Life outside the Power 5 conference Why you shouldn't count out the Mustangs or the AAC

Disclaimer: This article was written somewhere between blind fandom and journalistic integrity

389 days…

The length of time between SMU’s final win of the 2013 season, and their first win of the 2014 season…

586 days… And counting…

The length of time between SMU’s last win at Gerald J. Ford Stadium and right now.

The Hilltop has seen some dark days on the football field over the last 18 months. SMU saw their head coach resign, they suffered through a painful one-win season, and then got to sit back and watch their biggest rival across the metroplex become one of the top teams in the country…

But if Christmas movies have taught me anything – “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to…”

I’m here to say hope is not lost when it comes to SMU football. A new day is here. A new level of inspiration came to me when I read Matt Hinton’s Grantland article “Eagle Rocked: Southern Miss, Conference USA, and the Dark Side of College Football Realignment.”

It highlights some of the desperate positions some programs are in when it comes to the divide between the schools who are in Power 5 conferences, and those who, well…aren’t.

While SMU isn’t actually in their own Power 5 conference, they still stand in a much better place than a school like Southern Miss. Let’s take a look back at some recent history…

October 22, 2011 – Southern Miss def. SMU, 27-3

Hattiesburg, Mississippi

“The 2011 Golden Eagles had set the school record for wins (12), claimed the Conference USA championship, and finished 20th in the final AP poll. They’d come within three points of a likely BCS bid and within nine of a perfect record while securing the program’s 18th consecutive winning season, a streak exceeded at the time by only Florida, Florida State, and Virginia Tech….it was a reliable winner that had carved out a niche as one of the standard-bearers for mid-major stability.”

(The day after their bowl game, head coach Larry Fedora accepted the head coaching job at North Carolina)

Chris Banjo (23) smiles with the 2012 BBVA Compass Bowl trophy Photographer: Hillsman Stuart Jackson Photo courtesy: SMU

Chris Banjo (23) smiles with the 2012 BBVA Compass Bowl trophy
Photographer: Hillsman Stuart Jackson
Photo courtesy: SMU

Dallas, Texas

The 2011 season would become the third of four straight bowl appearances for an SMU program that hadn’t seen the bright lights of the postseason for 25 years. They would finish the season 8-5, with a victory in the BBVA Compass Bowl over Pittsburgh, a power conference team from the Big East. The team was anchored by NFL talent – offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum, defensive lineman and kick-blocker extraordinaire Margus Hunt, running back Zach Line, and wide receiver Cole Beasley.

November 10, 2012 – SMU def. Southern Miss, 34-6

Hattiesburg, Mississippi

“Then the niche gave way to a crevasse. Despite typically high expectations to open 2012, the Eagles endured a miserable, winless slog, becoming the only major college football team to ever plummet from 12 victories to 12 defeats in consecutive seasons. [Head coach Ellis] Johnson got the hook within days of the finale, followed by athletic director Jeff Hammond the following summer. But for a perennially overachieving program that had endured only eight losing seasons since the Great Depression, the damage has felt irrevocable. Johnson’s successor, Todd Monken, has managed a grand total of four wins in two seasons, losing the rest by an average margin of 27.35 points per game. Between the 2011 Hawaii Bowl, and Monken’s first win in the 2013 finale, the Eagles lost 23 consecutive games, the longest losing streak by a I-A/FBS team since the turn of the century…”

2013 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl champions - SMU Mustangs Photographer: Greg Yamamoto Photo courtesy : SMU

2013 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl champions – SMU Mustangs
Photographer: Greg Yamamoto
Photo courtesy : SMU

Dallas, Texas

Another year, another bowl bound season for the Mustangs. A return to Honolulu set the stage against 12-point favorite Fresno State in the 2012 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. The following season, SMU was set to join Houston, Boise State, Central Florida, and San Diego State on journey to the Big East conference, a BCS Automatic Qualifier. For their final performance as a Conference-USA program, the Mustangs trounced the heavily favored Bulldogs 43-10 on Christmas Eve.

Due to complications between basketball and football programs within the old Big East conference, the merger did not go as planned, and SMU didn’t get the step up into a BCS AQ conference like they had hoped. Instead, the Mustangs were a part of what came to be known as the American Athletic Conference. SMU finished a game short of bowl eligibility in their inaugural AAC campaign in what would be June Jones’ final full season as head coach.

The 2013 season was more of the same for the Golden Eagles who finished 1-11 (a record SMU fans are all too familiar with right now).

The plummet of the Golden Eagles can be attributed to the plight of the mid-major conference, the fact that they are the only remaining original member of a 20-year-old conference, or just a few bad breaks along the line, but I’m not here to talk about that (again, click here for Matt Hinton’s article). I’m here to talk about us. The SMU Mustangs.

Last year, eventual C-USA champion Marshall was undefeated until an overtime loss to Western Kentucky in the final week of the regular season. How high did they climb up in the rankings before that loss? No. 18.

Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, and University of Texas at San Antonio are just a few of the names Southern Miss would have to get through in order to rise back up to the top of their conference. Not too impressive on a national scale…

Navy vs. SMU - Oct. 17, 2009 Photographer: Jake Dean Photo courtesy: SMU

Navy vs. SMU – Oct. 17, 2009
Photographer: Jake Dean
Photo courtesy: SMU

Meanwhile, just in conference, SMU at least has to get through schools like Navy, Houston, and Cincinnati – not to mention our usual non-conference matchups with Power 5 schools like Baylor and Texas A&M, and the annual Battle for the Iron Skillet with TCU.

A la Joseph Randle, there’s at least some meat on that bone, and an opportunity to gain national attention and some AP votes should SMU string a few wins together.

While the outlook isn’t necessarily that great for this year or even next – if you give new head coach Chad Morris and #PonyUpTempo a little time, there could be a 2007 Boise State-like Cinderella brewing on the Hilltop.

Last year may have been brutal, but there are much worse places to be sitting in the college football landscape.

While the move to a “bigger, better” conference didn’t pan out exactly the way SMU intended, at least there are possible scenarios in the American to see SMU playing in a bowl game on New Year’s Day sometime in the future.

It’s very unlikely the same could be said for a C-USA team like the Golden Eagles. Sorry, Dad… (Southern Miss, Class of ’87)

2 years ago
Written by Joey Hayden
Joey is the managing editor and staff writer for The Stable, as well as the host of the "Inside The Stable" podcast, and in his spare time he is a digital sports editor for The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from SMU in 2014, follows sports religiously, and knows for a fact Han Solo shot first...