The 1980 Holiday Bowl featured two teams with distinctly different offensive philosophies. SMU relied upon the running of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, while BYU boasted an explosive aerial attack led by the nation's leading passer, Jim McMahon. Both teams combined for over 900 yards of total offense in one of the wildest bowl games ever played, a game which came down to the final play. The 1980 season saw SMU receive its first national ranking, No. 20, and first bowl appearance since 1968 making the 1980 Holiday Bowl one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
SMU jumped out to an early 19-0 lead and with four minutes left in the game, the Mustangs led by 20 points, 45-25. But Jim McMahon led BYU to an improbable comeback that will go down as one of the most memorable in college football history. With 18 seconds left and trailing 45-39, BYU blocked an SMU punt and gained control of the ball at the SMU 41 yard line. From there, McMahon heaved two desperation throws that fell incomplete in the end zone. Then as time expired, McMahon's third and final pass found its way into the arms of tight-end Clay Brown for a touchdown. BYU added the ensuing extra point for the 46-45 victory.
Despite the loss, SMU also had shown some offensive fireworks of its own. Tailback Craig James, who was voted co-MVP on offense with McMahon, rushed for 225 yards on 23 carries and scored 3 touchdowns. Eric Dickerson added another 110 yards on 23 carries and 2 scores. SMU nose guard Michael Carter was named defensive player of the game after his seven tackles, two for losses, and two batted down passes. The stunning loss helped to motivate SMU for the following season. The Mustangs finished the 1981 season 10-1, SWC Champions and ranked number No. 5 by the Associated Press. An all-time classic, the 1980 SMU-BYU game was rated the 43rd Greatest Game in College Football History by The College Football News and has been re-shown a number of times on ESPN Classic. For these reasons, the 1980 Holiday Bowl appearance takes its place on our list of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.