The states of Hawaii and Texas are separated by some 3,700 miles, but SMU coach June Jones feels right at home in the Lone Star State.
The former Hawaii coach returns to the islands with his team for the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24, and it's the similar spirit of the two places that he noticed the most.
"The people here are really hospitable and want to help you," Jones said of Dallas residents. "In Hawaii, it's aloha spirit, but the personalities of the cultures are very similar. The people of Hawaii are very excited, and so are we."
The matchup with Western Athletic Conference runner-up Nevada is SMU's first bowl game in 25 years.
Nevada (8-4) and SMU (7-5) have met five times previously, with each of the games taking place earlier this decade when SMU was a member of the WAC. The Wolf Pack leads the all-time series between the teams, 3-2.
"We're excited to play Nevada," Jones said. "Having played Nevada many times while I was at Hawaii, I have a great deal of respect for Coach (Chris) Ault and his program. Their rushing attack will pose a stiff challenge, but we're really looking forward to the game."
The Mustangs will have their hands full with a Nevada attack that leads the nation in rushing. The Wolf Pack is the first team in NCAA history to have three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
Jones returns to Hawaii, where he rebuilt the Warriors' program in much the same way he has gone about resurrecting the SMU program, which went 1-11 last year in Jones' first season.
"I knew it would happen, I just didn't know when," Jones said. "I thought we would win four or five (games) last year. The spirit of the locker room wasn't ready for that, and it is now. That's why we won seven this year."
--Perhaps no player in this year's Hawaii Bowl can appreciate the end of the rainbow as much as SMU's Emmanuel Sanders.
"My four years here have been like a roller coaster, up and down, and I'm leaving now at the peak of it," said Sanders, who holds nearly every receiving mark in the Mustangs' record book.
And to think, the senior wide receiver almost never got to experience a bowl game. Sanders admitted he was "eight hours" close to declaring for the NFL Draft last spring.
"Every since I stepped foot on this campus I've been working extremely hard and it's gratifying that all that hard work is paying off with a nice little vacation over to Honolulu," Sanders said.
Sanders is among the top story lines for SMU heading into its first bowl game in 25 years. The other big one is the return of June Jones to the islands, where he turned around the University of Hawaii's program. Jones left after leading the Warriors to a Bowl Championship Series game at the end of the 2007 season before leaving for SMU.
"This bowl has special meaning for me personally, as eight years ago, I was part of the original vision ESPN and Sheraton had for Hawaii and the nation," said Jones, whose team will play Nevada. "It is exciting to be a part of one of the best bowl experiences in college football."
The Mustangs (7-5) come into the game having won four of five games. If not for a late-season, four-point loss at Marshall, the Ponies would have played in the Conference USA championship game.
The biggest problem for Sanders now is timing.
"The best thing about it is I'm about to get my degree (sociology), and no one can ever take that from me," he said. "I'm graduating on December 19th and we're leaving that day."
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Behind QB Kyle Padron, SMU has been more consistent. The Mustangs have scored at least 26 points in his five starts. SMU is 28th nationally in passing at 267.2 yards per game, but the biggest improvement has come in the ground game. SMU has run for 96 yards or more in each of the past four games. Also, ball control has helped the Mustangs win the time-of-possession battle, keeping their thin defense on the sideline.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: SMU has had problems all year against the run. The Mustangs are allowing 169.2 yards per game (to rank 88th nationally), and are allowing 29.1 points per game (90th). That will be a problem against Nevada, which leads the nation in rushing yardage at 362.3 yards per game. SMU must ratchet up the intensity and physical nature of its defensive front and linebackers to contain the Wolf Pack's ground attack. Nevada ranks fifth in scoring at just over 40 points per game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: SMU LB Chase Kennemer vs. Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick -- Kennemer and the Mustangs will have their hands full with the double-threat quarterback. Kaepernick averages 252.9 yards per game (30th nationally), and was one of three 1,000-yard rushers for Nevada. Kennemer has 126 tackles for the season, and his average of 10.5 tackles per game ranks second in C-USA and 13th nationally. He is also tied for eighth in the league in tackles for loss with 11.
OTHER KEY MATCHUPS: SMU LT Kelvin Beachum vs. Nevada DE Dontay Moch -- Beachum has become a fixture at left tackle. The sophomore has started all 24 games of his collegiate career protecting Kyle Padron's blind side. But he will have his hands full with Moch, who was the Defensive Player of the Year in the WAC. Beachum leads the WAC and is eighth in the nation with 19.5 tackles for loss. He totaled 6.5 sacks on the year in anchoring a defense that led the conference in rushing defense and was third in total defense.
SMU WR Emmanuel Sanders vs. Nevada DB Khalid Wooten -- Sanders has 91 receptions for 1,215 yards -- both SMU single-season records. He is the school's all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdown receptions. Wooten is one of the fastest defensive backs for the Wolf Pack, and he will be charged with keeping Sanders in front of him. Sanders' running ability after the catch is what sets him apart, but he can get behind the secondary in a split second.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We set this bowl as a goal before the season started, and I am so happy that our players will be able to have this experience." -- SMU coach June Jones.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: SMU vs. Nevada, Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24, Honolulu -- The Mustangs are making their 11th bowl appearance, and first since 1984's Aloha Bowl -- also at Honolulu's Aloha Stadium. SMU, which is 4-5-1 in its limited bowl history, won that game 27-20 over Notre Dame. The Mustangs have met their Hawaii Bowl opponent, old WAC foe Nevada, five times. Nevada holds a 3-2 advantage in the series, with SMU winning the last meeting, 38-20, in 2004.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Kyle Padron -- When QB Bo Levi Mitchell went down with a shoulder injury against Houston, the freshman stepped up and won three games in a row as the new starter. In five games -- four wins -- Padron was 103-for-160 for 1,462 yards with eight touchdowns against four interceptions. He has gotten better each week at learning the intricacies of coach June Jones' spread offense, including timing and when to get rid of the football.
WR Emmanuel Sanders -- Sanders set the SMU single-season receiving yards record with 1,215. He passed the mark of 1,131 yards set by Jerry LeVias in 1968 on a 75-yard reception in the second quarter of the regular-season finale against Tulane.
RB Shawnbrey McNeal -- The transfer from Miami (Fla.) ran for 1,125 yards this season. He is the first 1,000-yard rusher for SMU since Keylon Kincade had 1,280 in 2003, and is the first 1,000-yard rusher for June Jones as a collegiate head coach. McNeal and Sanders give the Mustangs a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher for just the second time in school history.
--C Mitch Enright has been named a second-team ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American. Enright is pursuing his MBA in marketing and strategic leadership after graduating in just three years. The three-year starter was a semifinalist for the 2009 Campbell Trophy (aka the "academic Heisman"). He was also named to the Conference USA All-Academic team.
--LB Chase Kennemer was named to the C-USA All-Academic team.
--CB J.R. McConico made his first start at a position devastated by injuries. The Mustangs had worked Sanders at corner as an emergency backup.