SMU seeks stability as landscape shifts

DALLAS -- Disconcerting winds are howling all around the SMU football program.

Nationally, college athletics creeps closer to major realignment and threatens to further bury non-BCS conference programs like the Mustangs. SMU coach June Jones said schools like his better start thinking out of the box or "we'll be left behind."

Locally, all is not calm, either. SMU athletic director Steve Orsini is feverishly pounding the pavement attempting to boost ticket sales that he described as "flat" for the upcoming season. The hard sell has come as a bit of a surprise to the athletics department, considering Jones' team easily boasts the most promising SMU squad in decades after already accomplishing consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since the mid-1980s.

But if locals won't get on board -- attendance in 2010 increased by only 2,167 to an average of 23,315 last year, leaving some 9,000 empty seats at picturesque Ford Stadium -- then what hope is there for SMU to raise its profile nationally like its neighbor to the west?

All good things take time, and TCU coach Gary Patterson will tell you that (Fort Worth didn't turn purple overnight). Unfortunately for SMU, a potential massive shift toward four 16-team super-conferences -- predicted by Jones to happen within 24 months -- yields little time for incremental growth.

"It's very important for our community and all the things that are happening in college athletics today," Orsini said of growing the bandwagon. "The timing is just right. It's time for SMU to get back into the national landscape, to be relevant again. I believe we're accomplishing that and, yet, we still have a long way to go."

Within the program, optimism is sky high. The road starts on Sept. 4 at No. 9 Texas A&M, an immediate opportunity to jump into the national headlines and stir the emotions of a disengaged community, or at least of fans sitting on the fence.

What the Aggies will find in the 2011 Mustangs is the most experienced and most talented squad under Jones. The architect of the run 'n' shoot offense is in his fourth season, and his team is made up of his recruits.

"We don't even look like the same team, to be quite honest," Jones said. "We're bigger. We're faster. It doesn't even look like the same team from 3½ years ago that we had. I feel like we're a better football team. I felt we were a better team last year than our 2009 team, and we just need to prove it now on the football field."

All the ammunition is there for a big year. Quarterback Kyle Padron, a 6-foot-4 pocket passer from Southlake Carroll, is back for his second full season as the starter. He fought through growing pains last season and threw for 31 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. Punishing tailback Zach Line returns after rushing for 1,494 yards, second in SMU history behind only Eric Dickerson's 1,617 yards in 1982.

Leading receiver Cole Beasley of Little Elm seeks to add to his 87 receptions, the second-highest total in SMU history.

"Last year our goal was to play for a conference championship," Padron said. "And this year it's to win that conference championship. Not just to get there."

SMU won Conference USA's West Division and, with 18 returning starters, is the favorite to do so again with Houston and Tulsa also bringing big expectations. The Mustangs lost to East Division champ Central Florida in the championship game and then fell to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.

"The Army game was a little bit of a letdown last year," said 6-6, 287-pound senior defensive end Taylor Thompson of Prosper. "I think this year we have a lot of seniors on our team that are going to be hungry for that extra effort, that extra win, the extra greatness that it's going to take to be the best."

The Mustangs finished 40th in the nation in total defense, a significant jump for the second consecutive season. It is that side of the ball that has the offensive-minded head coach most excited.

"Defensively our front seven is probably one of the better front sevens I've had in 13 years in college football," Jones said. "We've got guys that can run. We've got hitters. We've got size and quickness. I think we're solid."

How solid will be played out on the field. The Aggies are up first. On Oct. 1 in Fort Worth, the recharged rivalry with No. 15 TCU provides another early stage to impress the base.

Jones' Year 4 isn't make or break for him or the program, but an exciting and successful season can go a long way toward desired stability at home as the troubling winds of instability howl all around.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.