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Sport Back from the death penalty, No. 14 SMU football once again in the national spotlight

15:32  01 november  2019
15:32  01 november  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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The SMU football program is undergoing a renaissance more than 30 years in the making.

It's taken seven full-time head coaches, three conference changes and a little bit of luck, but the Mustangs are back in the national rankings and making history every step of the way.

SMU beat rival TCU for the first time since 2011, but the rest of the accolades go back much further. When the Mustangs made it into the top 25, it was for the first time since 1986, the final season before the NCAA Death Penalty.

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They started 4-0 for the first time since 1984, it was 1983 the last time they started 5-0 and one has to go back to the 1982 national championship season, the Mustangs went 11-0-1, for an 8-0 start.

That's SMU's history, like it or not. This year's team is focused on writing its own history.

"When it comes to first team since 80-whatever, that’s our history and it is what it is," second-year SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said. "I’m just proud of our players. They’re the ones that have figured this out and got us to this point ... I don’t think that’s been a burden, really, for any of us. I’m just happy to be on this ride with these guys."

a football player holding a baseball bat: SMU running back Xavier Jones runs with the ball during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Temple in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)© The Associated Press SMU running back Xavier Jones runs with the ball during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Temple in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

National spotlight

Since receiving the Death Penalty for widespread and continuing rules violations, ending the 1987 and 1988 seasons, the Mustangs have been in the news. First for how bad they have been, never able to recover from the NCAA's sanctions, then for finding a little bit of success here and there.

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But it's never been like this.

“Timing matters a lot in everything,” SMU athletic director Rick Hart said. “In this case, a lot of credit to so many people who came together to develop the Born and Raised  (marketing) campaign, the Dallas jerseys and uniforms… That was a big deal, but to then have it coincide with an undefeated record, a national ranking and now a game where College GameDay is going to get us started and the ABC national telecast is going to close us out. The culmination of all those things coming together has been very powerful.”

a group of baseball players playing a football game: Oct 5, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; SMU wide receiver James Proche (3) makes the winning touchdown catch during the third overtime against Tulsa at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy Flores-USA TODAY Sports© Timothy Flores, Timothy Flores-USA TODAY Sports Oct 5, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; SMU wide receiver James Proche (3) makes the winning touchdown catch during the third overtime against Tulsa at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy Flores-USA TODAY Sports

When the 14th-ranked Mustangs travel to No. 23 Memphis they will be fully in the spotlight. ESPN College GameDay is setting up shop on Beale Street, and the game is being aired on ABC in primetime.

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“We’re taking it as any other week,” senior safety Rodney Clemons said. “You can’t get too hyped about the media coverage and playing on ABC and the team we’re playing, we’re just focused on our game plan and doing what our coaches are coaching us to do. If you get too hyped for the game, you know, you can kind of lose focus of what the goal is, to win."

Sonny on the Hilltop

Dykes was named SMU's head coach on Dec. 11, 2017. He then stepped onto the sideline to lead the Mustangs into the Frisco Bowl nine days later. It was a 51-10 loss to Louisiana Tech that officially closed the book on the Chad Morris era.

It wasn't the start Dykes would have liked in his new job, but it set the tone for his program moving forward.

Dykes' willingness to coach in the game was a sign to the players and administration. There wasn't really another option after Morris and members of his staff left. The newly named coach took ownership of his team the way the game went.

a group of baseball players standing on top of each other: FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2019, file photo, SMU head coach Sonny Dykes waits with his team before playing TCU in an NCAA college football game, in Fort Worth, Texas. Shane Buechele is the starting quarterback for an undefeated Top 25 team, like so many people envisioned when he started 12 games as a true freshman for Texas. Except Buechele is now close to home after going to No. 19 SMU as a graduate transfer. Dykes is in a similar situation, back home in Texas as a head coach. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, File)© The Associated Press FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2019, file photo, SMU head coach Sonny Dykes waits with his team before playing TCU in an NCAA college football game, in Fort Worth, Texas. Shane Buechele is the starting quarterback for an undefeated Top 25 team, like so many people envisioned when he started 12 games as a true freshman for Texas. Except Buechele is now close to home after going to No. 19 SMU as a graduate transfer. Dykes is in a similar situation, back home in Texas as a head coach. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, File)

“That was an immediate sign, you know when you’re going through adverse moments and times,” Hart said. “I’ll never forget it, we’re talking about our options and it’s pretty clear that Sonny coaching the bowl game was going to be best for the young men and the program so he didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘I’ll do it.’ He made the best of a really challenging (situation) … and he didn’t make any excuses. That was a very early sign that we got the right guy.”

