Team Preview: SMU

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(All information as of July 1, 2006)


Finally, there is evidence of life after death ... or at least life after the death penalty.

SMU football, a once-proud program that has been floundering since being shut down in 1987 and 1988 for NCAA recruiting violations—the only major program ever hit by the so-called NCAA death penalty—appears to be on the verge of regaining its ancient excellence.

In the last three seasons, coach Phil Bennett's Mustangs have improved from 0-12 to 3-8 to 5-6. And with 20 players returning with starting experience, Bennett is talking about taking the next step and making a run at the Conference USA title.

After four seasons, Bennett has the program looking to the future instead of the past.

"Has it taken longer than what I expected?" Bennett asked himself. "Yes! But we have a sign in our locker room: 'Those who stay will be champions.' If you look at the league right now, we're right up there."

That's a far cry from the struggling program Bennett inherited. The former Texas A&M linebacker was the defensive coordinator for Bill Snyder at Kansas State when he was hired after the 2001 season to revive a program that had enjoyed just one winning season since the program was restarted in 1989.

Starting from scratch, Bennett endured that 0-12 season in 2003, when he force-fed a number of young players who are at the heart of SMU's revival.

"These guys, many of them played before they were ready," Bennett said. "That's changed. Last year, we had 19 kids on scholarship and just two played. This year, we might have only one. When I look at the roster today and compare it to our roster three years ago, I think this is the year for this program to make a big improvement."

SMU was almost there last season, winning five times, including the last three. The Mustangs beat three bowl teams and upset a ranked opponent (No. 22 TCU) for the first time since 1986.

"People who saw us beat TCU know that wasn't a joke," Bennett said.

The frustrating thing for Bennett is how close it came to being an even better year. The Mustangs lost four times by a touchdown or less. In Conference USA play, SMU lost to Marshall by a field goal and to East Carolina and Tulsa by a single touchdown.

"Four times we lost after being ahead or tied in the fourth quarter," Bennett said. "I think we're on the verge. If you look at how close we were last season, it's clear that we're improving as a football team. Now we just have to take the next step."

And what's that step?