The following is from the Aug. 15, 2007, edition of USA Today

C-USA preview: A long road back for SMU

By Eddie Timanus

Read more about SMU football.

History can be a double-edged sword. Consider SMU, famous for developing stars such as Eric Dickerson and Craig James but also infamous for being the only major college football program to have an entire season canceled because of NCAA rules violations.

Now with quarterback Justin Willis back this season to direct what could be Conference USA's most explosive offense, the Mustangs might finally be on the verge of restoring some of that winning tradition and overcoming the less savory aspects of its past.

"When I took this job I knew it was going to be a challenge," says Phil Bennett, in his sixth year as SMU coach.

That challenge, Bennett says, stemmed from the combination of the death-penalty seasons in 1986-87 and the demise of the Southwest Conference a decade later.

"We lost our identity," he says. "Those two things really set us back. Our affiliation with Conference USA now is getting us back on our feet. We're right on the cusp of having the kind of team we'd be proud to say, 'That's who we are.' "

SMU last season was agonizingly close to reaching its first bowl game since 1984. How close? Four points and less than four minutes. A 31-27 loss to Rice in the season finale in a game SMU led late put the Owls in the New Orleans Bowl and kept the Mustangs home for the holidays yet again. But SMU's 6-6 finish was its first non-losing mark since 1997.

Bennett says reaching a bowl isn't the be-all and end-all for the 2007 campaign, but he admits, "There's no question it's the next step, and it's a step we've got to take. We had our fate in our hands last November, and we were disappointed in how we finished, but sometimes you learn your greatest lessons in your toughest defeats."

Willis, a redshirt sophomore from Denton, Texas, who last year threw a school-record 26 TD passes to only six interceptions and hit 67.4% of his passes, is ready to take those lessons to heart.

"We've got a little bit of anxiety and a little bit of excitement, just because we know how close we were last year," Willis says. "We had a bunch of young players in their first year, including me, and we were all here all summer working hard, trying to get better. I think we're going to overcome that this year and be a stronger team."

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