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The players didn't let a sour ending to a successful season and start of a new era stop them from putting in the work. They responded to what Dykes and his staff asked of them to get better.

“It was kind of rough at that moment,” Clemons said. “That was my first winning season, my first time in a bowl game, and to put that performance on national TV, no one wants to do that. But we all had trust in Coach Dykes when he got here. He had the right people and we had trust that he would turn our program around.”

Not celebrating mediocrity

Dykes' first season in 2018 was full of promise. After an 0-3 start against North Texas, TCU and Michigan, the Mustangs got things going and were 5-5 going into the final two games of the season.

SMU needed to win one to make back-to-back bowl games. Two wins could have put the Mustangs in the conference championship game. But losses to Memphis and Tulsa closed the book on both possibilities.

The disappointment of the 2018 season helped fuel the 2019 resurgence.

"I felt like had we (gone to a bowl), in some ways it seems like we would have been rewarded for being pretty mediocre," Dykes said. "I think it lit a fire under us. It certainly lit a fire under me, I think it did with the rest of our coaching staff and our players. It carried into the offseason where the players did a tremendous job of going to work and rolling their sleeves up."

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a man standing in front of a crowd: SMU quarterback Shane Buechele (7) passes the ball against Houston during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)© The Associated Press SMU quarterback Shane Buechele (7) passes the ball against Houston during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Building the program

When Dykes came to SMU he saw a team with strong points, but felt something was missing. The Mustangs had talent on the field, but lacked talent on the bench.

"I felt like we had some really good pieces to build around," Dykes said. "Some guys that had continued to get better and better. The thing we need though, we needed depth. We had some holes in some recruiting classes where we just didn’t have depth in key situations and key spots."

To fill those voids, Dykes and his staff went to the transfer portal. And struck gold. Almost every player who transferred to SMU and has suited up has had an impact. It gives the team a dynamic it had been missing, even in its recent successful seasons.

When a starter came off the field in the past, it meant a lesser player was coming onto the field. That's not the case any more. And it's something Rich Phillips, who has called SMU football on the radio since 2001, can't help but notice.

"They’ve got, I believe, in the last two seasons 30 or 31 transfers. Some junior college, but a lot of them are D1 transfers and a lot of them have been grad transfers," Phillips said. "You see it, defensive line is the first spot you know that is different depth wise. They’ve been playing even as much as three-deep in all four spots in games at the defensive line."

Another key transfer wasRichard McBryde the leading tackler after last year's leader Richard Moore went down with an injury. But the biggest piece was getting Shane Buechele after he decided to leave the University of Texas.

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“Obviously, the quarterback situation is so important in college football,” Dykes said. “It’s hard to have a great football team without having a great quarterback, and Shane had a lot of experience. I felt like he fit our system really well. Knew him, what kind of person he was like and felt like we needed that kind of leadership from the quarterback position."

Starting strong

Many would put the 2019 emphasis on SMU beating rival TCU in Week 4. Dykes takes it back even further.

During fall camp, the coaching staff made it clear to the Mustangs that, they were good enough to beat every team on their schedule. But they could also lose to every team on the schedule.

So, on the final night in August, SMU went to Jonesboro, Ark., to find out which team it would be.

"Game 1 against Arkansas State on the road, we were the underdog going into that game," Dykes said. "I just loved the way our guys played and competed. It wasn’t one of those games where everything went our way, but I loved the way we responded when we had some adversity. We had to get some stops down the stretch defensively in order to win the game and our guys did it."

This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Back from the death penalty, No. 14 SMU football once again in the national spotlight

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