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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 58: Southern Mississippi

Southern Miss scored 478 points last season, a new school record. The Golden Eagles have now set a new high for points scored in each of Larry Fedora’s three years in Hattiesburg; his team scored 398 points in 2008 and 428 in 2009. But there’s more: Southern Miss has actually increased its scoring total in each of the last 10 years, a period that dates back to heyday of Jeff Bower’s longstanding tenure with the program. It begins back in 2002, when the Golden Eagles scored 282 points, up from 278 in 2001; then it was 293, 309, 355, 356, 361, 398, 428, 478. This is good. Then again, Southern Miss continues to win seven games more often than not, which has the locals a bit restless.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Hattiesburg, Miss.

Nickname
Golden Eagles

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 63

2010 record
(8-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 46

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Louisiana Tech
  • Sept. 10
    at Marshall
  • Sept. 17
    Southeastern La.
  • Sept. 24
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 1
    Rice
  • Oct. 8
    at Navy
  • Oct. 22
    S.M.U.
  • Oct. 29
    at UTEP
  • Nov. 5
    at E.C.U.
  • Nov. 12
    U.C.F.
  • Nov. 17
    U.A.B.
  • Nov. 26
    Memphis

Last year’s prediction

What about more than seven wins? That’s the big question for Southern Miss fans, tired of seeing talented teams fall short of expectations. To be honest, I’m not convinced this team will win more than seven games during the regular season. To do so, Southern Miss might need to be 7-2 entering its final three games: U.C.F., Houston and Tulsa, with the Knights and Golden Hurricanes on the road. This is a pretty good team, likely the best of the Fedora era. However, as unfortunate as it is — or as misguided as I am for considering it — I think the schedule keeps Southern Mississippi at seven wins. I’ll cover my tracks by saying this team is easily talented enough to win the East division. It all depends on the outcome of its trip to U.C.F. on Nov. 13.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The Golden Eagles were very close to breaking through in a big way. There was this offense, for starters, which once again set a new program-high for points in a single season. Then there was a defense that, from time to time, harkened back to the days when Southern Mississippi was defense-first – do you remember those days? This defense did falter in a major way against the better teams on the schedule, but Southern Miss did manage to win eight games for the first time since 2006, which is really the one thing to take away from last season. But there’s more to remember: the Golden Eagles lost four games by six points or less. Yeah, South Carolina took this team behind the woodshed in the season opener, but the Golden Eagles should have beaten East Carolina, definitely should have beaten U.A.B., lost a shootout at Tulsa and had Louisville on the ropes during bowl play before letting that one slip away. This team definitely lived up the hype, but the close losses were tough to swallow.

High point No, the year didn’t hinge on how Southern Miss fared against U.C.F. on Nov. 13. The Golden Eagles took care of business that Saturday, defeating the then-No. 25 Knights, 31-21, for the team’s best win of the season.

Low point A 50-49 loss to U.A.B., at home, on Oct. 30. These are the games that really, really test a fan base. To be perfectly blunt, Fedora and the Golden Eagles aren’t taking the next step until it can avoid these sort of losses – defeats that really should never occur, especially at home. A one-point loss to E.C.U. was a bit more understandable, if no less disappointing: the Golden Eagles allowed a 20-0 first quarter lead to slip away, losing by a single point despite forcing four E.C.U. turnovers.

Tidbit This tidbit might be familiar. Thanks to last season’s finish, Southern Miss holds the fourth-longest active streak of winning seasons in the country. The program’s 17-year streak trails only Florida State (34 years), Florida (23) and Virginia Tech (18). I’m keeping Florida State on this list despite the fact that enough wins have been taken away from the 2006 and 2007 teams to have the Seminoles finish with losing records in each of those seasons. The Golden Eagles have not won 10 games in any of those 17 years, though they won nine on four separate occasions: 1997, 1999, 2003 and 2006.

