Team preview: SMU

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(All information as of June 20, 2007)


Late last season SMU found itself in a position it had not experienced since the early 1980s, back when the Mustangs were still a viable contender for the Southwest Conference title. With three games left in the season, the Mustangs took a 5-4 overall record and a 3-2 Conference USA mark into the decisive stretch run.

Against eventual conference champion Houston, SMU trailed 14-0 and scored the next 24 points before losing, 37-27. The next week, the Mustangs beat bowl-bound Tulsa, 34-24. With one final chance to secure a bowl trip, SMU lost 31-27 at Rice. While Rice earned its first bowl since 1961, the Mustangs finished 6-6 and failed to reach the program's first bowl since 1984.

Even though the Mustangs fell short of their goals last season, coach Phil Bennett is back for his sixth season at SMU. Just four years removed from a 0-12 finish, Bennett has never been more certain his team will finish with a winning record, earn a bowl invitation and seriously contend for the C-USA Western Division title.

"We've made improvement over the past three years and we continued to improve last year," Bennett said. "We were an exciting team to watch, but we made some mistakes that hurt us along the way. I made a mistake when I kept our quarterback [Justin Willis] in the Tulsa game too long and he ended up getting hurt. That hurt us the next week when we played Rice.
"I don't mean that to take anything away from Rice, but it was the first time in a long time when this program has played for something important in November. Our last three games we lost a heartbreaker to Houston, beat Tulsa and then had the heartbreaker against Rice.
"I told the team the first time I ran a marathon, I got to mile 20 and I almost fell out. I just wasn't prepared for it. This year when we come down the stretch, I think we'll be prepared and you'll see a football team that's able to make those plays to win."

Even though SMU lost six starters, Bennett is certain the Mustangs have never been in a better position to fill those holes and reach their goals since the NCAA death penalty devastated the program in 1987.
"The past two years we've been able to redshirt kids, and I think without question we're a lot better than we've been at any point since we've been here," Bennett said. "Another thing that's good for us that a lot of people don't realize is we had two starters who sat out last year for academics and now they're both back. "Charlie Berry was a starting defensive tackle the year before and Bryan McCann was a starting cornerback and a really good player for us in 2005. That makes a big difference."