Lurking in the polls, beneath the traditional college football juggernauts, one school from the American Athletic Conference has silently clawed through the rankings week after week.
That school is Southern Methodist University, a college football program reborn from the ashes of the "death penalty" they received in 1987 for repeated and egregious recruiting violations. This year, the Mustangs are playing their best football since the days of Eric Dickerson, Craig James, and the ill-gotten "Pony Express" backfield. This year's Mustangs have guided the school back into the AP Top 25 for the first time since those heady days of the 80s. They now stand at 8-0, the biggest surprise of the college football season, and possibly on pace for a berth in a New Year's Six bowl game. To make it even sweeter, this year the top Group of Five team gets to go to the Cotton Bowl Classic, played in SMU's home area in Arlington, Texas.
Like their 1980s ancestors, this team has mainly succeeded by moving the ball at will. Their stars this year include wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr., who is fifth in the nation with 795 receiving yards through eight games, and Xavier Jones, whose 133 rushing yards and two touchdowns last night helped SMU escape Houston with a 34-31 win.
The Mustangs have several hurdles left to overcome to get to that point, and that's assuming the playoff committee is kind to them at the end anyway. As is the case for all contending Group of Five schools (just ask Boise State), SMU's schedule is both a blessing and a curse for the exact same reason. Their opponents have consisted mainly of American Conference teams, and not...say...Alabama, which means that almost none of those eight wins have as much value that would come in handy for the committee come December. Their only win over a ranked opponent was a 41-38 victory over in-state rival, 25th-ranked TCU in September.
But don't count out the American Athletic Conference - you know, the mutant conference formed out of part of the Big East and part of Conference USA. RealTimeRPI has it rated as the fifth-best performing conference in college football, one spot ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference - the one that produced the defending national champions, Clemson, so that's something to consider. Even the Houston Cougars, who have greatly disappointed this year under Dana Holgorsen - gave the Mustangs a good fight before losing by three.
The last four games of the season will test if SMU are really worthy of playing on New Year's Day. Three of the four teams remaining on the schedule - Memphis, Navy, and Tulane, all conference rivals - all have winning records both in conference and overall, and all three have allowed fewer points this season. If the Mustangs win all three, that might be enough to climb into college football's ten and earn a trip to Arlington.