SMU was one of the darlings of the college football world last year after engineering an incredible turnaround under coach June Jones.
The Mustangs won eight games and shared the West Division with Houston in Conference USA, a year off a 1-11 season that featured a lone win over FCS Texas State. This program had been declared dead after the death penalty, and had gone 25 years between bowl appearances.
But nobody thought it would just be a one-year wonder for the Mustangs. Not with Jones in charge. He is a master rebuilder, after all, having done it at previous stops in the NFL and most recently at Hawaii.
For Jones, it was all about taking the next step in his master plan. That step was to get into the Conference USA championship game.
Well, cross that step off the list now that SMU (7-5) is set to play UCF (9-3) in Orlando in the Conference USA title game Saturday. Next up: winning a conference championship, something SMU has not done since 1984.
“Last year we set a goal to get a bowl game and when we got back in January, we talked about taking another step and that was winning the West and the kids set the goal to do that,” Jones said in a phone interview. “A bunch of times we didn’t think we were going to make it, but we kept fighting and kept going, winning six games in the conference. That ended up working out pretty good.”
Indeed, the Mustangs had to deal with their share of adversity throughout the season. They have been plenty beat up, losing several key players to injury. They also dropped several games that nearly cost them a spot in this game.
The door opened for SMU when Houston lost Case Keenum. It had a chance to get in the driver’s seat for the division when it played the Cougars on Oct. 23. But the Mustangs lost 45-20, thanks in part to three turnovers and some special teams breakdowns.
SMU stumbled again in a 28-14 loss to UTEP, giving the Mustangs two losses in league play. But Houston could not sustain its momentum, and ended up losing four straight to end the season. Tied atop the division with Tulsa headed into the final week of the season, SMU needed a win over East Carolina to make it to the title game. The Mustangs had the head-to-head advantage over Tulsa after beating the Golden Hurricane earlier in the year.
They beat the Pirates in a thrilling 45-38 overtime win to seal their spot.
“Getting in this game is where we set our goal all season, and having that opportunity taken away from us by losing a few close games was heartbreaking,” running back Zach Line said. “But to come back in a third opportunity against East Carolina, that was a challenge and we overcame that. The ball’s rolling in our favor and we just have to keep going with it as far as we can.”
When asked how he kept his team focused on being able to make it this far despite the setbacks, Jones said, “That’s why we get paid the big money I guess. I don’t know … I’ve always felt forever it’s not about Xs and Os, it’s about the intangible things, chemistry and camaraderie that wins. We’ve maintained that and the coaches have done a good job of getting across what we believe in, and the kids have bought into it, and they hang together. They’re disappointed when they lose, but they don’t divide amongst themselves. When you don’t divide among yourselves, you have a chance to win every week.”
Now comes the biggest chance of the season.