SMU receiver Emmanuel Sanders said back in the summer he used to spontaneously end practices with a cheer of “Conference Champs!”
While many of his teammates would look at him like he was crazy -- SMU hasn’t been close to being a conference champion in decades -- Sanders kept chanting knowing that if the Mustangs didn’t think about the possibility, they’d never achieve it.
“I just tried to put out that mentality in the guys,” Sanders said. “Anything we put our mind to, we can achieve.”
By about the first quarter of last week’s game against UTEP, the idea of a conference championship didn’t seem so far-fetched. The scoreboard showed the score of Houston’s loss to Central Florida and the announcer at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas started adding the words “first place” before he said the word “Mustangs.”
“It made me get up and start telling guys that we need to focus in,” Sanders said. “That’s what we had been waiting for. The Houston versus Tulsa game [on Nov. 7], I was watching it on live on NCAA.com it said that Houston had lost. So I’m jumping and screaming thinking that Houston had lost and they ended up winning. That whole week I was kind of down because I want to win conference and leave here my senior year as a conference champion and get a ring. And last week when it happened against UCF and they lost, I was like now we have to capitalize on this opportunity.”
SMU (6-4, 5-1 C-USA) has two games remaining in the regular season. If it wins out, it will win the West Division title. One loss, and Houston, despite also having two conference losses, could win the division by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Winning out won’t be easy for SMU, especially traveling to Marshall this weekend to face a team that’s playing for its bowl future. The Thundering Herd needs one win for bowl eligibility and two wins in its final two games to almost ensure a postseason berth.
“This is uncharted waters, but our approach hasn’t changed,” SMU coach June Jones said. “We’re practicing and doing the exact same things that we’ve been doing. It’s going to be hard to win on the road. Marshall has to win to stay in the bowl hunt also, so that will be a big game for them and a big game for us.”
Jones admitted that he told his team at the beginning of the season that the goal was to win six games. He knew that if his team won six games that it would earn its first bowl berth since 1984. He broke the season into segments, identified the record the team needed to achieve in those segments and so far the team has been on course.
What Jones didn’t envision was that sticking to that plan would lead to a conference title, especially with how strong Houston started out. Houston’s two slips in conference play against UTEP and Central Florida have put the Cougars in a bad spot. They could win 10 games during the regular season and not play for a conference title.
Jones said he doesn’t worry about his team being unfocused for the next two contests against Marshall and Tulane. The team has played focused most of the year and the players know they’re not good enough to have a subpar effort and still win.
“I didn’t expect this, clearly, but like I said before, whenever you start winning it could lead to more wins,” Jones said. “I don’t have to tell them too much because they have never been here before, so whenever they’re there, they stay pretty focused. I think whenever you start to win season after season after season then you have to keep them focused because they think they can just show up. We’re not in that position. We gave up almost 700 yards to UTEP last week and they know if we’re not ready to play that we could lose this game very easily.”