SMU football has a lot in common with the famous Stealers Wheels song "Stuck in the Middle with You." They've got Horns and Aggies to the south of them, Sooners and Cowboys to the north. And not to knock on those Baylor Bears, but "they started out with nothing and now proud they've got a self-made man."
SMU seems to be stuck in the middle of Big 12 country and there is nothing they can do about it. Gone are the glory days of the 80's Southwest Conference which included SMU, Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, and Rice. When the conference disbanded in the mid 90's, the Big 12 officially took shape, leaving behind SMU and setting up a power conference that now rivals the SEC for the best in the nation.
When the Big 12 added Texas, A&M, Tech, and Baylor the revenue became greater, the recruiting more in-depth and the rivalries more intense. As for SMU, they were thrust into the hands of the WAC and then eventually Conference USA. With the changes in the past two decades and with the emergence of the powerhouse Big 12 conference, the big question is, "how does the Big 12 impact SMU's recruiting efforts?"
Recruiting is the element that fuels college football. For fans, it gives them the chance to be more than one-dimensional. Recruiting is what drives the average fan to go out on a Friday night to watch the local high school football game. Is my team's next quarterback at a public high school in Dallas? Does that four-star commit really run a 4.4 forty? Better go check it out. When it comes to recruiting, college coaches and high school players find that the draw of the conference can sometimes be the difference maker between contending for a national championship and simply going to the Ft. Worth Armed Forces Bowl.
For a school like SMU, it certainly isn't easy to compete for recruits with the big boys like Texas and Oklahoma. While some will point to the overall records of the three schools, you have to wonder that if SMU were in the Big 12 would they have more success with recruiting. I would say yes. Take for example TCU, a top 25 team at the end of last season. Where did they finish in recruiting rankings for the class of 2009? Number fifty-four. How many Big 12 teams finished ahead of TCU in recruiting rankings? Nine. What's even more revealing is that only two teams, Oklahoma and Texas, finished ahead of TCU in the final AP rankings.
In addition to the recruiting rankings for the Big 12, strength of schedule plays a big role as well. Most top prospects want to go to schools where they will face tough and exciting competition. While SMU has made significant efforts to schedule tougher opponents (Missouri fizzled, but the A&M series is still intact), the weekly intensity of the Big 12 is unparalleled to that of Conference USA. When "College Game Day" spends what seems like every week at a Big 12 campus, generating buzz at smaller schools and getting recruits excited is a little more difficult for teams like SMU. With the way the Big 12 is stacked in terms of talented teams, there is a reason why hoards of recruits seem to flock to the Big 12. With the ability to pull in top recruits and the excitement on a weekly basis, it would have to seem that the Big 12 has the upper hand over conferences such as the Mountain West and Conference USA.
With that being said however, SMU can compete (and often outperform) with Big 12 schools in their academic prestige, athletic facilities, coaching staff, and location. The good news for SMU is that conference prestige isn't the only selling point when it comes to enticing recruits. Getting a degree from one of the top 50 schools in the country is a major strong point for SMU. Not many Big 12 schools can boast as strong of an academic reputation like SMU does and because of this, the Mustangs are able to pull top recruits away from Big 12 schools and other conferences like the SEC and Mountain West. In addition to a strong academic reputation, the coaching staff rivals that of Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech in experience and prestige. The more in-depth that recruits analyze a university the more variables that come into play.
SMU may be stuck in the middle of Big 12 country, but June Jones and his supporters won't let that slow down their recruiting and winning efforts. When asked about how being in Dallas with the Big 12 influence compared to Hawaii and being the only game in town, Jones stated "I haven't done anything differently. I think that marketing what we do, when you win, to me, they'll come. At the same time, we've got an opportunity to be the only game in town too. With the style of ball we play and the way we do it, the beauty of our stadium and campus, we've got a lot to offer." It's an exciting time to be a Mustang fan, and it's only a matter of time before SMU is a top 25 program, regardless of the conference.