by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It hasn’t always been easy for the Southern Miss football team to gain attention in its own home state in which the gridiron programs at SEC members Ole Miss and Mississippi State are institutions. Not that the Golden Eagles haven’t done their best to create a buzz. Indeed, USM was a lower-division power from the ‘50s into the ‘60s when known as the “Mississippi Southern College Southerners” and claiming the Large College Division (forerunner to I-AA and FCS) National Championships for the noted HC Thad “Pie” Vann in 1958 & ‘62. Vann would eventually be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. And when USM (which officially became the “Golden Eagles” in 1971) moved up to the big time, it often made noise, such as a startling 30-14 upset of Archie Manning and then fourth-ranked and unbeaten Ole Miss in 1970, costing Archie dearly in that year’s Heisman Trophy race. In that game, legendary Ray Guy (who also played QB) kept the Rebels pinned deep in their own end of the field all afternoon, averaging 49 yards on his punts.

USM stayed competitive for several years and made national headlines again in 1981 for a team coached by Bobby Collins (who moved to SMU the next year) and featuring long-legged QB Reggie Collier, forging a 13-13 tie in midseason at Alabama in a game in which Bear Bryant inexplicably called a timeout with 8 seconds left, when the Golden Eagles had none of their own, allowing a game-tying Golden Eagle FG by Steve Clark in the final seconds. That preceded a later 58-14 demolition of Bobby Bowden’s Florida State and a first-ever appearance in a “real” bowl game, the Tangerine, against Missouri. USM has been something of a force to be reckoned with since, often threatening bigger and better things, including the Brett Favre years from 1987-1990. Indeed, the Golden Eagles enter 2011 with a string of seventeen consecutive winning campaigns.

But USM, and its Conference USA affiliates, are still looking for the big score, which means busting into the BCS. Indeed, there has been at least one “BCS Buster” every year since 2006. And since the 2004 season, there has only been one campaign (2005) where a team from a non-BCS league hasn’t broken into the BCS bowl mix. Every “BCS Buster” (seven in all) team, however, has hailed from the Mountain West or WAC.

Isn’t it about time that a Conference USA side jumped to the head of the “Buster” queue?

It’s overdue, for sure, and considering that Utah, Boise State, Hawaii, and TCU have all cracked that ceiling in the past seven years, there’s no reason a CUSA powerhouse cannot emerge as a player in the big bowl mix. And Southern Miss would seem as good a candidate as any to emerge.

Certainly, the Golden Eagles are plenty familiar with the postseason, having qualified for bowls in nine straight campaigns, as well as 13 of the last 14 years. But there is quite a jump from being merely bowl-eligible (a quality the Golden Eagles have mastered, winning 7, 7, 7, and 8 games the past four seasons) to getting a call from the Fiesta or Sugar Bowl committees. And CUSA, arguably better-balanced from top to bottom than the Mountain West or WAC in recent years, has proven more difficult for its best teams to navigate with an unbeaten mark. For all of its winning ways lately, USM still remains on the cusp of that “special” season, and the Golden Eagles have not won as many as ten games since Favre was running the offense in 1988.

Some regional observers, however, believe that USM might have its best chance in several years to threaten a major breakthrough this fall. The non-conference portion of the schedule is quite forgiving, with the toughest tests being road trips to Virginia and Navy in the first half of the season. Tricky assignments, perhaps, but hardly impossible tasks, either. A couple of the most-challenging conference dates, vs. SMU and UCF, will both be played at Hattiesburg. And the games vs. Navy and UCF will be the only ones against FBS teams that finished above .500 a year ago.

The Golden Eagles were close to something special in HC Larry Fedora’s third campaign last fall, when the offense finally seemed to get the hang of the spread looks Fedora had imported from Oklahoma State, where he served as offensive coordinator before taking the USM job in 2008. Among last year’s victims were eventual CUSA winner UCF, beaten 31-21 at Orlando. But the Golden Eagles ended up losing four games by a combined 11 points, and astoundingly fell in three of those when scoring 43 points or more. An exasperating 31-28 setback to Louisville in the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl summed up a discouraging campaign in which USM felt it deserved better than its ultimate 8-5 record.

