You'd think people would be breaking down doors to see Southern Methodist's football team. The undefeated Mustangs are situated in the heart of a football-crazy state and face no competition from the striking Dallas Cowboys, who are fellow tenants of Texas Stadium. Furthermore, SMU has one of the nation's best runners in tailback Eric Dickerson and an excellent shot at a Cotton Bowl berth, which automatically goes to the Southwest Conference champion.
All this and still attendance lags. The situation is really nothing new. SMU's greatest year at the gate occurred in 1949, when Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker regularly attracted 60,000 spectators to the Texas fairgrounds. During the intervening years, the magic of SMU football disappeared, large state schools stepped forward, the Cowboys arrived, and the crowds dwindled. Things appeared to bottom out in 1973, when average home attendance slipped below 20, 000.
A revival of sorts was achieved in the late 1970s under promotion-minded athletic director Russ Potts. The rosy glow was a bit deceiving, though, because many of the 50,000 people attending SMU games in 1978 and '79 were geting in on cut-rate or complimentary tickets aimed at rebuilding the school's lost football constituency.
With the elimination of ticket come-ons, attendance has returned to its more natural, if rather disappointing, level of around 33,000 or 34,000 a game. The third-ranked Mustangs (8-0) have only one more home game, a Nov. 20 date against fourth-ranked Arkansas, which is 7-0. Based on activity at the box office, all 65,000 seats are expected to be sold to this potential conference title bout. SMU won the championship a year ago, but was prevented from making its first Cotton Bowl appearance since 1967 because of an NCAA probation.
Excitement seemingly should be running at full throttle now, but a number of factors still rein in attendance. Among them are the 20 miles that separate the stadium from campus, the $3 parking charge collected by the town of Irving, the relatively small number of students and alums, and numerous competing activities in and around Dallas. (High school games are played on Friday night, so they are only indirectly a factor.) There's also the return to regular ticket prices ($6 to $12), which the school feels is a step in the right direction. For under new athletic director Bob Hitch, SMU enjoyed its biggest payoffs in history in games against Grambling and Texas last year.
On the field, it was assumed the Mustangs would continue to do well. That they've done as well as they have, though, is somewhat surprising, considering the coaching staff is new. Ron Meyer practically moved last year's staff en masse to New England to accept jobs with the NFL's Patriots. Bobby Collins arrived with his assistants from Southern Mississippi and has picked up just where Meyer and Company left off.
Collins has basically stuck to Meyer's ''Pony Express'' running game that sees Dickerson alternating with Craig James at tailback. Neither player seems to mind splitting time, and until this season their rushing statistics were nearly identical.
Dickerson is currently running well ahead of his sidekick with 1,319 yards, compared to James's 667. But if Eric has the satisfaction of being the country's second-leading rusher (behind Oklahoma State's Ernest Anderson) with 164.9 yards a game, Craig can take pride in his 45.8-yard punting average, which is among the nation's best.
Quarterback Lance McIlhenny, the son of Don McIlhenny, an SMU star in the '50 s, has received far less ink even though he's thrown only one interception. Mostly he hands off - that is, until SMU gets tired of seeing seven and eight men stacked in the defensive line. Then he'll pass, generally for big yardage and sometimes for a touchdown.
Despite these offensive talents, the defensive unit has been the unsung hero of SMU's season so far. ''Time and time again the defense has kept us alive,'' says Paul Ridings, the school's assistant sports information director. ''In the fourth quarter our defense just shuts other people down.''
Rules and a trick play
The most underappreciated figures on any football field are the officials. Their unenviable job involves monitoring bursts of action that send 22 players scattering like buckshot. That might not have been so difficult in 1876, when a rules committee of eight students drew up the 61 original rules. But today, things are infinitely more complex since the rulebook bulges with 782 entries.
Trick plays of the kind used only in emergencies can really put officials on the spot, which is why coaches generally warn them about such ploys ahead of time. Wisconsin Coach Dave McClain did just that prior to his team's game with Illinois two weeks ago. McClain conferred with the officials about the Badgers' bounce lateral so that no one would instinctively think it an incomplete pass and blow the play dead.
Trailing 26-22 with 52 seconds left and the ball on the Illini 40, Wisconsin decided to try the play. It was executed to perfection. Quarterback Randy Wright turned and fired a long one-hopper to wide receiver Al Toon. Because the ball was thrown slightly backwards, it was a fumbled lateral according to the rules rather than an incomplete pass. Illinois took the bait, let up, then watched in shock as Toon completed a touchdown pass to to tight end Jeff Nault. Regrouping in a hurry, however, the Illini drove downfield and kicked a 46-yard field goal as time expired for a 29-28 win.
Georgia, Alabama to meet. . .
Why the two best teams in the Southeastern Conference haven't played each other since 1977 and won't play each other this year perplexes many fans. Alabama and Georgia aren't scheduled to meet again until 1984, and who's to say whether Coach Bear Bryant will be on the Bama sideline then or what kind of a team Georgia will be without Herschel Walker?
Cynical observers may believe the two teams are purposely dodging one another to keep their records as unsoiled as possible. Actually, the fault, if it can be called that, is that of the conference athletic directors, who drew up a rather shortsighted scheduling formula in 1972. Under the present system, that runs through 1987, a school plays five SEC rivals each year, with the four remaining conference teams rotating onto the schedule. Since Georgia and Alabama weren't locked in as permanent rivals when the schedule began, they play one another infrequently. Fortunately, the plan will change in 1988 to include more conference games.