SMU football was a program on the rise, although they were also running afoul of the NCAA in the process. Ron Meyer coached the Mustangs to a 10-1 record in 1981 and the championship of the old Southwest Conference. But probation denied SMU the Cotton Bowl bid that came with the league title. Meyer departed to coach the New England Patriots and Bobby Collins took over. The 1982 SMU football team got that Cotton Bowl bid and nearly won the program’s first national championship since 1950.
The ’82 backfield lives on in college football lore as “The Pony Express”, and the greatness of Eric Dickerson and Craig James was real and not myth. Dickerson rolled up over 1,600 yards on the ground, averaged seven yards a pop, scored 17 touchdowns and made first-team All-American, joining Georgia’s Heisman Trophy-winning Herschel Walker.
James ran for 938 yards, a figure that makes him the leading rusher at most schools, even with only getting the carries of a #2 back. He finished third in the SWC in rushing. Lance McIlhenny was the quarterback and certainly wasn’t required to throw very much, but he was efficient—only three interceptions all year-and he made some big plays when his team desperately needed them.
SMU opened the season ranked #6 and rolled through four non-conference games against Tulane, UTEP, TCU and North Texas. The TCU game was the only that was competitive. But the non-descript competition kept the Mustangs at sixth in the polls.
A victory over a subpar Baylor team opened SWC play and nudged SMU into the top five. The Mustangs escaped mediocre Houston 20-14 and stayed undefeated as they got set to go to Texas. The Longhorns were ranked #19 and had a good running back of their own in Darryl Clark, who finished second in the conference in rushing.
SMU was actually outrushed in this game, 206-183 and the game was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter. McIlhenny then stepped up with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Leach, then added a 33-yard touchdown pass. The Mustangs pulled away to a 30-17 win and were now ranked #4.
When they blasted Texas A&M 47-9, SMU vaulted to #2 as the calendar flipped to November. The Mustangs trailed only #1 Pitt in the polls, but with the Panthers not tied to any bowl, the Cotton Bowl would be free to create a 1 vs 2 battle in Dallas.
SMU held up their end of the bargain with a 41-14 blowout of Rice, but a Pitt loss to Notre Dame resulted in Georgia jumping up to #1. Even though SMU was now #2, they no longer controlled their own fate, since Georgia was tied to the Sugar Bowl.
What the Mustangs could control was winning the SWC again and this time getting the Cotton Bowl bid. They beat lowly Texas Tech 34-27 to get to 10-0 and set the stage for the last game of the year against Arkansas.
The Razorbacks, coached by Lou Holtz, were ranked ninth and had just one loss in league play. Arkansas could take control of the conference race—they would still need to beat Texas two weeks later, but SMU needed to win or tie its finale to lock up the Cotton Bowl spot without any doubts.
The game was played in Texas Stadium, then the home of the Dallas Cowboys and it was a great battle. Arkansas took an early 7-0 lead and was driving for more when SMU defensive end Russell Carter blocked a field goal. McIlhenny later converted a 3rd-and-17 with his feet and it set up Dickerson’s tying touchdown run.
After trading field goals, Arkansas took a 17-10 lead and there were just six minutes left in the game. McIlhenny completed a 3rd-and-8 pass to keep the drive going and then a controversial pass interference penalty put the Mustangs on the doorstep. They scored and Collins opted to kick the extra point and at least ensure a tie.
SMU still got a crack at the win, with a 52-yard-field goal. But that came up short. The national title hopes were gone, but the Mustangs were still undefeated, at 10-0-1, and most important, they were going to the Cotton Bowl.
Pitt was still waiting in Dallas, although the game was a what-might-have-been for both the teams and the Cotton Bowl itself. That night’s Sugar Bowl between Georgia and Penn State would settle the national title. This was “only” a really big football game between two really good teams.
The Cotton Bowl was played in a cold rain and the SMU defense slowed Marino to a halt. Pitt got only a field goal, their lowest point total since 1975. But the Panthers still led 3-0, as the slick artificial turf made it very difficult for Dickerson or James to get any footing.
McIlhenny stepped up with two big completions to Leach, one where Leach had to maneuver around an official to get in position for the catch. SMU took a 7-3 lead. They preserved the lead when Blaine Smith intercepted a Marino pass in the end zone, a ball that first bounced off the hands of a Mustang teammate. The 7-3 final held up.
When Penn State beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, SMU was the only undefeated team left in the country. But the lack of a quality non-conference schedule and the fact that undefeated did not mean perfect, with the tie against Arkansas, prevented a groundswell for the Mustangs. They finished #2 in the final poll.
One thing the program couldn’t do was stop getting into trouble with the NCAA. Later in the decade football was suffered a two-year ban, the first-ever imposition of the “death penalty”. 1982 remains SMU’s best season since 1950.