SMU is 5-1 for the first time since 1986, the year before the infamous “Death Penalty”, when the NCAA banned the Mustangs from football competition for one year.
“We should be 6-0,” said senior receiver Cole Beasley, referring to the Mustangs’ season-opening loss at Texas A&M.
It’s that type of confidence that’s allowed SMU to believe and then execute.
This season, the Mustangs have beaten a then-ranked TCU team in overtime, rolled past defending Conference USA champions UCF and have received votes in both the AP and Coaches polls for their efforts.
Both polls have them at No. 29, higher than Texas, Baylor and TCU. Tough road trips loom with conference games at Southern Miss and at Tulsa these next two weeks, but SMU could crack the Top 25 for the first time since ’86 if they win both, maybe even if they just win one.
Head coach June Jones can feel the difference in this year.
“When you win, you start to get a different confidence,” he said. “You walk differently, you feel differently, and that’s what’s going on. The chemistry is really good.
“These last two weeks are the first time in four years I’ve felt the kids knew they were going to win. As a coach, you still worry about the little things, but I could tell there was a different confidence. And you only get that by winning on the field and competing.”
Jones attributes this season’s success and team confidence to the bond his players formed at the beginning of the year.
“The guys made a commitment at the start of the season to really honor something higher than anything else,” he said. “The chemistry is working. We’ve had some really neat things happen this year internally that excite me. The guys are really coming together and bonding.
“We got a tough road, even though we’re 5-1. It gets harder from here. Chemistry will be the reason we hang together.”
Senior left tackle Kelvin Beachum recalled something Jones said to the team when he was a freshman.
“Coach Jones told us four years ago, ‘I’m here to coach you, but the players run this team,’” Beachum said. “He’s allowed us to mature and make this our team. We’re only going to go as far as us as individuals will take this team.”
Beachum said that a group of players have come together to form a Leadership Council that meets once a week and discuss issues on the team. The council is comprised of upperclassmen Beachum, Zach Line, Blake McJunkin, Kyle Padron, Chris Banjo, Ryan Smith, Victor Jones and Richard Crawford.
The June Jones effect
Would all of these firsts – going to and winning bowl games, beating archrivals, possibly cracking the Top 25, likely getting into a BCS conference – have been possible without the hiring of Junes Jones four years ago?
“Don’t get me wrong, June is a fantastic coach, but we just needed a big-time guy,” an SMU alum said. “It was the tight-knit nucleus of alumni that helped make the money available to hire June that’s been the biggest thing for this program.
“That and the deep, deep love that goes back decades that has made this all possible.”
That is true, but talk to players who aren’t really in the know about the inner workings of an athletic department and money, and they’ll tell you how Jones has helped SMU become relevant again.
“He preached the same thing when we were 1-11,” said Beachum, who’s been a Mustang just as long as Jones has. “You hang together, play for each other and love each other.
“This is a smart, disciplined team that takes care of things on and off the field. It takes time to change the culture [of a football program] as far as things we can’t control like the fans, the perception of SMU and the perception of Dallas. We can’t change those things, but we know this, and coach tells us, winning cures it all.”
Where are the fans?
If SMU is going to eventually get invited to a conference like the Big East, fans have got to start coming out of the woodwork and attend home football games.
Ford Stadium holds 32,000 people. At Saturday’s conference championship rematch against UCF, a game most of the team said was bigger than the TCU game, a crowd of 22,932 was announced in the press box. However, the stadium appeared less than half full.
“It was a great game to come out for. We beat the defending conference champs in a dominant way,” Zach Line said. “I don’t know where else you’d want to be on a Saturday afternoon. But that will come. I’m surprised that having the year we’re having, that our fan base has been so poor. Those true fans that are here will continue to come. They’ve been loyal through the tough times.”
What will it take to get more fans in the stands? The Mustangs have won their last five games and could be ranked this time next week. This is a Division I program on the rise. There’s not a more exciting time to be a part of a school.
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