As we cap off this college football season and begin looking on to the next one, several teams have us turning our heads with the potential they have following them. When imagining examples of such teams, current contenders and “household names” likely come to mind first, and that’s fair.
But, there’s just one squad I’d like to make a point of putting in the pot that, while meeting neither of those descriptions, manages to remain equally intriguing with all it’s riding into 2024 on, and that’s the SMU Mustangs.
Set to join the ACC next year, SMU sits amongst several schools entering a new era after getting swept up by the latest wave of conference realignment, and when sharing that spotlight with names like Oklahoma, Texas, USC, Oregon and so on, it’s easy to get overlooked. Also, as a Group of 5 program jumping up to a whole new level of competition, many may write it off as being doomed to suffer a fate similar to recent arrivals Cincinnati or Houston.
However, I have been one of SMU’s biggest believers as of late, even more so than I was in any of those other once-AAC powers, and that is because the Mustangs exhibited something this season that I never saw from the Bearcats, Cougars, or even the UCF Knights (who are fixing to play the Gasparilla Bowl) in 2022: Consistent dominance in league play.
While none of the Big 12 newbies finished last year’s regular-season conference slate with more than two wins by 3+ possessions, SMU finished this year’s with six. It was that unquestionable superiority that had me convinced the 2023 Mustangs were simply too good for the American, and as a result, now was about as good of a time to climb the ladder as they were ever going to get.
In the midst of that declaration, I felt it was important to clarify that being too good for a GO5 league doesn’t necessarily equate to being ready for a Power 5 league, and that SMU’s recent success only amounts to so much when gauging its ability to adapt to such a drastic change—but that was before its bowl game was revealed.
On Dec. 28, the Mustangs will head into the Fenway Bowl to face the Boston College Eagles, which provides them a chance to strut into Atlantic Coast action sooner than we anticipated, and to be honest, I can think of no better team to get said chance against.
Boston College is the perfect squad to face if you’re SMU
Think about it: Boston College is entering Fenway Park (a venue that is certainly more accommodating to its fanbase than SMU’s) with a 6-6 record. Even with a non-winning tally practically stamping the word “beatable” on the BC logo, the Eagles can assert that, due to a couple of wins over fellow ACC bowl teams and a close loss to unbeaten Florida State, they were far from the least-competitive bunch in the conference.
With that said, they appear to provide the best of both worlds to the Mustangs, as they serve as an adequate representation of a tricky Atlantic Coast team in a tricky environment, while also looking weak enough for the spread to have SMU by 11 (as of Dec. 20).
If SMU were to meet the spread’s expectations and win by a double-digit margin, it would prove what I was too skeptical to say before—the Mustangs, at least as they sit today, are ready for the ACC.
Now no, just because you beat a hardly bowl-eligible team in one game doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to go to town on its entire conference a full offseason later. It does, however, show that the potential to see a smoother transition to the Power 5 is very much alive, and that’s more than one could say about a multitude of schools that were previously in similar situations.
And if that isn’t enough to win you over on the matter, let me stress that this potential doesn’t stem solely from SMU looking good; what really throws the gas on the fire is their 2024 slate looking bad.
As I’ve addressed before, the 2024 Mustangs have an Atlantic Coast lineup that is manageable to say the least, with half of it being made up of teams that will enter the year coming off losing records. It also includes the aforementioned Boston College, which could join that list if it falls to SMU next week.
So here’s the rundown: The SMU Mustangs already looked prepared (relatively speaking) for what is a weaker Power 5 conference in the ACC, but if they can beat a bowl team from it by a convincing margin, it’ll only help confirm the preparation, and that especially means something when considering their 2024 league play.
Again, does all of that promise success? No, but it makes an acceptable standard appear all the more attainable, and in all the less time. That should nonetheless have SMU fans grinning ear-to-ear as their Mustangs move on to the next chapter of their football story.