We're now just 11 days out from the first game of Baylor's 2012 season against the SMU Mustangs at Floyd Casey Stadium! To date we've focused mainly on Baylor's position battles, roster moves, and possible depth charts, but now the time has come to look to our first opponent of the 2012 season.
The first place I went when trying to find information for this post was SBNation's Bill Connelly, who took on the mammoth task this spring/summer of previewing every single team in Division 1 football. To accomplish the task, he created both a team preview and a statistical profile for every team. For our purposes, we'll look at the SMU team preview from the main SBNation page and the statistical profile over at FootballStudyHall.com. In case you don't have them bookmarked and need to compare, the team preview and statistical profile for Baylor are also available.
When Baylor is on offense:
The first thing I noticed from Connelly's team preview is that SMU runs what will probably be an unfamiliar defense for most Baylor fans (at least in terms of collegiate exposure): the 3-4. That defense predictably emphasizes linebackers making plays against both the run and the pass, and in 2011, SMU's version actually performed fairly well. Much better than our own, at least. Connelly notes that they were particularly effective against the run and at stopping long pass plays. Considering that much of Baylor's 2011 offensive success relied on an explosive vertical passing game, the matchup of their defensive backs against our receivers could be the most important in the game. I'll be interested to see how Nick Florence, who possesses good, but not great, arm strength, takes advantage of our quicker receivers like Lanear Sampson and Tevin Reese against linebackers who may not be able to stay with them on the inside of the field. You don't often see a 3-4 defense take on a true spread offense (I mean that in terms of having 4, sometimes 5 receivers on the field at once) for that very reason.
Of course, everything starts up front for both sides. With the graduation of safety Chris Banjo, the "star" of SMU's defense is the humongous 6-8, 295 pound senior DE Margus Hunt. You may have already heard of him for his exploits blocking kicks. Regardless where he lines up, that assignment will be a significant challenge for either of our young tackles, and may require help from a blocking tight end or a double-team from the inside should one be available. Blocking Hunt will be absolutely critical, particularly on plays down the line. If Hunt can get his 6-8 frame into the passing lanes, the 6-2 Florence may have difficulty throwing over or around him.
Even considering the competition they played in CUSA last season, SMU's defense was actually quite good, a lot better than most people (myself included) probably gave them credit for. If Baylor wants to be successful on offense in their first game, it needs to establish a running game against Hunt and his cohorts to draw up the linebackers and give Florence space to work in the intermediate passing game. SMU is relatively set at NT with both major 2011 players coming back in Torlan Pittman and Aaron Davis, but they have a major hole at DE opposite Hunt that they'll have to fill. That's one piece of good news, and I expect Baylor to take advantage early and often by running right at whoever SMU finds to fill it. Another is that, as I've already said, Baylor will have a significant size advantage on the offensive line basically across the board. Though they are experienced, both Pittman and Davis are slightly undersized-- all three probable starters for Baylor in the interior outweigh both of them-- and will be lined up against senior Ivory Wade. That's a good matchup for us. I expect that in our first game, with a relatively new QB (even as a senior with 7 starts under his belt, he's still relatively new), we will try to pound the ball inside and speed up the tempo of the game. SMU rotates defensive linemen frequently up front, and if Baylor can get into a rhythm on offense like we often did in 2011, it will be interesting to see how those guys respond.
When Baylor is on defense
You might have expected that, with offensive guru June Jones running the show, the 2011 SMU Mustangs would light up the scoreboard. That didn't happen largely because of offensive inconsistency. What might look like a powerhouse offense on one drive might stub its toe on the next and go absolutely nowhere. Neither Kyle Padron nor J.J. McDermott (both of whom are now gone) could keep from giving the ball away. SMU's hope this season for offensive consistency probably rests on the shoulders of 5* flameout Garrett Gilbert, whose turnover problems at Texas were basically the stuff of legends. He hasn't played in a game since he was injured early in 2011 and will probably be asked to start for a new team with a new coach and offensive system. Baylor gets the first crack and making him feel like coming to SMU was a bad decision. If you read Connelly's SMU preview, he doesn't exactly talk about Gilbert in glowing terms. Arm strength, accuracy, and decision-making were all big problems evident in his time at UT above and beyond the system in which he played.
To help him out, SMU will likely lean hard on the running game with Zach Line, who rushed for over 1200 yards and 17 TDs in 2011. Line will be asked to shoulder the major portion of the rushing load again this season under arguably worse circumstances (even if Gilbert is more talented than either QB last season, he is much less experienced in SMU's system) with a line that sports only 36 career starts. Ivory Wade has that many by himself. According to the statistical preview, SMU graduated OL with over 190 combined starts last season. And that line was awful! I can't even find anything right now that shows a depth chart for the rebuilt OL and who is playing where. For SMU fans, their offensive line has to be an even bigger question mark than our defensive line.
Baylor has to take advantage of SMU's moving parts and inexperience up front to stop Line in his tracks and confuse/frustrate Gilbert in his first game in a Mustang uniform. SMU's offense, which wasn't great last season, probably won't be all that good again this year, and if Baylor wants to show that it has improved defensively, this would be a great place to start. The biggest problem I see is that SMU has some talent at WR, particularly in the form of Darius Johnson, and if Baylor's defensive line fails to get pressure on Gilbert, he may have some success. We don't want that to happen.
This is a game that Baylor should probably win handily though it will be a good opening test, particularly for our offense against their defense. SMU was a decent football team in 2011 that, as Connelly notes, actually recruited pretty well this past season and may ask a few of their freshmen to step up into prominent roles. I hope Baylor is ready. I know I am. I'll post a prediction next week when we know a little more about the actual depth charts.