SMU season preview

Today we're looking at Southern Methodist University, which is being picked to finish near the bottom of the rankings in The American Athletic Conference's inaugural season.

Coach: June Jones (107-75 career, 31-34 at SMU)

2012 record: 7-6

Key losses: RB Zach Line, WR Darius Johnson, LB Taylor Reed

Key returnees: QB Garrett Gilbert, LB Randall Joyner, CB Kenneth Acker

Newcomer to watch: DB Shakiel Randolph

Biggest games in 2013: at Texas A&M (Sept. 21), at TCU (Sept. 28)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Mustangs will be looking for somebody to replace Line in the running game this year. Amassing 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns as the main rushing threat last season, Line was crucial to the SMU offense that gave Gilbert the ability to be a dual-threat -- running for eight touchdowns and passing for 15. Gilbert won’t be able to do it all this season, so the Mustangs could be looking to Line’s little brother, Prescott Line, to carry some of the responsibility.

Forecast: While SMU has the benefit of not having to play AAC-favorite Louisville in the regular season, it plays three Texas heavyweights in the nonconference schedule. Opening with Texas Tech on a Friday night, the Mustangs travel to Texas A&M and TCU in back-to-back weeks in September. SMU has tallied four consecutive winning seasons and has played in four consecutive bowl games, but the first half of the Mustangs’ schedule might be too ambitious with Rutgers waiting as the first American Athletic game on the schedule. SMU is picked to finish eighth in the conference.

Like several teams in the American Athletic, the Mustangs are rebuilding on defense, having to work with a new group of defensive linemen. But four starters return in the secondary, including Acker, who was named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation’s top defensive back. Acker had 13 interceptions and 12 pass breakups last season. Joyner and Stephon Sanders are the returning starting linebackers.

Offensively, SMU fits the American Athletic trend of teams having an established quarterback. Gilbert was on Jones’ radar when he was just a recruit committed to Texas because Jones had a relationship to Gilbert’s father. When Texas wasn’t the right fit for Gilbert, Jones welcomed him.

“It’s a plus for him that he's involved at SMU now and doing what he's doing,” Jones said. “I noticed last year by middle of the season he was finally starting to get a little bit of his confidence back. I think he took it upon his shoulders to compete and win maybe three, four games through the end that just was him, and even though we did it a little bit different than we normally do it, which normally doing it is passing the football. He was a very good runner. We inserted some things into the game plan to allow him to do some things that he does very well. And he gained a lot of confidence both in the passing game just from doing that.”