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Absurdly Premature Homerism: Southern Miss

A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Southern Miss...
2006 Record
9-5 (6-3 C-USA/ First, East)
Past Five Years
39-25 (28-12 C-USA)
Returning Starters, Roughly
16 (8 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
The best athlete and pro prospect, without a doubt, is tight end Shawn Nelson. But where Nelson was inconsistent and fought through injuries as a sophomore, true freshman Damion Fletcher’s impact on the arch-conservative offense was immediate and obvious. He’s relatively slow, but quick, slashing, low to the ground, tough to bring down. His importance was most clear, actually, when he wasn’t getting the ball, as in the pass-happy second half at Tulsa, the entire Virginia Tech game following minor surgery and the second half of the C-USA championship at Houston after Fletch tweaked a knee, all catalysts for the offense to grind to the halt that’s always around the corner. With Fletcher regularly involved, the chains always moved. I don’t expect his raw production to increase, but it doesn’t have to for him to remain the best back in Conference USA.
Bizarre Tradition
Southern Miss played for years as the "Southerners," which was nearly reinstated in the 1972 student vote that replaced the nickname with "Golden Eagles" (I remain dismayed that "Golden Eagles" defeated the runner-up, "Warlords"). The most offensive embodiment of this pastiche was a mascot, General Nat, who took his name from ruthless general Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the original Ku Klux Klan, and apparently roamed the sidelines in Confederate garb. I’d feel bad about this, but at least Nat was scrapped eight years before the first precious Colonel Reb mascot appeared at Ole Miss.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
USM has something of a "giant killer" rep, but it’s been tough going on that front recently. The Eagles are 2-4 against ranked teams since 2000, one of those wins coming early against an Alabama team that finished 3-8. If Southern beats Tennessee in September, the Vols have every reason to pull their hair out: besides Alabama, major losers to USM since have consisted of defending Big Ten champion Illinois (5-7 finish in 2002), Joe Dailey-led Nebraska (5-6 in 2004) and N.C. State (3-9 last year). It’s not pretty. We’ll take it, but it’s not pretty.
To be clear, for readers who didn't know, I know, trust and love Southern Miss above all others in college football and in university-affiliated life in general. Extreme bias in this case, however, is not dishonesty. I'm afraid, sometimes, the ones you love are the ones you hurt the most.

What's Changed: George Batiste redshirted in 2002, then started 47 of 50 games at left guard, almost all of them with Travis Cooley as his counterpart, the last two years sandwiching classmate Robby D'Angelo at center. A great deal of of that time spent was with mediocre runners slamming into their very large backsides for no gain. So nobody noticed them much, until those runners were scrapped for a no-name freshman and yards per carry shot up by almost a full yard over the previous three seasons and USM led C-USA in rushing after most recent finishes of tenth, eighth and eleventh. The Eagles piled uo six 200-yard rushing games, up from zero. That back will get most of the attention for the improvement (he gets plenty further down), but it's very likely he'll find the spotlight, and daylight, somewhat dimmer behind three new, unheralded protectors with hardly a meaningful snap between them.

The best new option up front may be Julius Gray, a 325-pound JUCO monster with the rare trait of four stars next to his name, at least twice the number of any of his competition, returning or otherwise.

What's the Same: Faces come and go, but nothing ever really changes at Southern Miss. Even the rotation of coordinators is on a predictable axis: the last three defensive coordinators have each moved on to same job in the SEC; the last three offensive bosses have been fired within three years. Jeff Bower's wrapping up Spring practice number seventeen here as head coach (he was a USM assistant before that, and USM quarterback before that, with a few stops in between), and you know what you're going to get. Southern's had 13 consecutive winning seasons back to 1995 and won between seven and nine games in ten of the last eleven years. Never five wins, never ten. The Eagles have not ostensibly changed schemes or philosophy on either side of the ball in well over a decade, have typically promoted from within, have not finished near the top half of the nation in total offense since 1999 and have not, with the exception of 2005, finished near the bottom half in total defense in much longer than that. In fact, the offense has averaged somewhere between 323 and 357 total yards over every season this decade. Think of it as the mid-major Michigan - stodgy but admirably consistent, comfortable with the familiar, always good in context, rarely great.

Jeff Bower: Incredulity you can set your watch by.
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This is totally cool most of the time, except when you see teams like TCU and Louisville, ex-conference underlings each less than a decade removed from seasons with one and zero overall wins, respectively, win double digit games four of the last five years and take up residence in the top 25 and at the top of conferences generally considered as tough or tougher than Conference USA - whose championship Southern once owned but has won now only once in six years, by the way, and that only by upsetting previously undefeated TCU. Those above and below may change, but its with a lot of pride and about as much frustration that Southern Miss never goes anywhere.

Actual Players: Yes. There are a few, some of whom I actually like, and none in that category moreso than Damion Fletcher. He gave up a few carries late in the season to another solid freshman, Tory Harrison, and might be pressed by incoming Antwain Easterling, a stunning signee many times more hyped out of high school than Fletcher or Harrison was last year, or possibly that USM has signed in its history. I have no doubts Easterling is physically more impressive than Fletcher in every measurable way, but the latter demonstrated consistently despite his lack of size, speed or any other intimidating trait that intangible knack for making the right cut, keeping his balance and picking up yardage in every situation. A lot of yardage, more than any freshman back has gained in school history, and the fact that he was able to do it against Florida (89 yards on 4.9 per carry in his first game) and N.C. State (177 and three scores on 6.3 per carry) with a supporting passing to weep for is evidence he's going to have a solid career - if he stays healthy. The main reason for Harrison's quasi-emergence and the presence of five-foot-nine javelin thrower Conrad Chanove at all was Fletch's troubling tendency toward minor nicks during the second half of the season. Those questions and his sheer potential make Easterling a luxury, but one I'd rather have had at a more needy position, like, say, cornerback? The prospects there after losing three-year starter Caleb Hendrix and posterized but perfectly adequate Jasper Faulk are grim.

