SMU returns to a venue Friday that has haunted it the past two decades. No other stadium and its host opponent has been as troublesome for the Mustangs in recent years than Rice Stadium, the site of Friday's season-opener.
Rice holds a 9-game win streak over SMU in its home stadium. The Mustangs' last win there was a 45-3 runaway to open the 1986 season. Some of SMU's losses there have been close, including the last one, a torturous 31-27 Rice win to close the 2006 regular season and send it to its first bowl game in 45 years instead of SMU, which was held out of the end zone twice on first-and-goal opportunities.
Most of SMU's losses there during the streak have been blowouts. For an SMU program that has earned road wins at C-USA division mates Tulsa, Houston, UTEP and Tulane in the past seven seasons, why has Rice Stadium been such a large hurdle for the Mustangs to clear?
"If there's a reason why we haven't been able to win at Rice, I don't know it," said Jessie Henderson, a fifth-year senior who will visit Rice Stadium for a third time as a player Friday.
Surely a generation of SMU fans will forgive the previous nine losses in Houston with a win Friday to kick-start the June Jones coaching era. The fact that a national television audience will watch on ESPN sweetens the pot, as does having the winner become an early leader in the Conference USA race.
"It's a great way to start off, with a rivalry game, a trophy game," said fifth-year senior left tackle Tommy Poynter. "It's going to be a great test and a great atmosphere. Playing it on national television is an experience very few players get to have."
Senior running back DeMyron Martin sat in the stands as a redshirt freshman at the 2004 game, a 44-10 Rice win.
"I just remember them running all up and down on us," Martin said, one of a handful of fifth-year seniors to see the last two SMU games at Rice.
Rice rushed for 496 yards and four touchdowns in that game, a chunk of it (138 yards) gained by reserve quarterback Joel Armstrong, who made his first start under center. SMU trailed 28-3 at the half and ran only eight plays in the third quarter.
"It was ugly to watch," Martin said.
SMU, which leads the overall series 45-39-1, had its longest win streak of the series at 10 games from 1977-1986. But after a two-year hiatus not playing football, the Mustangs then lost eight straight to the Owls from 1989-1996.
Rice's current 9-game win streak at Rice Stadium has given it a 14-13-1 edge in games there.
Mistakes and poor starts have keyed most of the Mustangs' losses. In 2002, the teams were tied 3-3 in the third quarter before Rice blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Each of SMU's four turnovers that day turned into Rice touchdowns in a 27-15 loss.
SMU has had a halftime lead only once during the 9-game losing streak at Rice Stadium, and it had to get 24 second-quarter points in the 2006 game to do that, erasing Rice's 17-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The losing streak on the road grabs attention, but SMU has lost plenty to Rice at home, too. Mistakes cost SMU last year at Ford Stadium, as Rice returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the first half. Rice kicker Clark Fangmeier hit a 31-yard field goal as time expired for a 43-42 Rice win, completing a 15-point fourth quarter comeback.
But it's the road losses in the series that continue to confound SMU supporters.
In 2000, it was another poor SMU start. Rice scored touchdowns on four of its first six possessions and rolled, 43-14.
In 1998, more mistakes. SMU kicker Roy Rios missed a 33-yard field goal with 18 seconds left, and Rice won in overtime, 23-17.
In 1996, Rice held the ball for 38:07 and racked up 440 rushing yards in a 35-17 win.
In 1994, it was another short-yardage failure for SMU, as running back Jacques Smith was stopped on the 1-yard line on the final play of Rice's 17-10 win. The loss ruined SMU quarterback Ramon Flanigan's then-career-highs for completions (24) and total yards (376).
In 1992, it was turnovers again. With SMU missing five starters due to NCAA-mandated suspensions, the Mustangs turned the ball over twice inside Rice's 15-yard line. Rice running back Trevor Cobb ran for 210 or the Owls' 322 rushing yards.
In 1990, SMU quarterback Mike Romo threw for 300 yards and set an NCAA record with 21 completions in the fourth quarter, but couldn't rally SMU in a 30-28 loss. Rice's Donald Hollas, usually an option quarterback, threw for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones has turned around the mentality of SMU's players, but you can argue the Rice Stadium hex affects him, too. Jones was only 1-2 as Hawaii's head coach playing in Rice Stadium, and 2-4 overall against the Owls. He sees streaks such as this as aberrations, adding that a team's top performance in every game will usually take care of ending them.
"If you pay attention to detail and do what you're supposed to do, you break down some of those walls," Jones said.
"I know this – we better be prepared to play," Henderson said. "They're a good team, it's on TV, and it's on the road, where we haven't done well. We have to come out and bring it, or we're talking about this losing streak again in two years."