Football enthusiasts recognize the need for great athletes to have a breakout season to announce to the rest of the football world that they have officially arrived. Even though he was a junior in 1981, Eric Dickerson put together one of the most dominating breakout seasons any player has ever had at SMU. It was during the course of 1981 that he truly solidified himself as one of the premier running backs in the country. By the end of the season, Dickerson scored an SMU record 19 rushing touchdowns for one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
After graduating from Sealy High, Dickerson's heart was set on Oklahoma, but his mom eventually talked him into going to SMU. During his freshman year, Eric carried the ball just 115 times for 477 yards and scored six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was heading to the Orange Bowl. Nevertheless, he returned to SMU where he then became one-third of "the Pony Express."
Even though they were friends, Dickerson and fellow SMU tailback Craig James hated the "Pony Express" system. Dickerson felt that alternating running backs would not allow him to "get into his groove." Dickerson considered transferring to Oklahoma and actually called Barry Switzer to discuss it, but the story goes that Coach Switzer wasn't in his office to take the call. Eric, with some advice from mom, stayed at SMU and finished his sophomore year with 928 yards and five touchdowns. Dickerson eventually grew to like the system and the Pony Express ended up having one of the most potent tailback combinations in NCAA history the following season.
To fully appreciate Dickerson's accomplishments in 1981, you only have to compare his stats to his first two years on the Hilltop. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Dickerson ran for a combined total of 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns on 303 carries. In 1981, he carried the ball a career high 255 times, 67 more than in 1980. He piled up 1,428 yards rushing, 500 more than in 1980. And on top of all of that, he had a career best and an SMU record 19 rushing touchdowns. His 1,428 yards ranked sixth nationally and led the SWC.
Dickerson rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of the 11 games played. He had standout performances against two SWC rivals, racking up 158 yards and 3 touchdowns against Baylor, and 121 yards and 3 touchdowns against Texas A&M. He was honored as a first-team All-Southwest Conference running back at season's end.
Dickerson and James combined for 2,575 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, making the Pony Express one of the most feared offensive machines in college football. They helped lead the Mustangs to a 10-1 record, with a 9-7 set back against Texas being the only thing that stood between SMU and a perfect season. Their 10-1 record vaulted them to a No. 5 ranking, making it SMU's first appearance in the Top 10 since 1966. This also coincided with SMU's first Southwest Conference title since the 1966 campaign.
Thanks to Dickerson's ability to find the end zone, SMU finished the 1981 season ready to compete for the national title in 1982. His record of 19 rushing touchdowns still stands and was a major reason for the Mustangs' success. Eric Dickerson's 19 touchdowns in 1981 come in at No 50 in our countdown of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.