More than a few football coaches would sell their souls to be wearing the headphones for the Mustangs. To 48-year-old Coach Bobby Collins the team came as sort of a gift. Ron Meyer, who won the Southwest Conference championship last year with virtually the same team that Collins now commands, moved on to the New England Patriots, and along came Collins, fresh from a smash run at Southern Mississippi. It isn't very often that a coach gets to break into the big league with a veteran team off a 10-1 season. Collins is smart enough, however, to learn from his vets. "Just about every player we have knows more about the SWC than I do," he says. "I'll make a few suggestions, for what they might be worth, and then let the players decide."
Of course, Collins wasn't brought to Dallas for his libertarianism. He was a quarterback at Mississippi State in the mid-'50s under a fellow named Darrell Royal, who later had something to do with shaping the SWC's present image. In his first crack at being a head coach, Collins built up Southern Mississippi's program from something of a powder puff to a powerhouse in six years. Over the last two, the Golden Eagles went 18-5-1 and appeared in two bowl games.
At SMU the building can wait. All Collins has to do is get his team to the games on time. Consider that the backfield, which ranked fourth in the nation in rushing, returns intact, including the two tailbacks who made NCAA history. Eric Dickerson and Craig James, otherwise known as the Pony Express, function like interchangeable engines for the same chassis. In 1981 Dickerson and James became only the fifth pair of teammates in NCAA history to average 100 yards or more each per game rushing over an entire season. Dickerson cracked 100 yards 10 times last year, finishing with 1,428 yards and 19 touchdowns, and should end up in every All-America backfield this year with Herschel Walker. Dickerson's rushing total was the second-best in SWC history, after Earl Campbell's 1,744 for Texas in 1977. James ran for 1,147 yards and nine touchdowns and also took over the punting duties midway through the season.
If Collins uses the two the way Meyer did, they will start games alternately, then alternate at tailback on every offensive series. Junior Quarterback Lance McIlhenny's responsibility mainly has been to get James or Dickerson the football on the option—and he has performed that job splendidly. But the son of ex-Packer, -49er and -Cowboy Don McIlhenny can also pass when the situation warrants: He threw for seven TDs in 1981.
Elsewhere, the offense is solid—and two-deep—with veterans at split end, tight end and fullback. There are holes to be filled at center and at one tackle, but the likely starters are bigger and stronger than the men they replace. Tackle Brian O'Meara is a senior who goes 6'7", 247 pounds, and Center Chris Jackson is 6'3", 240.
The defense, which led the nation in interceptions and allowed opponents a mere 12.5 points per game, is just as robust. Its immovable anchor is 6'2", 275-pound Middle Guard Michael Carter. Three years ago Carter chagrined America's track and field enthusiasts by accepting a football scholarship to SMU. As a result, he has only had time to dabble in putting the shot; nevertheless, he twice has won both the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships. Unfortunately, injuries—last year, torn right knee ligaments—have kept Carter from fulfilling his football promise. He worked hard over the summer to strengthen the knee, and Collins is convinced that if Carter remains healthy, he'll end up a first-round NFL draft choice. Another Carter, Cornerback Russell, hauled down seven of the Mustangs' interceptions last year and is also SMU's record holder in the indoor 400-meter dash, 47.77. Strong Safety Wes Hopkins, who had five interceptions (four of them in the Houston game), and all-SWC Linebacker Gary Moten, SMU's leading tackier, are also back. Only at left end will the Mustangs be forced to go with an inexperienced player. In fact, the greatest loss SMU faces—that is, if Collins does all right as a replacement for Meyer—is that of a placekicker, Eddie Garcia, drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Junior Jeff Harrell will have to fill Garcia's All-America shoe.
SMU has one of the easier schedules of the four SWC title contenders, five relative breezes until it meets Houston in Texas Stadium on Oct. 16. After that the Ponies go to Austin, where they'll be pleased to take revenge on the Longhorns for the 9-7 loss that cost SMU an undefeated season in 1981. The following week Texas A&M comes to Dallas, and the final week finds SMU pitted against Arkansas in a showdown that should decide the conference championship. If SMU wins the SWC it could look like a bolt out of the blue. It won't be. The Mustangs were conference champs in 1981, but an NCAA probation kept them off TV and out of the Cotton Bowl. This year they figure to be prime time all the wav.
With James and Dickerson, Collins will put foes in double jeopardy.