What everyone believes this summer, non-obvious division
One game short last year and with the most returning starters in the league's top half, the beloved Eagles are on top again, at last. Why do I feel nauseous?
The Sporting News:
This is the closest thing to an SEC team outside of the SEC. (Ranked 24th in Top 25)
Street and Smith's:
None that I'm aware.
This is the kind of unchecked optimism, so long in coming since the days it was taken for granted, now met more with foreboding. This is not a very dominant team for such unanimity. Coming as it does more by default skepticism of the rest of the oft-dissed conference than by any substantial belief in the talent or virtue of my alma mater, I'm compelled to temper the party with the inherent, shall we say, inefficiencies that have limited it to a single championship banner in a decade of consistent opportunity:
* Conservatism/Lack of Big Play Ability It's very satisfying to have a consistent runner like Damion Fletcher on board, but he reportedly runs like a 4.7 40 and his longest run as a freshman didn't even get that far (36 yards). The entire offense only generated one play longer than 50 yards, the result of an egregious missed tackle by some hapless member of the Central Florida secondary, and hasn't finished near the top half of the country in total offense since 1999. We like our passes short, safe and predictable, or not at all. Actually, is "not at all" an option? If at any point this fall it appears it might be, expect Jeff Bower to take it.
Hmmm...maybe it's time to try the middle screen again...
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* Excessive Reliance on Special Teams and Opportunism Phil Steele is fond of pointing out Southern's habit of being outgained in conference games - by 62 ypg in 2003, 21 ypg in 2004 and 38 ypg in 2005 - yet still managing to win via a perpetually robust turnover margin and a sound kicking game. Even with the slight reversal of the yardage trend last year (USM created a gaping 16-yard chasm against C-USA teams), the Eagles still relied heavily on seven touchdowns by the defense and special teams and the fortune of a plus-six turnover margin. The point here is that actual every-down production and physicality is not significantly above the rest of the league by any means.
* The Annual Upset Not by, per the old "giant killer" tag, but of: as you might expect from the last category, Southern Miss has lost as a favorite in title-killing fashion since 2001 to Memphis, TCU, South Florida, Tulane, Cincinnati, TCU again, Tulsa, Memphis again and East Carolina. This doesn't happen all that frequently (see the "cupcake" bit below), but maybe two of those losses - the second times around against Memphis and TCU - weren't complete shocks, and every version of USM save the 2003 conference champion has had its season derailed by at least one of those games. That team had to mount an improbable, penalty-aided comeback at Cincinnati in the process of going 8-0, and the `04 and `05 teams only wound up in bowl games because of similar absurdity amid certain defeat against Houston and Marshall. The margin between big prizes and humiliation has been miniscule for a series of teams that subsequently tend to be described as "scrappy."
* The Ceiling The model Southern Miss team this decade is 2003, the only team in that span to win a championship or reach nine wins in the regular season. Last year's team, with the twelfth game against I-AA SE Louisiana, was the only other since the 1999 champs to win eight; before that, totals were 7-6-7-9-6-6. On a twelve-game schedule, with non-conference gimmes Tennessee-Martin (ugh) and Arkansas State, USM should count on having to win at least nine to get back to the C-USA championship. I've written already that this bar ought to be raised.
The virtue of Southern Miss football in all its stodgy glory is its consistent ability to devour the half dozen or so cupcakes that come its way every year and that make up roughly half or more of the crucial conference schedule. For that, and for beating a more respectable mediocrity or two, it gets to go to the New Orleans or GMAC bowls. In lieu of turning a new leaf in any of the above trends, it's there, in the milds of this year's C-USA slate, that so much of the promise of a coveted championship rests. Specifically, the league's biannual, wholesale rotation of interdivision matches dumps West favorites Houston and Tulsa - against whom the Eagles are 1-4 the last two years, three of the losses by double digits - for home games with conventionally "rising" but more managable Rice and SMU. Losing Tulane for a trip to transfer haven UTEP balances the rotation some, but the whole, with no consensus challenger in the East, is a net gain in victory potential.
A time to laugh, a time to weep, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
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Aside from the external opportunities, this is the first Southern Miss offense in at least five years that expects to bring something to the table instead of merely hoping the cloth doesn't slide off onto the floor. Fletcher's persistent slashing seemed to be solely responsible for increasing the team's per carry average by a full yard, turning one of the most hopeless, inconsistent running games in the conference into its model of zone blocking efficacy. Fellow freshman Tory Harrison's addition to the rotation spurred four consecutive 200-yard games in the November stretch run, as many in one month as the team had managed from 2003-05 combined, but still the rub on a return to the Liberty Bowl is Fletcher's spotty health: three career-starting interior linemen might be missed, but running backs regularly failed behind them before, and the entire offense ground to a halt when Fletcher was forced out of strong games in eventual losses at Tulsa and then Houston in the C-USA championship. I've said this before, even before last season, but the very limited passing game doesn't pick up the slack when USM fails on the ground - so many of Young's problems have been blamed on an unforgiving turf toe, but that's a cop out: he completed 64 percent with eight touchdowns and no interceptions last year in the eight games USM topped 140 yards rushing, and fell way, way off when Fletcher was held in check, to 52 percent and six picks to only three touchdowns. The Eagles were 7-1 in the former case and 2-4 in the latter.
Assuming Fletch is still doing his poor man's Mike Hart, even a gimpy, turf-toed Young will be good enough to take advantage of defenses' diverted attention. Whether or not it actually gets diverted, and the offense is a worthy compliment to conference's undisputed top defense as a result, is up to the new members of the interior line.