Tulsa stands between SMU and a bowl bid

SMU’s challenge Saturday is simple and straightforward: Beat Tulsa, the best team in C-USA, and the Mustangs will go to a bowl game.

Simple does not mean easy, especially in this case.

Tulsa, 7-0 in conference play, has clinched the C-USA West title and knocked off C-USA West leader UCF, 23-21, last week.

SMU, 5-6 overall and 4-3 in conference, has to find a way to do something no other C-USA has done this season to become bowl eligible. A win would give the Mustangs a school-record four straight bowl appearances.

For the 20 seniors who helped resurrect SMU’s program, going out with a win seems almost as important as going to a bowl.

“This group of seniors has set a new standard for our program,” SMU coach June Jones said. “They’ve been to three straight bowl games and this weekend’s game will show a lot about what we have inside us as a team.”

SMU could have clinched a bowl berth last week but lost, 36-14, at Rice, where the Mustangs rarely have success.

The flip side is true in Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 11 a.m. and is televised by FX. SMU is 14-1 in C-USA games at Ford Stadium since the start of the 2009 season.

There’s even more history on SMU’s side going into this game.

“SMU was the site of our last conference (road) loss,” Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. “SMU has not been an easy place for us to play. Our seniors know the history of that.

“The fun part is, I want for these players to get the opportunity to do something no one else has done – run the table (in C-USA play). If you can run the table and then win the conference championship, that’s not been done before.”

There goes any hope SMU fans might have had of catching Tulsa with nothing to play for. The Golden Hurricane, 9-2 overall, can clinch a 10-win season with a win and keep alive the possibility for a 12-win season heading into the C-USA championship game and a bowl.

Tulsa can also match the best 21-game conference record in C-USA history with a win. The Golden Hurricane would be 20-1, matching Southern Miss’ mark from 1998-2000.

“It’s another piece of what I’m going to tell our team,” Blankenship said. “I’m looking for all kinds of reasons to keep us going this week. I do think it matters to players and coaches, to do something that other people haven’t done. That’s always great motivation.”

SMU should need no other motivation than going to a bowl game. To do that, the Mustangs will have to overcome a Tulsa defense that ranks second in C-USA in both overall and scoring defense.

The Golden Hurricane also lead C-USA in rushing defense, allowing 113.5 yards per game. That sets up a showdown with SMU running back Zach Line, C-USA’s leading rusher with 102.4 yards per game.

“They have a great defensive scheme,” SMU’s Jones said. “They have a great front four and their zone blitzes are tough. They know what they’re doing and they’re good at executing it.”

Execution will also be critical for an SMU team coming off a disappointing performance at Rice. Jones said Tulsa looks like the best team C-USA has had since he’s been at SMU.

“We have to play our best game to win on Saturday,” Jones said, “and we have to do it for each other.”

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire