HONOLULU SMU coach June Jones felt and looked right at home when he walked into Aloha Stadium.
Dressed in slacks and flip flops, he strolled down a corridor where portraits of Hawaii's biggest stars hung on the wall, most of whom were coached by Jones during a nine-year tenure that made him so popular in paradise that some suggested he run for governor.
When Jones departed a news conference for the Hawaii Bowl, he flashed the "Hang Loose" symbol to faces he has known for years.
Never mind that Fresno State knows this island and stadium from playing at Hawaii every other year in the Mountain West Conference, or that the Bulldogs, who have won their past five games by an average of 25.8 points, are favored by two touchdowns against SMU on Christmas Eve.
Jones has ample reason to feel the Hawaii Bowl is a home game.
"Coming into the stadium it sure does," Jones said. "We're in the same locker room. I know where everybody is. I recognize all the workers. But it all comes down to seeing friends. I try to teach my kids that you play the game and you want to win, but there's more to it than that. It's about the people around you and all the intangible things that make an ordinary team better."
Jones will be coaching for the 75th time at Aloha Stadium when his Mustangs (6-6) face Fresno State (9-3). He hasn't lost in this stadium since Oregon State beat Hawaii on Dec. 2, 2006. Hawaii had an undefeated regular season in 2007, and then Jones bolted for SMU over what he felt were hollow promises about upgrading facilities.
SMU, which went 25 years without a bowl game dating to its NCAA penalty, ended that drought when Jones brought it to the Hawaii Bowl in 2009 and scored the first 38 points in a 45-10 win over Nevada.
Fresno State presents a different kind of test. Since losing to Boise State, the Bulldogs have averaged 47.2 points in winning five games in a row. They swept all the Mountain West Conference awards this season top offensive player (quarterback Derek Carr), top defensive player (strong safety Phillip Thomas) and top freshman (Davante Adams).
"To a fan watching this game, they'll see two spread offenses that can light up a scoreboard and two defenses that can take it away," said Tim DeRuyter, who in his first season as coach led Fresno State to its first conference title since 1999.
Jones has seen plenty of Fresno State from his days at Hawaii, but these Bulldogs don't look familiar. He isn't used to seeing them spread the field with so many playmakers Adams with 13 touchdown catches; Robbie Rouse, the 5-foot-7 running back who rushed for 1,468 yards and 12 scores; and Carr, who has passed for 3,742 yards and 36 scores.
Jones tried to recruit Carr, who was living in Houston while his brother former Fresno State quarterback David Carr played for the Houston Texans. Carr said it came down to SMU and Fresno State, though he always wanted to return to his Central Valley roots.
During the news conference, Jones raved so much about Carr that some clarification was in order.
"He throws the ball very accurately. He can run. He can move a little bit," Jones said. "I thought the quarterback from Central Florida (Blake Bortles) was probably the best one we played. I think Derek is ahead of him."
Yes, but the Mustangs also played Texas A&M, whose quarterback had a pretty good season. Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, accounted for 418 total yards and six touchdowns in a 48-3 drubbing of SMU.
"He wasn't playing 'quarterback.' He was running around making plays," Jones said later. Jones said his reference to Carr was as a dropback passer.
Carr is motivated by having to sit on his couch a year ago as 35 bowl games were being played, Fresno State not in one for only the second time in 13 years. This is Carr's first bowl game.