and Howard Matthews. The staff still probably wants to see more of what they've got in game situations and give the veterans on defense more of a chance to work together. Younger guys like Darian Claiborne will play more than they did last week and some of the people that played bigger roles against Rice and Sam Houston (spread teams like SMU) also could emerge again, particularly someone like Tommie Sanders.

But overall, A&M really won't know if it's defense is rounding into shape until the Arkansas game next week. This week is about playing assignments and under control and given the quality of the opponent; that's about all you can take out of it.

-Last season, the Aggies won by 45 points over SMU when their defense was better. They may give up more this season but they'll certainly score more as well given the quality of an offense that has put up 21 touchdowns in 41 possessions (five of them coming with backup quarterbacks in the game). This game will be over early enough that we'll be discussing the futures of the younger players on the roster and be talking about the upcoming Arkansas game after halftime.


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