Tidbit (losses edition) Last fall saw the Golden Eagles avoid back-to-back losses during the regular season for the first time since 2003. That team was probably the best of the Bower era: 9-4, with losses to California, Nebraska, Alabama and Utah – games that saw Southern Miss combine to score 19 points. Last fall’s team did lose two straight games if we include the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl; the losses to Tulsa and Louisville were nearly a month apart, however.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 LB Michael Boley (New York Giants), OT Jeremy Bridges (Arizona), OT Chris Clark (Denver), OT Demar Dotson (Tampa Bay), DT Tom Johnson (New Orleans), OT Ryan McKee (St. Louis), LB Gerald McRath (Tennessee), TE Shawn Nelson (Buffalo), OG Chris White (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Non-basic cable comedies
1. “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” HBO.
2. ”Louie,” FX.
3. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” FX.
4. “Eastbound and Down,”HBO.
5. “Portlandia,” IFC.

Coaching

Larry Fedora (Austin College ‘85), 22-17 after three seasons with the Golden Eagles. The Golden Eagles took a nice step forward last fall, winning eight games for the first time under Fedora and avoiding the lulls that defined his first two years on campus. Things have still been a bit up-and-down for Fedora since he was hired in 2008; just in that year, for example, Southern Miss opened up at 2-6 before rolling off five straight wins to end the year. The impetus behind Southern Mississippi’s strong finish that fall was a terrific offense, which set a school record with 398 points — 30.6 per game. The offense continued to hum in 2009, as the Golden Eagles broke that short-lived school record by scoring 428 points. As noted, the scoring mark was bested again last season. Fedora was hired largely because of his strong offensive background, which included a stint at Oklahoma State, where he served as the offensive coordinator from 2005-7, leading an attack that made great strides statistically in each season. Though the offense struggled in 2005, finishing 96th nationally in scoring, the Cowboys finished in the top 10 in rushing yards and the top 20 in total offense in each of the following two seasons. In 2006, the Cowboys joined undefeated Boise State as the only two teams to average both 200 yards rushing and passing. Prior to Oklahoma State, Fedora served three years at Florida (2002-4, offensive coordinator his final season) and Middle Tennessee State (1999-2001 as offensive coordinator). Fedora’s additional F.B.S. assistant experience includes stops at Air Force (1997-98) and Baylor (1990-1996).

Players to watch

No, the most prolific quarterback in Southern Miss history isn’t Brett Favre, believe it or not. It’s Austin Davis, now a senior, who enters his final season poised for his finest season yet. Injuries were a concern over his first two years, sometimes small, sometimes major setbacks that cost Davis significant snaps in the starting lineup. No such worries in 2010: Davis missed no time, starting all 13 games and throwing for 3,103 yards and 20 scores, completing a shade less than 63 percent of his attempts while adding 452 yards and a team-best 10 scores on the ground. Yeah, he’s a serious threat. And a perfect fit for the Fedora offense, to put it simply.

Davis needs a little more national publicity – he needs more Conference USA-wide publicity – but he’s due to get his time in the sun in 2011. That’s due to three reasons: one, he’s now a senior, meaning he knows this offense up and down; two, he has Fedora in his corner, which can’t be discounted; and three, he has the complimentary pieces to keep this offense skyrocketing up the program’s charts. But he must avoid injuries, as while sophomore Chris Campbell and redshirt freshman Arsenio Favor have talent neither have any experience.

Speaking of those complimentary pieces: there is a wealth of riches in the running game. One of the benefits – if there is such a thing – of losing a four-year starter like Damion Fletcher is that it led Southern Miss to spread the ball around on the ground, which in many ways made this ground game even more dangerous. Look for this by-committee approach to continue in 2011, even if the Golden Eagles must give sophomore Kendrick Hardy (903 yards, 7 scores) more touches. He notched those totals despite making only 139 carries, so Hardy is clearly a 1,000-yard contender with 200 carries, for example. Junior Desmond Johnson (611 yards, 8 scores) will still be a factor, but keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Jamal Woodyard, who could be a big, tough-running compliment to the above pair.

The Golden Eagles need to find a little depth and remain healthy – you can’t control the latter – but the receiver corps looks great. Junior Tracy Lampley moves over to receiver after doing it all over his first two years: running, catching, special teams. I always wondered why Southern Miss didn’t put Lampley in space from the beginning; better late than never, and Lampley is going to make an impact. Senior Kelvin Bolden (46 catches for 722 yards and 6 touchdowns) was an immediate hit as a JUCO transfer, and becomes the team’s leading target. Quentin Pierce (38 for 454) is a very nice second option, as are seniors Ryan Balentine, another former JUCO addition, and William Spight (25 for 219). The Golden Eagles will need a few untested receivers to make an impact, so watch out for sophomore Dominique Sullivan, a former quarterback with size unmatched by his fellow receivers on the roster.

Hey, guess what: the defense needs work. Former coordinator Todd Bradford went to Maryland, taking a position under Randy Edsall, which in turn led Fedora to name a pair of coaches in fill his spot, which in turn led his two new additions to make a major change in coaching philosophy. Say hello to the 4-2-5, which will play to the program’s seemingly never-ending surplus of speed – but will also lead to some growing pains, as expected. One of the new coordinators, Dan Disch, was hired away from Illinois; the other, David Duggan, the linebackers coach, was promoted from within. They have some work to do.

Get your hard hats out for the secondary, which lost three starters at the wrong time – what with the five-defensive back alignment and all. The lone returning starter is senior safety Kendrick Presley (63 tackles, 1 interception), the strongest piece in this secondary and the unquestioned leader of this new-look group. Sophomore Jacorius Cotton looks like Presley’s running mate at safety, but the big question is where Southern Miss goes at the fifth defensive back spot, a hybrid safety-linebacker role that demands a bigger, athletic safety. Jerrion Johnson has the edge, but he brings little experience to the table.

Will Deron Wilson be ready to go come September? It’s not an injury issue but off-field woes that have stymied Wilson since the end of last season, and the cornerback situation hinges on his availability. The pass defense was terrible with Wilson, an all-conference contender, in the fold; without him, it might be Conference USA’s worst. Sophomore Alexander Walters and junior Marcal Robinson will keep his seat warm in the meantime, but the Golden Eagles really, really need Wilson on the field.

The front four is in far better shape. Perhaps that’s solely due to senior Cordarro Law (48 tackles, 6.5 sacks), who’s one of the conference’s best. When on, Law can be a difference-maker. We know what we’re going to get from Law; I’m more intrigued by what converted weak side linebacker Jamie Collins (76 tackles, 2.5 sacks) can do as the team’s rush end in this new alignment. There are some holes on the interior, where a pair of starters must be replaced, but senior Terrance Pope (22 tackles, 6 for loss) and sophomore Khyri Thornton (17 tackles, 2.5 sacks) bring a healthy amount of experience to the table. Thornton looks like a future star.

No issues at linebacker. None whatsoever: seniors Korey Williams (92 tackles, 14.5 for loss) and Ronnie Thornton (61 tackles, 6 for loss) are back in the fold, giving Southern Miss two of Conference USA’s best. Williams is probably the conference’s best, period, a leading tackler whose size belies terrific speed breaking towards the ball. Thornton is a three-year starter who gives some consistency and steadiness to a defense that lack both such qualities in spades.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line It’s not really a matter of numbers, nor even a matter of experience. For this line, it’s all about how things are due to shake out with the five starting spots: it’s all about competition. Two starters must be replaced – Cameron Zipp and Alex Michael – but seven linemen with starting experience are back in the fold. The interior of the line seems set, though one wonders how well junior Alex Quattrochi can replace Zipp, a three-year starter and a first-team all-Conference USA pick as a senior. Quattrochi brings some starting experience into 2011 – three starts at guard in 2009, as well as a reserve role a year ago – but Zipp leaves some big shoes to fill. Joe Duhon, a honorable mention all-conference selection last fall, has one guard starting spot tied up. Sophomore Ed Preston made a run towards a major role during the spring, but I can’t imagine he’ll unseat Darius Barnes from the starting lineup; Barnes started at left tackle last fall but will move inside for 2011. It’s the options at tackle that allowed Southern Miss to move Barnes inside. There are three potential starters for two spots, each from the JUCO ranks: Jason Weaver, Lamar Holmes and Thomas Edenfield. I can’t imagine it won’t be Holmes on the left side, Weaver on the right, but the latter must show he’s fully recovered from the injury that cost him much of last season. Edenfield stepped into the void once Weaver went down and played fine, but he doesn’t seem to have the same ceiling. Holmes is the man at left tackle, and Southern Miss should be excited about his potential. Here’s the bottom line: the Golden Eagles landed very good line play last fall, so one hopes that Fedora and his staff come to a decision with the starting five sooner rather than later.

