Shawnbrey McNeal rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 5:23 remaining, to lead SMU to a 26-21 win over Tulane on Saturday.
The Mustangs (7-5, 6-2) were already bowl eligible with six wins. With Saturday's victory, they are guaranteed to earn one of Conference USA's six automatic bowl bids. SMU, which went 1-11 the last two seasons, has not appeared in a bowl game since the 1984 Aloha Bowl.
Three years after that appearance, the NCAA imposed the death penalty on the football program for multiple rules violations. The Mustangs didn't play football for two seasons and have since struggled to regain respectability.
"I didn't see a player laugh or have fun until the second game this year," SMU coach June Jones said of the team?s attitude. "It's like they were browbeat worse than any players I?ve ever seen."
Jones, in his second season at SMU, was given a two-year contract extension on Friday, keeping him at the school through 2014. Jones came from Hawaii, and the Mustangs may be going to Hawaii for their bowl game next month.
"I told the players I didn?t really think it would really soak in yet," Jones said. "I told them they talk about the (early 1980s team) Pony Express; in 10 years they?re going to talk about you."
McNeal, who carried the ball 26 times, scored on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter to put SMU ahead, and the Mustangs held on.
After McNeal's touchdown put the Mustangs ahead, Tulane had two chances. On the first drive, the Green Wave was stopped on downs; on the second, as time was running out, Tulane fumbled and SMU recovered.
Kyle Padron completed 20 of 34 passes for 264 yards for SMU, and Emmanuel Sanders finished with six receptions for 144 yards. SMU led 17-7 at halftime.