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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. 63: Southern Mississippi

Kudos to Southern Mississippi, which chose a "Golden" mascot that actually exists.

Larry Fedora has had a meaningful impact on the Southern Mississippi offense, which has set new school records for scoring in each of his two seasons. However, despite the growth on offense, Southern Miss has maintained its frustratingly consistent string of seven-win seasons. For the sixth time in eight years, the Golden Eagles finished either 7-5 or 7-6; the streak of winning seasons – now at 16 – has continued, but the program felt Fedora was the coach to lead it to conference championships, not back to the New Orleans Bowl. As Jeff Bower can attest, coaches at Southern Miss have been fired for less.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Hattiesburg, Miss.

Nickname
Golden Eagles

Returning starters
13 (4 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 44

2009 record
(7-6, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 63

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at South Carolina
  • Sept. 11
    Prairie View A&M
  • Sept. 17
    Kansas
  • Sept. 25
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 2
    Marshall
  • Oct. 9
    E.C.U.
  • Oct. 16
    at Memphis
  • Oct. 30
    U.A.B.
  • Nov. 6
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 13
    at U.C.F.
  • Nov. 20
    Houston
  • Nov. 27
    at Tulsa

Last year’s prediction

There’s a lot of experience returning on this team, and a lot of talent. Based on this talent – U.S.M. has the most in Conference USA – and on the way the Golden Eagles finished last season, this team has a good chance to reach 10 wins for the first time in more than 20 years. I can’t go as far as to say Southern Miss can do this – it’s a tall order – but I think this team will be very good. How good? Perhaps as many as nine wins, though eight is where I feel comfortable predicting U.S.M. to fall. I have the Golden Eagles in the top three in the conference, and with the potential to win their first Conference USA crown since 2003.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Thanks to this offense, Southern Miss was able to return to bowl play for the second time in as many seasons under Fedora. That doesn’t make this tenure in Hattiesburg any less frustrating: the defense has been poor at times, though not terrible, and must improve if Southern Miss is to eventually rise to the top of Conference USA’s East division. There’s still time, obviously, and the improvement on offense bodes well for Southern Mississippi’s fortunes this coming season and in the future. I think the Golden Eagles are close: nine of Fedora’s 12 losses since taking over prior to the 2008 season have come by 10 points or less.

High point A seven-point victory over Central Florida on Sept. 12 stood as the best win of the season. It was also the second of three straight wins to open the season, a far cry from the 2-6 start in Fedora’s first year with the program. The Golden Eagles were inconsistent from there, winning only one more game – Nov. 14 at Marshall – against a team with more than five wins on the season.

Low point No loss by more than 13 points, four by a touchdown or less. Southern Miss came back from a 16-point deficit to tie Houston at 43-43 with 57 seconds remaining, but the Cougars responded with a touchdown pass with 21 seconds left to take the 50-43 win. That loss ended Southern Mississippi’s shot at a division title, as Houston held a two-game edge in the win column and the head-to-head tiebreaker. Not that Southern Miss had the nation’s best run defense (43rd nationally), but I was shocked at how easily Middle Tennessee State racked up yards on the ground in the New Orleans Bowl.

Tidbit The key to this massive undertaking, now entering its third summer, is to not allow a lack of readership to deter me from continuing to pound out inaccurate previews. Another key is to roll over a tidbit every now and then in an effort to save valuable time. The following preview, like the Countdown itself, is entering its third summer. Here it is: Thanks to last season’s finish, Southern Miss holds the fourth-longest active streak of winning seasons in the country. The program’s 16-year streak trails only Florida State (33 years – barely), Florida (22) and Virginia Tech (17). 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 16 years, though they won nine on four separate occasions: 1997, 1999, 2003 and 2006.

Tidbit (offensive defense edition) One might very easily make the statement that Jeff Bower, who was fired in 2007 after 14 straight winning seasons, was let go due to an inability to lead his team to a marquee, 10-win finish. Fedora, of course, has won seven games in each of his two seasons in Hattiesburg. What has prevented Southern Miss from breaking through despite setting new school records on offense? As much of an impact Fedora and his staff have had on that side of the ball, the Southern Mississippi has not, by and large, played up to the standard set on defense by the Bower-coached teams. The Golden Eagles have allowed more points (313 in 2008, 336 in 2009) in each of the last two seasons than all but one Bower-coached team. That team, his last, allowed 314 points. Is it fair to place all of the blame for the defensive shortcomings on this staff? Some of the blame, yes, but not all. Conference USA is far more explosive – look at Houston, Tulsa, S.M.U. and UTEP, for example – than it was during Bower’s era. Perhaps allowing 336 points in 2009 is the equivalent of allowing 275 ten years earlier, though there’s no way to quantify such a statement.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) More tidbits than you can shake a stick at today. So it’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Southern Miss is one of 14 teams in the country to have gone bowling in each of the last eight seasons. Better yet, it is one of 10 programs to have reached bowl play in 12 of the past 13 years. Can you name the other nine?

Teams already spoken for: California (katster), Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 LB Michael Boley (New York Giants), OT Jeremy Bridges (Arizona), OT Chris Clark (Minnesota Vikings), OT Demar Dotson (Tampa Bay), QB Brett Favre (Minnesota), DE Robert Henderson (Seattle), OT Ryan McKee (St. Louis), LB Gerald McRath (Tennessee), TE Shawn Nelson (Buffalo), C Chris White (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Important Civil War battles in Mississippi
1. Vicksburg.
2. Jackson (twice).
3. Big Black River Bridge.
4. Corinth.
5. Columbus.

Coaching

Larry Fedora (Austin College ‘85), 14-12 after two seasons with the Golden Eagles. Southern Mississippi’s slow start to Fedora era has only fueled the discussion regarding the program’s decision to replace Jeff Bower, who had led the program to 14 consecutive winning seasons. This was especially true after 2-6 start to the 2008 season. However, U.S.M. rolled off five straight victories to end that season, allowing it to maintain that impressive streak of winning seasons in the F.B.S. The impetus behind Southern Mississippi’s strong finish in 2008 was a terrific offense, which set a school record with 398 points (30.6 per game). The offense continued to hum last fall, as the Golden Eagles broke that short-lived school record by scoring 428 points. 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. He led an attack that made great strides statistically in each season. Though the offense struggled in 2005 (96th 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, O.S.U. 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

A foot injury stifled his progression last fall, but even in limited duty it was clear that junior quarterback Austin Davis is a perfect fit for Fedora’s spread offense. It was obvious after his freshman season, in fact, when Davis threw for 3,134 yards and 23 scores against only eight interceptions. He had improved dramatically through the first five games of 2009: 1,165 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, all while completing 69.2 percent of his passes. That’s the kind of production one should expect from a Fedora-coached quarterback. Senior Martevious Young is the most experienced backup quarterback in Conference USA: 18 career starts, including eight a year ago. Make no mistake, however: while Young is a good one, and Davis is still recovering from his foot ailment, the job belongs to Davis. It helps to have a top-notch reserve.

DeAndre Brown was not at 100 percent last fall; anyone who saw his devastating leg injury suffered in the 2008 New Orleans Bowl knew his recovering would be a one-year process. Now fully healthy, Brown hopes to return to his freshman form, when the top recruit led Southern Miss in receptions (67), receiving yards (1,117) and touchdowns (12). He paced the team in those same categories last fall (47 for 785 and 9 scores), but was somewhat hampered by the injury all year, particularly in the early going. I expect a big junior season for the rising star.