No one escapes the wrath of McRath.
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Otherwise...: The defense is pretty experienced and has all the guys I really like. Tackle Martavius Prince is a real motor player who outplayed transfers from Southern Cal and LSU to make the leap into an all-conference caliber anchor last season. Behind him, linebacker Gerald McRath finally stayed healthy past the second game and led the team in tackles - three consecutive, different USM linebackers had won the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year before last season, and even though no preseason conjecture's going to give it to him (or should at this point), I'd love to see McRath pick that streak back up. Green as the corners are going to be, the safeties should be in pretty good hands, especially with Brandon Sumrall, who spent a lot of last year productively in a rover/nickel role and logged his second straight 80-tackle season.

The missing ingredient: pass rush. Sacks were way down last year, even as Robert Henderson looked ready to emerge as a terror at end. Didn't happen, though he did manage a dozen tackles for loss. Anyway, there was big defensive improvement over 2005's very young bunch, and give me eight returning starters who only allowed 308 yards per game, and I expect the best unit in Conference USA, whatever that's worth.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Some serious drama accompanied the rained-out groundbreaking on a $31 million end zone expansion last week:

Pond-like puddles spread across the Momentum Turf at Roberts Stadium as recruits and their parents shook off umbrellas before shaking hands with USM coaches and players in the main downstairs hall of the athletic facility.

"The Bible tells us when significant things happened, thunder and storms happened," said Father Tommy Conway, pastor of St. Thomas Catholic Church and football team chaplain. "So, perhaps it's only fitting with this storm (Saturday)."

That must be some expansion. But much more interesting is the practice progress of Jeremy Young, who had a turf toe thing, never cracked 200 yards passing in any game and never nailed down the job despite starting every game. Bower was willing to write off last year's inconsistency to "a lot of pain," and said things this Spring like, "the best I've seen him throw it." So this year he may hit 40 percent of his attempts against Tulsa?

That's not very fair, since Young was usually extremely efficient when USM ran well - in eight games the team topped 140 yards rushing, Young completed 64 percent with eight touchdowns and no interceptoons. When he was forced to throw, though, it was ugly as it could be: in the six games the running game was held in check, Young only completed 52 percent (just 3 of 12 at Tulsa) and threw all six of his interceptions to three touchdowns. Part of that is facing Florida and Virginia Tech, but he struggled in conference games against the likes of East Carolina, too. So "the best he's thrown it" has a lot less to do with Young himself than the situation the team puts him in.

Southern Miss on YouTube: I am on record opposing the change from the old growling, potbellied Seymour mascot to the sleeker, open-mouthed version. But this kind of rocking will get any anthropomorphic furry in my good graces, even if it is at a basketball game:

See Also: Houston fans not pleased with USM's brilliant strategy on the last play of the first half in the C-USA Championship Game ("Fans, uh, please don't throw anything on the field..."); the rather, um, laid back amosphere of the pregame Eagle Walk, and the traditional painting of the Eagle Walk at freshman orientation; speaking of freshmen, last year's recruits enthusiastically sing the fight song at "Eagle FanFare"; and Patrick Surtain delivers a huge lick circa 1996.  

Best-Case: The first month reads "at Tennessee" and "at Boise State" in a three-week span, but the other non-conference games are Tennessee-Martin and Arkansas State and there is nothing intimidating about the conference slate - it doesn't include defending champ Houston or Tulsa, the team that's driven USM the craziest the past two years and figures to make waves by Mahlzannin' it up. Those two are mercifully replaced by Rice and SMU. Southern may not be the league's dominant team these days, but it should still be a favorite in every league game. Southern hasn't won ten in any season has won ten only once (with soph Favre in 1988) since 1952, but if it takes the ones it should, the East championship will be there with at least nine regular season wins and another conference championship appearance. Maybe as host this time.

As long as we don't ask our quarterback to throw, we should be fine.
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Worst-Case: Lose at stabilizing East Carolina - the most shameful home defeat in recent memory last year - and it's probably a 1-3 start heading into a trap-type game with Rice and Jarrett Dillard facing those noob corners. SMU had a good, athletic freshman quarterback. Marshall should have beat USM in Huntington the last time, in 2005. Never take Memphis for granted. Is UTEP still flinging it around out there? The Eagles haven't lost more than three conference games in a season in Conference USA, but anytime, anywhere, etc...If that streak doesn't hold, we could be looking at 6-6, and probably the shaming sting of missing a bowl game.

Non-Binding Forecast: I'm more excited after reviewing this schedule than I've been about the preseason prospects of any USM team in the last five years. There is no reason the Eagles shouldn't be the C-USA favorite, and shouldn't wind up back in the Liberty Bowl, where they ought to be. The offensive line will be the difference. It will take a couple minor upsets for Southern to win fewer than eight and/or miss a return trip to the conference championship, so, optimistically, I'm going to risk extreme hubris by looking forward to ten wins, even if it takes a bowl game to get there.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida