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Can SMU's next coach raise the Mustangs from the dead?

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The NCAA executed the SMU program, but has the time come when the Pony Express could be resurrected?

Ronald Martinez

Blueblood programs are defined primarily by three factors; moneyed alumni who are invested in the program, a natural recruiting base that regularly produces premier talent, and access to postseason opportunities through conference affiliation.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s the SMU Mustangs could check off all three boxes. "Southern Millionaires' University" has never lacked for rich boosters who are willing to invest money in the football program. The university is sitting in one of the five most talent-rich metroplexes in the entire nation with a few other talent hotbeds within easy driving distance.

Of course in that time, SMU was competing in the Southwest conference, which has since collapsed and been replaced by the Big 12.

The death penalty, and SMU's own subsequent reaction, left SMU out of the loop during the last several rounds of conference realignment and football politics. But the times, they are a changing, and with the sudden resignation of head coach June Jones there may still be time for SMU to leverage their way back into national football prominence.

The current landscape

SMU is quietly in strong position to rebirth their football program and re-emerge as a football power. While June Jones didn't quite put SMU in as strong a position as the hiring of Art Briles did for Baylor or the move to the SEC did for A&M, he did win football games at a place that hadn't been doing much of that.

From 1987 after the death penalty until the June Jones era beginning in 2008, the Mustangs managed only one winning season. The June Jones era started with a 1-11 start but was followed up by seasons of 8-5, 7-7, 8-5, 7-6, 5-7, and then a horrendous 0-2 start before Jones stepped down.

Nothing to make any other Texas programs quake in their boots but enough to put SMU back on the map moving forward, and the future could be an interesting place.

Texas is clearly not on the verge of reclaiming dominance over the state, and while A&M is claiming to "run the state," and Baylor is emerging as a football power for the first time in recorded history, the Longhorns' decline leaves a foothold for the Mustangs.

Given these factors along with the shaky future of the Big 12 the timing is right for SMU to re-emerge as a football power. If not for their conference affiliation the Mustangs would better situated than any other program in the state other than Texas, A&M, and arguably Baylor.

SMU has been testing their strength in the world of basketball since new AD Steve Orsini took over the athletics program and turned the dormant school into a basketball power by building Moody Coliseum and hiring Larry Brown to pack it in with great teams. After beating UCONN twice in the 2013 season before being left out of the NCAA tournament by a selection committee eager to punish teams for scheduling choices, SMU is poised to be one of the best basketball teams in the nation in 2014.

While SMU's football team won't have the same access to NCAA title opportunities as their basketball team, the point has been made. The Mustangs are ready to play the game again and flex their muscle in the football world.

The June Jones strategy

June Jones brought "the run and shoot" offense to SMU from Hawaii where he took the Warriors to the Sugar Bowl in 2007 along with his record-breaking quarterback Colt Brennan.

The R&S offense was similar to Briles' Bear-Raid or even Spurriers "run and gun" in that it emphasized option routes from spread sets that relied more on post-snap adjustments than doing work before the snap. The run and shoot is one of the ultimate standards of spread passing and has influenced much of what's happening in the game today.

Texas would seem to be the perfect home for a spread passing team due to the prolific spread offenses that the state boasts, many of them within spitting distance of SMU's campus, but Jones curiously recruited out of state more than most other Texas programs and the no. 1 QB on the depth chart as of right now hails from the state of Washington.

Jones' offenses at SMU weren't particularly efficient and his best teams generally relied as more on their defense. The defenses faced by the Mustangs weren't phased by his run and shoot and SMU never approached Colt Brennan's efficiency from 2006 or 2007.

Possible factors for this failure include failure to recruit Texas well, the proliferation of pattern-matching coverages less vulnerable to his passing system, more difficult competition, and/or June Jones simply getting older and losing his edge.

Meanwhile, the Mustang defense pursued an aggressive 3-4 scheme that put athletic players like Margus Hunt on the field and allowed them to attack the offense from different angles. Hunt fell into Jones' lap as an Estonian immigrant looking to train in SMU's track program and then drawing a scholarship thanks to his freakish size, strength, and athleticism. When Hunt wasn't around the SMU defense under Jones was as pedestrian as the offense.

The June Jones era could be described as a coach looking to cool down his career at a nice gig matched by a program looking to find anyone willing to try and put their football team back on some kind of track. Mission accomplished.

What could be in SMU's future?

What Jones accomplished only scratches the surface of what could come next for the Mustangs. Amongst the program's resources are the following:

A decent roster

The Mustangs have both spread passing QBs in Kolney Cassel and Neal Burcham along with dual threat running QB Matt Davis. The Mustangs are also filled with young, raw OL that were recruited for pass protection but could be molded in many different directions with time.

They also have a degree of athleticism on the defensive roster.

