Before his second season at SMU, coach June Jones had a goal of bringing his team back to his former home state.
The Mustangs accomplished that feat with the biggest turnaround in the Football Bowl Subdivision and earned their first postseason berth since an NCAA-mandated death penalty nearly a quarter century ago.
SMU will try to cap that breakthrough campaign with a victory over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl on Thursday.
In 1984, the Mustangs finished 10-2, won a share of the Southwest Conference and beat Notre Dame 27-20 in their previous bowl game – also in Hawaii. A year later, the program was placed on three years’ probation for recruiting violations.
Ensuing investigations uncovered more violations – namely the continued payment of players – and the NCAA shut down the program in 1987. With few players left on campus, SMU canceled the next season as well.
Before hiring Jones, the Mustangs had gone 58-153-3 under four coaches and posted one winning record, 6-5 in 1997.
Jones, who led Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl in his ninth and final season there, couldn’t break that losing trend in his first year at SMU, finishing 1-11.
Heading into this season, Jones told his team he wanted to reach the Hawaii Bowl as a tribute to friend and special teams coach Frank Gansz, who died April 27. During the season, Jones reminded them at least “every three or four weeks” of that goal.
The Mustangs got off to a good start with consecutive wins but then lost four of five. They recovered to win four of their final five for a 7-5 finish and accepted a bid to Hawaii.
“I am so happy that our players will be able to have this experience,” said Jones, who recently signed a contract extension through 2014. “Reaching our first bowl game in 25 years is special – not only for our current student-athletes, but also for the guys who came before them.”
Jones brought his pass-heavy, run-and-shoot offense over from Hawaii, but the Mustangs have displayed more balance this season thanks to junior transfer Shawnbrey McNeal.
McNeal, who spent his first two seasons at Miami, has rushed for 1,125 yards and nine touchdowns while helping SMU overcome the loss of starting quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to a shoulder injury Oct. 24.
Freshman Kyle Padron stepped in to throw for 1,462 yards and eight touchdowns in six games. Emmanuel Sanders, the school’s career receiving leader, also set Mustangs’ single-season marks with 91 catches and 1,215 yards.
However, it’s the Mustangs’ defense that could prove more important against Nevada (8-4), the first team in NCAA history with three 1,000-yard rushers in one season.
Not surprisingly, the Wolf Pack boast the country’s top rushing offense at 362.3 yards per game. They were also second with 521.6 total yards a contest and fifth in averaging 40.6 points.
Vai Taua had a team-best 1,345 yards in the pistol formation offense, but junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick was undoubtedly the leading playmaker.
“What we’ve done on offense this year, it is special,” coach Chris Ault said. “It all starts with the guys up front. And the biggest part of it is (Kaepernick), he is the trigger man on the whole deal.”
Kaepernick ran for a career-high 1,160 yards and 16 TDs, one shy of matching last season’s total. He also passed for 1,875 yards and 19 touchdowns with five interceptions.
Luke Lippincott has contributed 1,034 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, while Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year Brandon Wimberly had a team-leading 653 receiving yards.
After three consecutive losses to open this season, the Wolf Pack rebounded to challenge Boise State for the WAC title with eight straight wins. Their comeback bid fell short in a 44-33 road loss to the Fiesta Bowl-bound Broncos.
The main weakness for Nevada is a pass defense that ranks 119th of 120 FBS teams, allowing 284.3 yards per game. That helped opponents to score an average of 27.2 points and gain 398.9 total yards a contest.
The Wolf Pack, however, will face a Mustangs team that gave up 27.9 points and 404.0 yards per game. Nevada also boasts conference defensive player of the year Dontay Moch, who was among the nation’s leaders with 19.5 tackles for loss.
He’ll try to help Nevada earn its first postseason win since its previous trip to the Hawaii Bowl in 2005, a 49-48 overtime victory against Central Florida. In their fifth straight bowl appearance, the Wolf Pack will look to improve to 3-5 in the postseason since joining the FBS in 1992.
SMU is making its 11th postseason appearance, going 4-5-1.
When these schools were members of the WAC, SMU and Nevada met five times from 2000-04, with the Wolf Pack winning three matchups.