The Golden Eagles do lose a number of options in the passing game, including multiple-year starter Gerald Baptiste. Production should remain close to the same, however, as Southern Miss does not lack for talent at receiver. Sophomore Quentin Pierce will step in full-time at flanker, one year after making 25 grabs for 247 yards in seven starts. Fedora and his staff hope to land an immediate impact from JUCO transfer Kelvin Bolden, who arrived on campus in time to participate in spring practice. Other returning lettermen, like juniors Ryan Balentine and William Spight, will step into bigger roles.

The offensive line is among the least experienced in the country: all 26 returning starts belong to one man, senior center Cameron Zipp. It helps that Zipp is among the top centers in the conference, but Fedora will have his hands full rebuilding this front. Southern Miss will rely upon two JUCO transfers up front: Jason Weaver and Lamar Holmes could end up as bookend tackles on this line, though sophomore Darius Barnes should give Holmes a run for his money on the blind side. Senior Alex Michael has earned the opportunity to start at right guard, having played in 27 games over his first three seasons.

Southern Miss has the best front seven in Conference USA: all but one of last season’s starters, as well as most of the second line, return in 2010. The defensive line should wreak havoc on the rest of the conference. End Cordarro Law (14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) is a contender for conference defensive player of the year. While the Golden Eagles lost fellow starting end Terrance Conner, they bring back two players with starting experience in Roshaad Byrd and Deddrick Jones. Byrd needs to prove he’s fully healthy, however, as he missed the second half of last season with a broken ankle.

The interior of the line will be manned by senior Anthony Gray and junior Terrance Pope, a pair that combined for 66 tackles (9.5 for loss) a year ago. Depth will not be a concern at any spot along the line: at tackle, for instance, Southern Miss can call upon a player like John Henderson, who has also started in the past.

If any group will bring to mind Southern Miss defenses of old, it’s this talented linebacker corps. Forget Conference USA; this returning trio of starters is as productive as any group in the country. Begin with junior middle linebacker Korey Williams, who was fantastic as a first-year starter in 2009. He made a team-best 121 tackles (11 for loss) while tying Law for the team lead in sacks. Another junior, Ronnie Thornton, starts on the weak side. He was a second-team all-conference pick last fall, thanks to his 114-tackle (10.5 for loss), 2.5-sack season. The elder statesman of the group is senior Martez Smith (82 tackles, 2 sacks), a two-year starter.

Poor a season ago, Southern Miss will look to improve its performance against the pass without the use of its top two defensive backs. Worse yet, the team lost a potential starter at cornerback when Alonzo Lawrence, a transfer from Alabama, left the team in mid-June. Where do the Golden Eagles go from here? They’ll build around two returning starters: senior cornerback C.J. Bailey, an honorable mention all-Conference USA pick last fall, and senior strong safety Justin Wilson.

The situation gets more cloudy from there. Southern Miss could turn to either Kendrick Presley or Chico Hunter at safety alongside Wilson. Hunter is best suited as a strong safety, so the edge likely goes to Presley. The junior has started in the past — one game as a freshman. The competition to start opposite Wilson at cornerback might come down to a quartet of redshirt freshmen: Deron Wilson, Tre Maddox, Alex Smith and Gerald West. Not exactly a recipe for success. As we all know, a healthy pass rush cures all ails. Perhaps Southern Miss can get enough pressure from its front seven to overcome a weak defensive backfield.

My biggest worry with this defense? No, it’s not the secondary. It’s the year-by-year decline in production under defensive coordinator Tod Bradford, formerly the linebackers coach at Oklahoma State. He needs to get it done in 2010, or else Southern Miss would be wise to make a change at coordinator.

