An NCAA-mandated death penalty that shuttered the program for two seasons left scars that have taken years to heal as SMU has returned from college football's abyss.
Even after an appearance in last season's Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, home attendance has been spotty, as the Mustangs have opened with a 2-1 record. Ford Stadium was barely half-full for SMU's victory over Washington State last week.
But Friday's nationally televised game against No. 4 TCU could serve as a national coming-out party for the program in the Mustangs' biggest home game since the death penalty. A large crowd is expected, as the Mustangs will square off against their traditional rivals from across the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
The Horned Frogs are the highest-rated team ever to visit Ford Stadium, the highest-ranked team SMU has hosted since No. 2 Texas in 1983 and the highest-ranked team the Mustangs have faced since meeting No. 1 Notre Dame in 1989.
Jones said he's not concerned about extra pressure on his team before the big game -- even with the ramifications of such a big game approaching.
"I don't worry about that," Jones said. "We're on track of where we want to be. When I came here, I knew it was a five-year plan to turn things around, and we're on course to improve every year. That's all I want to do."
That may be true. But Jones also realizes what a stimulus a strong performance could provide for his program with an impressive performance against the Horned Frogs Friday night.
"You don't get a chance to be on national television very often," Jones said. "We're lucky to be in this situation. But we have to remember we're only a year and a half from being at the depths of where we were when we got here."
Beating the Horned Frogs in the battle for the Iron Skillet will be a chore. The Mustangs have been successful in similar situations, notching a 21-10 victory over them in 2005 after TCU started the season with an upset victory at Oklahoma. That game represents SMU's only victory over a ranked opponent since 1996.
The SMU program is showing some tangible signs of growth, even if Jones claims it is still taking baby steps to where he hopes it eventually will be. The defense's front seven has looked strong early in the season. TCU coach Gary Patterson said that the Mustangs' defense and running game will be the strongest his team will have faced so far this season.
Jones' program has always been built on a high-powered run-and-shoot passing game. The fact that opponents are now praising his team's toughness in the trenches might be a sign the program is growing into a team that could contend for bowl appearances and even conference championships on a regular basis.
Conference USA's West Division has never looked more wide open after season-ending injuries to Houston quarterback Case Keenum and his backup, Cotton Turner, last week. The Mustangs' emerging strength, along with the passing of Kyle Padron, could boost them into the role of a potential favorite with the injuries affecting the divisional race.
But Jones is more concerned about the Horned Frogs, who he thinks are better than last season's BCS team.
"Our kids have played hard, and they've bought into what we are selling them," Jones said. "I think they'll seize the opportunity and be ready for this."
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