Five years ago, freshly graduated and embarking on my sports journalism career, I moved to Texas for a couple of months to cover high school football for the Dallas Morning News.

That was my first real taste of a state with more than one Division I school. The Morning News covered Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech, North Texas, even Oklahoma.

SMU, too, though I think the most awareness I had of that football program was watching the ESPN “30 for 30” episode of “Pony Excess” in my apartment — located literally just across the highway from SMU’s pristine campus.

Back in 2014, SMU was 1-11 including an early-season coaching change, which was par for the course for the only NCAA football team to receive the “death penalty.” For repeat recruiting violation offenses such as boosters paying players, the NCAA banned SMU from competing in the 1987 season. The school later canceled the 1988 season as well.

What ensued was a decadeslong rebuild. But now, the Mustangs might have finally finished construction.

For the first time since those sanctions, SMU is a top-25 team, No. 24 in the Associated Press’ latest poll. It’s deserved: The Mustangs are 5-0, including 1-0 in the American Athletic Conference and a victory against rival and then-No. 25 TCU.

In the 20 years after SMU returned from the sanctions in 1989, the team managed only one winning record. And only in the past 10 years has SMU been able to string together consistently decent seasons.

“Given our history, SMU’s history, being a very successful program for a long time like it was in the ’70s and ’80s and then obviously having the death penalty, it’s just been a long climb back,” second-year coach Sonny Dykes told the AP. “I think it probably means more to our fan base and the SMU people than it does to others because it has been a long climb back. I think it gives our program some credibility.”

Now, SMU leads the FBS with 25 sacks. Running back Xavier Jones’ 11 touchdowns (10 rushing, one receiving) ties him for first with Wisconsin Heisman Trophy candidate running back Jonathan Taylor. Quarterback Shane Buechele, a transfer from Texas, ranks 10th with 1,385 passing yards.

Part of the credit, though, might go to Chad Morris, who took the team from 2-10 to 5-7 to 7-6 in his three seasons before bolting to Arkansas. Morris imagined a “five-year flip” at SMU, selling the idea to recruits because prior success wasn’t really a boon.

“It’s great to see those kids who really have bought into that vision having the success they’re having,” Morris told reporters this week. “… Those kids came there when there was nothing there. And they’re obviously going to leave the place better than they got it.”

This week, the Morning News ran an opinion column, headlined “Why this could be the year SMU succeeds in getting Dallas to PonyUp for football,” about how the city is finally recognizing “the hole in Dallas’ doughnut,” as someone in the column called it.

They might not be the Cowboys, but the Mustangs are certainly not an afterthought anymore.

SMU went to Dallas City Hall last week to show off the Iron Skillet trophy from the TCU victory.

“Just the people who work there, like the police officers, who high-fived them and said, ‘Hey, you guys are off to a great start,’ ” Dykes told the Morning News. “ ‘I haven’t paid attention to SMU in a long time. But now I do.’ ”

 

Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: megan.ryan@startribune.com