At the beginning of the season, SMU set a bunch of goals, but the one that stood above all the rest, was winning the conference championship. Last year the Mustangs won the West Division of Conference USA, but lost the title game to Central Florida.
Despite that season opening loss to Texas A&M, the Mustangs were exceeding many expectations by beating a ranked TCU team and then avenging last year's championship loss by dominating UCF a game later.
But then a two-game conference road trip loomed. That was the next test for this team.
Game 1 last week against Southern Miss was one of the worst offensive performances SMU has given this season. The offensive line was called for false starts for what seemed like almost every series, and SMU couldn't convert on third downs or in the red zone. They couldn't even score a touchdown and lost 27-3.
Today marks a new slate. Game 2 of the tough road stretch. If SMU beats Tulsa, and the Mustangs are 5-3 at Chapman Stadium, they are still on pace to put themselves in position to achieving their No. 1 goal of winning the conference.
"The guys are pretty focused," coach June Jones said this week. "They know the importance of this game. We come home for two games after this, so we have to rally up and sneak out of [Tulsa] with a win. That would be really positive."
The offensive line must do a better job of protecting quarterback J.J. McDermott, who only completed half of his passes at Southern Miss, was intercepted twice and was sacked once.
And like every game, SMU needs to be better in the giveaway-takeaway. Last week the defense forced two turnovers, but the offense gave two back on McDermott's interceptions, one of which was in the end zone.
Another key to the game is containing veteran Tulsa quarterback, G.J. Kinne, who has lead his offense to rank second in the conference in rushing, averaging 183.7 yards per game.
Tulsa's running game consists mainly of Ja'Terian Douglas, who ranks fourth in the league with 69.14 ypg, Trey Watts, Willie Carter and Kinne.
Carter is the Hurricanes' biggest threat, as they use him all over the field at running back, slot receiver and H-back.
"Their backs are pretty quick and they're gonna try to bounce the ball by going up the middle then bouncing outside, so we gotta contain them," said linebacker Kevin Pope, who will get his first career start in place of a suspended Taylor Reed.
SMU's defense needs to force Kinne to throw the ball, as Tulsa has a middle-tiered passing game.
"[Kinne] can throw on the run and he makes a lot of passes moving out of the pocket and he's a really good athlete," Pope said. "We just really want to make him sit in the pocket and pass.
"We need to figure out the routes and match them."
SMU has beaten Tulsa two years in a row and according to Jones, they haven't changed their schemes much so the Mustangs know what to expect.
"Their offense is the same and their defense is the same," Jones said. "Against us, they bring everything but the house."
After losing three out of their first four games this season (to top 10 teams of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State), Tulsa has gotten into a groove and are coming into today on a three-game winning streak, having gotten the best of North Texas, UAB and Rice the last few weeks.
It's also Tulsa's Homecoming weekend, so they'll be extra fired up.
But Chapman Stadium won't be nearly as loud as Southern Miss was, and SMU has a lot at stake. If the Mustangs can pull off a win, they're back in the mix in terms of cracking the Top 25 and staying competitive for that conference championship berth.
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