Fedora’s well-balanced strike force, which ranked 18th in total offense and 15th in scoring (37 ppg) last season, figures to be able to uphold its end of the bargain again, especially if productive sr. QB Austin Davis, just 2 TD passes away from leapfrogging Favre in the USM record book, stays healthy (which he couldn’t back in 2009, when missing more than half of that season with a broken foot). Davis, whose best game last year was a 4-TD pass blitzkrieg vs. UCF, can also motor out of the pocket with his legs, gaining 452 rushing yards a year ago to complement his 3101 YP and rating as the perfect catalyst for the Fedora offense. What Fedora really likes about Davis, however, are his few mistakes (only 6 picks LY). The top four rushers also return from last year’s effective infantry that churned out better than 200 ypg, paced by the thunder-and-lightning combo of punishing soph Kendrick Hardy (team-best 903 YR LY) and slashing Desmond Johnson, who added another 611 YR in 2010.

What concerns exist on the attack end mostly lie within a rebuilt offensive line that could start as many as four new faces for the September 3 opener at Roberts Stadium vs. La Tech. The forward wall, however, was one of CUSA’s best last year, and excelled at drive blocking which resulted in the backs gaining 4.7 ypc. Junior LG Joe Duhon rates as a potential honors candidate, and much of Fedora’s new-look OL was on the field for many snaps last season as part of a rotation, although both the guard and tackle spots on the right side had yet to sort themselves out entering fall camp. The receiving corps is another modest concern after losing a couple of key components from last season when leading pass catcher Johdrick Morris graduated and jr. DeAndre Brown decided to throw his hat into the NFL Draft ring (he wasn’t tabbed but did sign a free-agent deal with the Eagles). There’s still some established weaponry, however, in a “smurf-like” squadron featuring wispy 161-lb. sr. Kevin Bolden, a former juco with blazing speed who caught 46 passes a year ago. Fedora and o.c. Blake Anderson also have high hopes for the one sizable target in the mix, 6'4 soph Dominique Sullivan, who moved from QB in spring. In case things bog down in the red zone, reliable PK Danny Hrapmann can be counted upon to salvage something after connecting of 26 of 31 FGs in 2010.

But Fedora is really hoping that a changed recipe on the defensive side might push USM over the hump in 2011. Specifically, a switch from traditional 4-3 looks to a more-radical 4-2-5 for new coordinator Dan Disch, who arrives from Ron Zook’s Illinois staff to replace Todd Bradford, who moved to Maryland as part of Randy Edsall’s new regime. The 4-2-5 alignments are designed to get more speed on the field and hopefully improve the poor pass defense numbers that resulted in a 99th national ranking and a hefty 28 TD passes allowed (23 in the final eight games). The introduction of a fifth DB (the “spur”) highlights a revamped secondary that could have as many as four new starters in the fall, especially if soph Deron Wilson, who impressed at the boundary corner as a frosh, doesn’t return from off-field issues that kept him out of spring drills. His absence would put a pair of first-time starters at the CB spots, although CUSA sources say Disch is extremely excited about the athleticism in the secondary. Plenty of impact players return up front for a platoon that ranked 13th in run defense last fall, including all-CUSA DE Cordarro Law, a pass rushing demon from the edge, and a pair of senior LBs, Ronnie Thornton and Korey Williams, the latter having seriously considered making himself eligible for the NFL Draft before deciding to come back for one more swing at the ring in Hattiesburg. DE Deddrick Jones, one of three players injured in a shooting outside a local nightclub last November, is fully recovered and expected to reclaim his starting spot.

Summary...Southern Miss bears watching, not only as one of the CUSA favorites, but a possible longshot candidate to break into the BCS. The pieces, of course, must fall into place, and new d.c. Dan Disch’s revamped 4-2-5 looks for the stop unit have to resonate better than last year’s 4-3 alignments. But the schedule is tailor-made for a commando raid into the national polls, and the offense figures to be dynamic as long as senior QB Austin Davis continues to fire away in Larry Fedora’s progressive spread. Remember, just a few breaks a year ago and USM could have been a 10 or 11-win team. A tenth straight bowl visit is a minimum expectation, and anything less than a CUSA title would be a disappointment. But it’s that possible stealth bid for a BCS Buster spot that makes the Golden Eagles so intriguing this fall.

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