In 1982, the original members of the Pony Express, Eric Dickerson and Craig James, had one final year to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Even though Ron Meyer had left for the NFL, the Mustangs were poised to make a run at the National Championship with new coach Bobby Collins. By the end of the year, the Mustangs were the only undefeated team in the country and ranked No. 2 in the polls for one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
The Mustangs started the season ranked No. 6 in the AP poll coming off of a 10-1 campaign in 1981. In fact, the National Championship Foundation had named SMU their National Champions at the end of the season. The 1982 season started off on a high note as the Pony Express ran wild over Tulane, 51-7. The Mustangs carried this momentum to El Paso as they ran over UTEP, 31-10. Dickerson scored on an 80-yard run on the second play of the game.
SMU opened Southwest Conference play versus TCU at Texas Stadium in week three. It proved to be a hard fought game with SMU scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter for a 16-13 come-from-behind victory. It was the kind of win that built character and confidence. After drilling North Texas in week four, the Pony Express headed to Waco to tangle with the Baylor Bears. Once again, the Mustangs had to come-from-behind to win. Trailing 19-14 late in the game, SMU drove 75 yards in 13 plays for the winning touchdown.
Back home at Texas Stadium, Dickerson led the Mustangs to a 20-14 win over Houston. He rushed for a career high 241 yards in the process. The win put SMU at 5-0 and ranked fourth in the country. The stage was set for a showdown with the Longhorns as the Pony Express headed for Austin. A two-point defeat at the hands of Texas in 1981 was all that separated the Mustangs from a perfect season. This time around, the Mustangs, behind three Lance McIlhenny touchdown passes, upended the Horns, 30-17. They were in control of the SWC.
Riding high from the win in Austin, the Mustangs rolled up blow-out victories over Texas A&M and Rice. The Mustangs moved up to No. 2 in the polls, their highest ranking since being ranked No. 1 almost exactly thirty-two years earlier. The season had already seen its share of great moments and plays, but the best were yet to come. In week 10, it appeared as if Texas Tech was going to be able to end SMU’s perfect season. After Tech tied the game with 17 seconds remaining, the Mustangs pulled off a miracle. On the ensuing kickoff, Bobby Leach took a throwback pass 91 yards up the sideline for the score and the win. It became known as “The Miracle on Fourth Avenue.”
Then in the season finale against Arkansas, the Mustangs played before a sellout crowd with the SWC title, Cotton Bowl berth, and a possible national title on the line. It was the first advanced sellout since the 1949 Notre Dame game. Late in the game, and trailing by seven, McIlhenny drove the Mustangs 80 yards in nine plays to tie the score. It culminated in an option play in which McIlhenny faked to Dickerson up the middle, then faked a pitch to James, and took the ball into the end zone himself for the touchdown. Despite ending in a tie, the Mustangs had won the SWC title and were heading to the Cotton Bowl for the first time since 1966.
In the Cotton Bowl, the Mustangs battled a tough Pittsburgh team that was led by future hall of famer Dan Marino. In the end, McIlhenny, using the same option play from the Arkansas game, scored the only touchdown of the game to give SMU a 7-3 victory. The scoreboard at the Cotton Bowl lit up with a simple question: National Champions?
The season ended with the Mustangs sporting an 11-0-1 record. They were the only undefeated team left in the land. The final AP poll ranked SMU No. 2, its highest final ranking since 1947 when they finished No. 3. Several national writers believed SMU was deserving of the national championship that went to a one-loss Penn State team. The Helm Athletic Foundation ended up naming Mustangs their National Champions. Regardless, the 1982 season was one of the finest in school history and takes it place among the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.