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SMU finishes No. 22 in AP Poll for first year-end ranking since 1984

The Mustangs are in the final Top 25 for the first time since the infamous death penalty.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Football Championship-Southern Methodist at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In 1987, one of the harshest penalties in college football was ever assessed.

The SMU Mustangs, an unquestionable power of the early 80s, were handed the infamous “death penalty” by the NCAA due to under-the-table payments to players. As a result, the program folded for two seasons in 1987 and 1988. While SMU football returned in 1989, it was far from a triumphant return as the program only captured one winning record in the first 20 years after reinstatement.

It was a long and arduous climb back to national prominence, but in 2023, SMU finally shattered a rock it had been chipping away at for decades. When the final AP Top 25 was released in the aftermath of Michigan’s 34-13 College Football Playoff National Championship victory over Washington, the Mustangs’ logo proudly made a return to the poll. SMU finished at No. 22, securing its first year-end ranking since 1984 and 11th in program history.

The Mustangs, which officially depart to the ACC this summer, were the lone AAC representative in the final AP Poll. AAC runner-up Tulane received 76 votes (No. 28), while Memphis received 32 votes (No. 31) and UTSA received 3 votes (No. 40) to round out the conference’s contributions to the rankings.

SMU finished the 2023 campaign with an 11-3 record, notably defeating Tulane 26-14 for its first-ever AAC championship and first conference title since 1984. The Mustangs’ résumé was bolstered with multiple victories over teams with double-digit wins this year, edging both 11-3 Tulane and 10-3 Memphis on the road to record their winningest season since the death penalty.

However, SMU was subject to one of the most significant upsets in the postseason, falling 23-14 to future ACC opponent Boston College in the Fenway Bowl. Prior to the contest, the Mustangs held a No. 17 ranking and received a golden opportunity to finish in the top 15 had they won their 10th-straight matchup.

Prior to the Fenway Bowl, SMU rode a 9-game win streak, edging all nine AAC opponents — including Tulane in the AAC Championship Game — without ever trailing in the second half. The Mustangs exhibited plenty of dominance in conference play, defeating their nine opponents by an average score of 44-17.

Rhett Lashlee’s team finished No. 8 in scoring offense at 38.7 points per game — cracking the FBS top 15 for the fifth-straight year. But what was different about the 2023 SMU squad was the vastly improved defense under second-year coordinator Scott Symons. The Mustangs finished No. 11 in scoring defense, letting up just 17.8 points per game while recording two shutouts.

SMU rides into the ACC with considerable momentum, flaunting a final AP Top 25 ranking for the first time in nearly 40 years. By making an appearance at No. 22, the Mustangs ensured that the AAC featured a ranked team in the final AP Poll in every single year of the 4-team College Football Playoff era.