The three hardest places to rebuild a roster are in A) Finding a QB, B) Building an OL, and C) upgrading the athleticism of the defense. There are worse places to start than the current Mustang roster and the current 2015 class, if it could be held together, includes a few Texan players that many programs would be willing to build around.

Arguably the best mid-major recruiting situation in all of college football

SMU alumni have the money to pay for...great facilities and they are also perfectly situated for recruiting some of Texas' most talent-rich areas. There is no other major college program in Dallas and the closest competitor is TCU over in the Fort. SMU is not over in the Fort, they are smack dab in the middle of the Dallas metropolis and near to any and everything that would be attractive to young college students.

For whatever reason, out of state programs aren't able to pull as many players out of Dallas, usually relying Houston or East Texas as their raiding grounds. Many east Texan athletes and DFW stars would undoubtedly prefer to play games in Dallas where their family could watch them every week over other destinations.

A sensible approach to recruiting at SMU would focus on DFW, East Texas, Houston (SMU's old stomping grounds) and perhaps up north into rural Oklahoma where great athletes frequently go unnoticed. That's a talent pool that'll be tough for other AAC programs to beat.

College-ready skill players in the recruiting base

As A&M has discovered, spread offenses in Texas prepare players to execute high-octane offenses, and quickly. As a general rule, offenses in Texas generally fall into one of two camps. There's the school with an athletic population that puts their best athlete at QB and runs spread-option concepts that allow him to run around and make hay. Then there's the school with a upper middle-class population that grooms a heady, strong-armed kid with access to QB camps into a spread passing machine.

Some schools produce both, athletic QBs that can burn you on the ground or with their ability to dissect a defense through the air.

There's also a wealth of great receivers, particularly in DFW, as well as great cornerbacks who get to practice against real passing games all year round with summer 7-on-7 drills adding extra practice time.

Texas has a wealth of athletes, but in particular SMU has access to a lot of very skilled athletes.

If SMU makes the right hire and gets the Mustangs back into the national conversation, there's a chance that they could be positioned to regain major access next time the music stops in the realignment game of musical chairs, much like their hated rival TCU did.

At worst they could become a mid-major power and basketball school that wins nine to 11 games a year and competes for league titles. That'd still be a big step up from the past two decades and a major marketing tool for the school.

So who should they hire?

SMU would be remarkably foolish to fail to hire a spread offense guru who could mold Jones' athletes into an explosive offense that would draw attention quickly to the metroplex and allow SMU to pick up their recruiting game. They aren't in a strong enough position as a program to hire a defensive coach and take the long road.

Amongst the popular options mentioned for the job some of the following stand out as the best candidates to execute this vision:

Chad Morris: The architect of Clemson's spread-option attack and a former Texas HS coach with ties to the state. The potential issues with Morris are two-fold. First of all, it will take some time before SMU has the OL necessary to execute Morris' vision for a power run game. It still hasn't even happened in Clemson. Secondly, he would be likely to see SMU as a great launching pad like Arkansas St to get a better gig and leave as soon as he tasted success. There are worse fates for the SMU program than becoming a launching pad for up and coming coaches but it's something to keep in mind.

Morris would be likely to quickly make a big, immediate splash in recruiting and is inventive enough a thinker to get some offensive results with SMU's roster in the short term while he builds an even better one.

Josh Heupel: The Oklahoma OC is at the cutting edge of POP offense and HUNH tactics right now and has recruited the SMU recruiting grounds for years, the only question is whether the young Sooner is ready to organize and lead a program.

David Beaty: The Texas A&M wide receivers coach is not one of the offensive minds in charge of the stunning Aggie attack but he is the recruiting coordinator for a program that is dominating Texas recruiting and has a report with DFW coaches.

Jake Spavital: The A&M QB coach and offensive coordinator is a bright up and comer but is only 29 and represents something of a risk in terms of taking over a program of his own.

Dino Babers: Babers is a Briles-disciple who left the Bears to become the head coach at Eastern Illinois for 2012 and 2013 and there fashioned Jimmy Garoppolo into a 2nd round pick. He's now taken the Bear-Raid to Bowling Green and might be willing to jump ship again for the chance to coach in Texas at SMU.

With Babers the Mustangs would get a Coach who can build an exciting spread passing attack, has run his own program before, and has Texas ties that could finally allow SMU to start locking down some DFW recruits.

Perhaps the Mustangs should start with Morris and then if that fails, circle back off the unbeaten path to collect Babers rather than taking a risk on a younger coordinator.

The biggest key though is recruiting, SMU needs to land someone who can start pulling in top Texas kids while the Longhorns are down and get the Mustangs on the map. Should the Mustangs succeed in landing a coach who can leverage the university's strong position into results? Who knows how things might shake out next time college football faces upheaval?