SMU on brink after topping Rice, 31-28
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- David Hill showed up early to Saturday's SMU game, proudly wearing his throwback No. 19 Eric Dickerson jersey.
"Those were the teams I remember coming and watching," said Hill, a 50-year-old Plano resident and software engineer who graduated in 1980. "I haven't been to homecoming since I got out of school here. I'll admit that I'm a fair-weather fan, but I think the program might be coming around, so I wanted to see it.
"We've got the right coach and it's exciting. I'm cautiously optimistic about a bowl."
That was before SMU's 31-28 victory over winless Rice. The Mustangs didn't look overly impressive but managed to get the job done. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown as time expired in the first half turned what could have been a nine-point Rice lead into a one-point SMU advantage. The Mustangs managed to hang on.
Hill had to leave feeling even better about his alma mater's chances. They need one win in the final three games -- two of them at home -- to become bowl eligible. And should they get to six wins, it seems very likely they'll be invited to a postseason party somewhere. Maybe even Hawaii, SMU coach June Jones' old home, for Christmas Eve.
"It wasn't pretty, but we've been not pretty and lost for a lot of years, so the kids are finding a way to win," Jones said. "Some guys really stepped up to make some plays and that's what you've got to do."
Jones, who arrived at SMU last season and went 1-11, is implementing his high-octane offensive system and teaching the Mustangs how to win games. Jones has his squad close to achieving the school's first bowl game since 1984, despite a roster that includes 47 freshmen or sophomores. On Saturday, that included the starting quarterback, the entire offensive line and Margus Hunt, a 6-foot-8 defensive end from Estonia who blocked two kicks. Hunt didn't even wear football pads until this season and he owns the school record with six blocked kicks this year.
Jones said his club is about where he thought they'd be as he mapped out the season back in the spring.
"This season is kind of interesting in that we've won a couple of those games that maybe you shouldn't win and it's led to other wins now," Jones said. "If you win two or three last year, maybe you win five and six. That's kind of what's going on now. We've had to block two field goals to run back for touchdowns to win two of our games. You tell me how often that happens. I haven't had it happen in 10 years. The guys believe and are playing together. The kids are starting to understand how to win."
It was 20 years ago when SMU resumed football on campus after a two-year absence. The NCAA death penalty -- a sentence so devastating to the Mustangs program that no other FBS school has experienced it since -- took away the 1987 season. SMU elected not to play in 1988, knowing the NCAA mandate was six road games and no home contests.
Since 1989, SMU has flirted with bowl invitations before, only to have something go wrong. In 2006, the Mustangs were 6-5 and playing at Rice, with the winner going to a bowl game. SMU was unable to put the ball in the end zone on two first-and-goal opportunities from the 1-yard line and lost, 31-27. Rice went to its first bowl game since 1961 and the Mustangs didn't get a postseason trip at 6-6. In 1997, the Mustangs were 6-4 and riding a five-game winning streak into the final game of the season at winless TCU. But SMU's bowl hopes were dashed as TCU came back from a 10-point deficit to win by three.
This SMU team, though, seems different. Enough so that Thaddeus Matula, a 31-year-old SMU grad and independent filmmaker, decided to put together a documentary of the season before it began. He hopes that his film, titled "Article 19: The life, death and rebirth of SMU football," ends with a bowl berth. For just the second time since the program restarted, the Mustangs have five wins with three games left. And SMU could be favored in all three of those games.
"I've been coming to games for years and I can tell you that there's probably 25 percent more people here," said 80-year-old George Venner, who transferred to SMU in 1948 and was hanging out at The Boulevard, SMU's pregame tailgating area. "Everyone likes to see a winner and we have that here now. June Jones is a good coach and a good recruiter. The team should only get better."
Senior wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who caught the 30th touchdown pass of his career on Saturday and is the leader in that category among all active FBS players, admitted that he thinks about the possibility of a bowl game every night before he goes to sleep.
"I'm having the time of my life right now," Sanders said. "I've been going through so many things at this school. Since my freshman year, [we've had] no winning seasons and we're right on the edge. I'm happy with what Coach Jones is doing. We're right around the corner."
SMU athletic director Steve Orsini can sense something special is nearing as well. Donning his trademark red blazer, he shook hands with players and coaches after the game.
"It doesn't look it in the stands, but there is more excitement around here," said Orsini, referring to the announced attendance of 15,475, which means Gerald J. Ford Stadium was less than half full. "The kids are focused on putting this 25-year bowl drought behind us. I think they're going to do it."
They'll get their first chance next Saturday at home against UTEP.
Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.