It has been a historic year for Southern Miss football, maybe the best in the history of the program.
The Golden Eagles achieved 11 wins for the first time, thumping then No. 6 Houston on the road in the Conference USA championship game. It is their first league title since 2003, and fifth overall.
Southern Miss also had its 18th straight winning season-only Florida, Florida State and Virginia Tech have longer streaks.
Amid all this excitement, some uncertainty and anger linger, especially among fans.
The anger comes from the Golden Eagles' postseason destination. First, Southern Miss was passed up by the nearby Liberty Bowl-a convenient trip for fans, and a game that had been a consistent host of Conference USA teams until this year. Instead, the Golden Eagles will head west, way west, for the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Of course, this isn't part of the BCS series, which upsets Golden Eagle loyalists too, and perhaps coach Larry Fedora, who disagreed with the notion his team's upset of Houston cost the conference millions.
"We didn't cost this conference any money, because we ought to be in a BCS bowl," Fedora said after his team upset Houston in the Conference USA championship game. "Houston is not going, we ought to be going and then everybody will get their money like they want."
After Southern Miss accepted the invitation to the Hawaii Bowl, Fedora gave a more politically correct assessment of his team's situation.
"I am extremely excited for this football team and coaching staff to have the opportunity to make our first trip to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl," Fedora said. "This is a tremendous trip for this Conference USA championship team that reached new heights this season and we arethrilled about the opportunity to face a very talented Nevada squad."
If Southern Miss had beaten Marshall and UAB this season-teams that combined for fewer wins (nine) than the Golden Eagles (11)-they almost certainly would have crashed the BCS party.
The uncertainty comes from all the rumors surrounding Fedora and the possibility he could leave Southern Miss for a greener program.
But all those concerns are in the past, or future. In the present,
Southern Miss fans still have one last chance to watch what may be the best team in program history culminate its season on a Christmas Eve game.
Behind record-setting quarterback Austin Davis and a versatile passing attack, the Golden Eagles wield one of the most superbly balanced teams in the nation. Only 14 teams in the country averaged more than 200 yards rushing and passing this season, and Southern Miss was one of those (so is Hawaii Bowl opponent Nevada).
The defense and special teams have been at once solid and exciting, as Southern Miss scored 12 non-offensive touchdowns this season.
Players To Watch:
- QB Austin Davis is the lynchpin to the Golden Eagles offense. He has accounted for 13 touchdowns (two rushing) compared to just three interceptions in the past five games. A leader for Southern Miss, he also has all the school's passing records.
- RB Tracy Lampley's versatility made him the MVP of the Conference USA championship game. He had 240 all-purpose yards and two receiving touchdowns in the game. He's also one of the most dangerous punt returners in the nation.
- DL Jamie Collins averages 1.5 tackles for loss per game, which is 10th best in the country. He leads the team in tackles and is second in sacks. Earlier this season he returned an interception 97 yards for a touchdown.
- K Danny Hrapmann is more reliable than most kickers in the country. He's consistent, scoring nearly 10 points per game, which is good for 13th nationally.
Bowl History: This year marks the 22nd bowl game in Southern Miss football history. The Golden Eagles are 9-12 in those games, but they have won only one of the past four postseason games. This is the 10th straight year that Southern Miss has played in a bowl game. Southern Miss is 3-0 against Nevada, but the two haven't played since the late 1990s.
Quote To Note: "Nobody gave us a chance, nobody thought we could win. There was a commercial that ran down the conference championship games and the last one was the Conference USA Championship and then they talked about Houston and they never even mentioned us, they never mentioned who Houston was playing. Everybody thought Houston was going to walk away with this thing and our guys took objection to that. - Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora, talking about what his team experienced the night before the Conference USA championship game victory over Houston.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Southern Miss has one of the most productive offenses in college football, and the rushing game is at its heart. It's a deep cadre of runners-five players have at least 332 rushing yards this season.
Scouting the passing game: By Conference USA standards, the Southern Miss passing game isn't outstanding, but it's still strong. Senior QB Austin Davis is experienced and owns every passing record at Southern Miss, the school that produced Brett Favre.
Scouting the run defense: The Golden Eagles' front seven is stubborn, but not because of its size. Southern Miss allowed less than 100 yards rushing to opponents seven times this season, including three of the final four games.
Scouting the pass defense: It's all about making plays in the secondary. Only four teams have picked off more passes than Southern Miss. Four Golden Eagles have at least two interceptions this season.
Scouting the special teams: Tracy Lampley and Danny Hrapman are the players to watch here. Lampley is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country, and Hrapmann is one of the more trusty kickers.
Intangibles: Southern Miss has a knack for scoring unconventionally. The Golden Eagles have 12 non-offensive touchdowns this season. They also seem to play their best in the biggest games-at the same time, they also lost two games they shouldn't have.