Position battles to watch

Running back For the first time in, oh, five years, someone other than Damion Fletcher will be doing yeoman’s work in the Southern Miss ground game. Talk about some big shoes to fill: Fletcher rushed for a school record 5,032 yards over his career, notching at least 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. No, it will be hard for one player to match Fletcher’s numbers. The Golden Eagles must also replace his top reserve, Tory Harrison, who rushed for 642 yards and 10 scores on 6.2 yards per carry. Not to say that there isn’t depth at the position; Southern Miss has options. The first is senior V.J. Floyd, who brings 398 career yards rushing to the table. Well short of Fletcher, yes, but still the most of any returning back. Floyd rushed for 246 yards in 2008, but was little-used last fall, rushing for only 59 yards. His experience will likely land Floyd plenty of action, if not the starting role come September, but he’ll be pushed every week by the young trio of Kendrick Hardy, Trey Lampley and Desmond Johnson. Hardy was the most impressive back during the spring. While Lampley has yet to make an impact in the running game, he was simply outstanding as a returner last fall: 14.5 yards per punt return and 27.6 yards per kick return, with a touchdown scored each way. He finished the year ranked in the top 15 nationally in each category; let’s see if he can translate that explosiveness to the offensive side of the ball.

Game(s) to watch

U.C.F., a game that Southern Miss must play on the road. Like Troy and the Sun Belt — the Trojans face Middle Tennessee State on the road — this game will decide the East division. The Golden Eagles have a very winnable three-game stretch during the middle of the season: home for E.C.U. and U.A.B., at Memphis.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I like this team: anything less than a bowl berth would be shocking. 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. That’s as deadly a stretch any non-B.C.S. conference team will face in conference play. The Golden Eagles also take on South Carolina and Kansas in non-conference play, though K.U. comes at home. If anything, it’s frustrating — to me, even — to use the schedule as rationale for another seven-win campaign, as this team looks to have its act together on defense; of course, this has been an Achilles heel for the last three years. Southern Mississippi will feature an absolutely superb front seven, which will draw to mind some of the strong Bower-led groups of years past. The secondary is more of an issue, what with the lost production, but Southern Miss has talent at its disposal when searching for new contributors. 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.

Dream season Southern Mississippi breaks through with a 10-win season, complete with an East division title.

Nightmare season The streak of winning seasons ends at 16 years: 5-7, 3-5 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Southern Miss 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.

Tidbit (mascot edition) Unlike the Golden Bear (California), the Golden Flash (Kent State), the Golden Gopher (Minnesota), the Golden Panther (Florida International) and the Golden Hurricane (Tulsa), the Golden Eagle actually exists. Good for you, Southern Mississippi. Ornithologists around the world applaud you.

Up Next

Who is No. 62? Our next school shares its nickname with one other F.B.S. program. Unlike its partner, however, this school does not use a space.

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Comments

  1. Zaboo says:

    Florida State
    Florida
    Virginia Tech
    Georgia
    Georgia Tech
    Texas
    Ohio State
    Wisconsin
    Oregon

  2. Zaboo says:

    From ’97 to ’09, FSU, UF, VT, UGA, Ga Tech, have not missed a bowl game.

    UT missed only ’97, tOSU only ’99, Wisky only ’01, and UO only ’04.

    That’s 9 teams making bowls 12 of past 13 years, if my math and sources are right.

    Paul: You know what? You’re right. I had given Texas Tech credit and not Wisconsin. Please accept my apologies. And list your team choice below.

  3. Brad says:

    #62 – the perenially underachieving N.C. State Wolfpack.

  4. Zaboo says:

    Arizona

  5. tuckwell says:

    Just a brief addition, Adelius Thomas, once of Baltimore and more recently of New England is a USM alum. The Patriots released him this spring, so he might not technically be active, but he’ll be on a roster this fall. Even if you don’t add him on the official list, due to him being a teamless UFA currently, he should be mentioned.

  6. Luckyshot says:

    USM and Houston are not in the same division, so Houston having a two game lead and head-to-head win had no meaning to USM’s chances winning our division. We instead gave away our game against ECU.

  7. Whitney says:

    Great Preview. Seems you put a lot of time into it.

    Thanks

  8. SosoDude says:

    Great HONEST preview of USM. Thanks. GO Eagles !!!!! Smack the GameCocks around and prove the doubters wrong ! Bring home that CUSA trophy to Hattiesburg Ms where it belongs !

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