There’s no question about it. Tonight’s game against Texas A&M is huge for SMU. It's the school that wants in the Big 12 versus the school that wants out.
Coach June Jones knows it’s huge. He acknowledged that he likes the fact that his bosses, university president R. Gerald Turner and athletic director Steve Orsini, have made it known that SMU wants to be in not just an automatic qualifying conference, but in the Big 12. But he’s also put it in perspective for his players.
“Everybody knows how big this game is,” Jones said. “We have a lot to overcome down there. But it’s one game, and obviously it’s a great opportunity, different than some of the others.
“But at the same time, you’ve got to keep it in perspective that you got 12 or 13 more after this one.”
SMU may return 18 starters, including a completely senior offensive line and a veteran quarterback in Kyle Padron who’s led the Mustangs to back-to-back bowls, but playing at Kyle Field is a different kind of animal.
“It’s one of the loudest stadiums in the nation,” boomed the jumbotron at Ford Stadium last Thursday morning as the team practiced to a video of Kyle Field highlights.
The players say they understand how loud it’s going to be and that they welcome the environment.
But do they really?
SMU has lost 13 straight to Big 12 teams. And they haven’t won a nonconference game on the road since 2001 at San Jose State. Communication will be crucial in this game and when there are 80,000 or so maroon-clad Aggies, who are excited about probably heading to the SEC swaying back and forth, it will be easy for the Mustangs to lose their focus.
Left tackle Kelvin Beachum said offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has been practicing silent hand signals with his group since early spring.
“Communicating? We do that all the time,” Beachum said. “I personally enjoy not being able to hear anything. It gives it a more intimate feel. You’re just blocking the guy in front of you.”
As far as other positions, they’re all just hyped up and ready for the noise.
“I’m really excited for me and my teammates to compete in that hostile environment,” safety Chris Banjo said. “Once we get on the field, we’re locked in.”
SMU’s defense will be the key. A&M running back Cyrus Gray, who averaged 87.15 yards rushing last season (seventh-best in the Big 12), and wide receiver Jeff Fuller, who averaged 82 yards receiving (third-best in the Big 12), are probable Top 10 picks in next year’s NFL Draft.
“I told my guys, ‘Those guys are great football players and they’re going to go up and get some, but you can’t panic. They get one on us, we gotta just play one snap at a time,’” said defensive coordinator Tom Mason.
Then there’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who jumped in as the Aggies’ starting quarterback in the final six games of 2010 and completed 65 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,638 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“[Tannehill] is an athletic quarterback, a very capable passer,” Mason said. “He’s a threat to beat you with his feet, so you gotta keep him in the pocket. We can’t let him create things by getting loose. We gotta pick and choose when we go after him.”
Mason doesn’t expect Tannehill to run very much because there’s no viable quarterback behind him except a true freshman. Last season the Aggies had former starter Jerrod Johnson as a backup, but with him graduated, Tannehill likely won’t run many quarterback reads.
Mason knows A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter since they both spent time coaching at Nevada. He said the two have many of the same principles and share similar schemes, so the offenses should see some things they saw from their own scout teams in practice this past week.
Despite the odds against them, SMU is pumped up for this game. As practice winded down Friday morning, the team got a visit from President George W. Bush, who has a library being built on campus. He predicted a narrow win for the Mustangs, which would give him some bragging rights over his father, whose presidential library is at A&M.
There will be chaos, there will be yell leaders and there will be much at stake on both sides. But SMU says it’s ready.
“We definitely are. Definitely,” Banjo said without any hesitation. “I mean we’re going in there expecting to win. We want to get our season off to a great start. We really believe we can go in there and beat them.”
Saturday during College Game Day, SMU fans made their presence known on national TV with “Pony Up” and “BCS” signs. Tonight at Kyle Field, the Mustangs will show whether or not they’re ready to play with the big boys.
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