Game(s) to watch

The year will once again come down to U.C.F., this time at home. The Knights will want revenge after that late-season loss a year ago; more importantly, however, the Golden Eagles know that the East division will once again go through the Knights.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Best team in Conference USA? One of the best non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country? A threat to go undefeated? Don’t be ridiculous. Southern Mississippi will be a 10-win contender once it stops giving up 50 points at home to some of Conference USA’s worst; until then, this is where Southern Miss is going to fall – about eight wins, with seven just as likely as nine, unbelievably potent offensively but still a threat to lose just as many games as it wins as long as the defense remains three steps behind this offense. Perhaps that’s harsh… it is harsh, actually, but that is the message Fedora and this team must accept and address as the Golden Eagles head into September – because this team, as some of those laudatory comments above illustrate, is definitely good enough to unseat U.C.F. and take home the East division. And it’s largely because of this offense, which is superb. There are some question marks: the offensive line needs to be rebuilt, as does the receiver corps, by and large, but I have no doubt that Fedora is going to again have a record-breaking offense in the cards. But how will this team take to the 4-2-5? It’s a nice thought, this change, but the addition of new coordinators and a new scheme is not always conducive to immediate success. Can the Golden Eagles get better and better defensively as the year moves along? No doubt, and that’s probably what’s going to occur. But for now, there are other conference foes with fewer questions, who seem farther along on both sides of the ball – not quite on par offensively, but far ahead defensively – as we look towards the fall. If any team is going to leapfrog the Knights and take the East, it’s going to be Southern Miss. But I don’t see it happening.

Dream season The defense makes great strides in the new 4-2-5 look, joining this terrific offense to lead Southern Miss to a 10-2 finish and an East division crown.

Nightmare season It comes together in spurts, from random week to random week, but the Golden Eagles can’t put their whole game together: 5-7, 4-4.

In case you were wondering

Where do Southern Mississippi fans congregate? Start at Eagle Post, an independent Southern Miss Web site and message board. Southern Miss also has a pair of recruiting sites: Big Gold Nation and Golden Eagle Pride. As always, list any options I may have missed in the comment field below.

Word Count

Through 63 teams 184,632.

Up Next

Who is No. 57? Tomorrow’s program has not gone to back-to-back bowl games since 1991-92.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Sasser says:

    Paul-

    Your teaser is a little confusing, I think. Are you saying that the next team has NOT gone to back-to-back bowl games since ’91-92, or has just gone to back-to-back bowl games FOR THE FIRST TIME since ’91-92?

    Paul: Yes, forgot the imperative word — NOT. So tomorrow’s team has not gone to back-to-back bowl games since 1991-92.

  2. UVA Cat says:

    I guess Florida State is up next?

  3. UVA Cat says:

    Oops…missed the NOT…guess it’s NOT FSU!

  4. Sasser says:

    Wow, I should have figured this one out sooner — it’s Illinois!

  5. Rookierookie says:

    Pretty sure it’s Illinois, famous for stringing together great seasons and abysmal seasons.

  6. Landon says:

    One of the best preseason articles I’ve read on Southern Miss in my 20+ years as a USM fan. Nice work.

  7. Storm says:

    Spot on article and very well written! As a Golden Eagle fan I am of course hoping for the dream season! I think we have the athletes to get the defense in decent shape and with luck we can hold off our opponents by simply outscoring them. I think we hit 9 wins in the regular season and could win the East depending on that UCF game. Thanks for the great article!

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