Part of Mid-Major Week.
In each of his first three seasons, SMU coach June Jones set attainable goals for his team.
The first year was a feeling out period as Jones and his staff got to know the players and the players got to know them. Consequently, some of those players didn't make it to Jones' second year.
By Year 2, Jones told his team that if it won six games there was no way the Hawaii Bowl would turn them away with Jones' connections on the island from being the coach at Hawaii prior to coming to SMU. The Mustangs defeated Nevada in Hawaii Bowl 45-10.
Last year, Jones challenged his team to win Conference USA West and play in the championship. After all, they almost won the division title year before. The Mustangs got there, but couldn't topple favorite UCF.
"We still are not quite where you need to be to win that type of game," Jones said. "Hopefully, we will be this year. Our goal was to get to that championship game, just like the goal the year before was to get to a bowl game. Last year, we said we wanted to get to the conference championship game, which we did, and now you've got to get there and you've got to win it.
"Even though our record, 7-7, wasn't as good as the record the year before, I feel like we were a better football team. I feel like we just have to instill a lot of learning how to win in those types of games. I thought that we played and improved in a lot of areas, we just didn't make enough big plays to be as good as we could be."
Getting SMU to a place where it is a legitimate power in Conference USA has been an uphill battle for Jones and his staff. When he came to SMU, the program had not had a winning season since 1997 and hadn't been to a bowl game since 1984. There was a culture of losing at SMU and subsequently, the players had to be taught they could achieve something better for themselves.
Jones had performed a similar transition at Hawaii. When he arrived there, the Warriors were coming off an 0-12 season. In Jones' first year, Hawaii went 9-4. And while the Warriors took a brief step back the following year, Hawaii went on to have seven winning seasons during Jones' nine-year tenure, including an undefeated regular season in 2007 and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
For the first time since taking over at SMU, Jones has experience and depth at key positions. He said the strength of his team was the defensive front seven and the offensive line. He also has the benefit of returning running back Zach Line, who came out of nowhere a year ago to rush for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns, which was second in school history to Eric Dickerson. Line also has become a failsafe for quarterback Kyle Padron, who, despite throwing for a school record 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns, is still learning to be a starting quarterback.
"I did give Zach the ball a little bit more because Kyle's really only played a year and a half of football," Jones said. "He didn't play but four games in high school and a year and a half for me. So, he's just kind of coming into his own. So, it made it a whole lot easier, definitely, to take a little bit of the load off from him."
When Jones took the job in 2008, he laid out a five-year plan. And while that plan didn't necessarily include a BCS bowl trip at the end of the rainbow, the Mustangs have hit some key markers that make the future look pretty bright.
"I think because we went to the bowl in the second year, that kind of accelerated everything," Jones said. "Just from a management standpoint, I think we're on schedule. I think this year or next year, we're going to take a big step. Hopefully, it's this year."