SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
11/22/2006 12:49:00 PM
As Big a Game as Any
Nobody has played a bigger role in SMU's resurgence than redshirt freshman QB Justin Willis.
We love our feel-good stories in college football -- Rutgers, Wake Forest, Tulane, Ray Ray McElrathbey. Saturday in Houston, two feel-good stories will collide in a game that you only wish there was a way both teams could win.
While Notre Dame-USC and LSU-Arkansas will surely dominate the headlines this weekend, Saturday’s SMU-Rice game carries its own significance for the participants, both of whom are 6-5. The winner will be assured a postseason berth, and it’s hard to say which will appreciate it more: The Owls, who haven’t been to a bowl game since 1961, or the Mustangs, who haven’t been since 1984 and have suffered through nearly two decades of post-NCAA death penalty misery.
But the game is about more than just bowl droughts. Rice, you may recall, suffered a tragedy earlier this season when freshman defensive back Dale Lloyd collapsed and died following a workout. His death occurred just days before the Owls, 0-4 at the time, played a game at Army. The Owls won that game 48-14, the first of six wins over their past seven games, including three straight in which they've won on the last offensive play of the game against a trio of opponents (UTEP, Tulsa and East Carolina) that came in with better records.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that went 1-10 last year and which, under new coach Todd Graham, a former Tulsa assistant, completely overhauled its offense from former coach Ken Hatfield’s wishbone to a spread-passing attack. Sophomore receiver Jarrett Dillard has caught a national-best and Conference USA record 17 touchdowns, including at least one in 13 straight games, the second-longest streak in Division I-A history (Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald went 18 straight).
“I think it’s a great story, the adversity of this team starting 1-5 and being able to overcome that,” said Graham. “It’s been  years since we went to a bowl game. It’s a great testament to these kids to be able to turn it around.”
SMU’s turnaround under fifth-year coach Phil Bennett has been more gradual but no less impressive. In 16 seasons spanning from 1989 (the year SMU returned to competition after shutting down the program for two seasons due to the NCAA’s death sentence) to 2004, the Mustangs compiled a 46-130-3 record. Once, in 1997, they went 6-5. Every other year was sub.-.500, including four one-win seasons, four two- or three-win seasons and, in 2003, Bennett’s second year at the school, an 0-12 debacle. After going 6-29 his first three seasons, many SMU fans has already chalked up Bennett, the former Kansas State defensive coordinator, as yet another failure.
But last year, the Mustangs sprang to life with a 21-10 upset of No. 22 TCU -- which itself had just knocked off Oklahoma -- the second week of the season and wound up finishing 5-6, including a three-game winning streak to end the season. That they’ve been able to take the next step this season has a lot to do with heralded redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Willis, the nation’s seventh-ranked passer, who’s completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 25 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Last Saturday against 7-3 Tulsa, Willis accounted for 283 yards and three TDs to lead his team back from a 24-7 halftime deficit and win 34-24.
That comeback, along with Rice’s last-second, 18-17 win over East Carolina, sets up the most significant meeting in many, many years between two old Southwest Conference rivals who have played each other 83 times.
“Who would have thought at beginning of year this game would be so meaningful to both teams?” said Bennett.
Conference USA has partnerships with five bowl games and could have as many as eight eligible teams, but NCAA rules state a bowl cannot pass up an eligible 7-5 team for a 6-6 team. Since only four other league teams are capable of reaching seven wins (Houston, Tulsa and Southern Miss already have and East Carolina is 6-5 headed to N.C. State), the winner of Saturday’s game is assured a berth, most likely to the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.
While that might not sound like a very exotic destination to fans of most other schools, for Rice or SMU, it will be a dream come true.