Southern Miss is one of college football's most consistent programs.
Since 1992, the Golden Eagles have endured one losing season. They have appeared in a bowl game for 10 straight years and only missed out on the postseason once since 1997.
To the frustration of fans in Hattiesburg, Miss., the team rarely was successful enough to grab the national spotlight, especially in the football-crazed south. That changed last year when the Golden Eagles won a school-record 12 games, a Conference USA title and a bowl game in Hawaii.
But all that success wrought change. Coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina, which gave former Southern Miss assistant Ellis Johnson a chance to lead the Golden Eagles program.
Johnson and his staff will be tested this year because, despite all the success and positive momentum at Southern Miss, the team has a new quarterback and plenty of holes to fill on the defense that helped the team standout in shootout-happy Conference USA.
"We are much, much better as a football team now, than we were in the spring and it has really accelerated over the last five to six days," said Johnson to the Biloxi Sun Herald. "One reason for that is we have improved offensively, which is helping our defense."
- Somebody on the Southern Miss roster has big shoes to fill. Last year's versatile, athletic and experienced quarterback Austin Davis is gone. The most likely candidate to take his place is redshirt junior Chris Campbell, but Golden Eagles coach Ellis Johnson has said that multiple QBs could play over the course of the year. Freshmen Ricky Lloyd and Anthony Alford have also had impressive moments and could see the field.
Said Johnson to local media about the situation for the season opener against Nebraska: "I hope I can see all three and I hope it's for the right reasons. We're just going to have to see. Nebraska may not allow that."
- Ellis Johnson is in his first year as a FBS head coach. In most years, this would be a disadvantage, but it may not have a noticeable effect this season for Southern Miss, particularly in Conference USA games. Johnson is one of five first-year head coaches in the league this season. Southern Miss plays two of those teams, UAB and Memphis. But the Golden Eagles play three teams ranked in the preseason top 25-Nebraska, Boise State and Louisville.
- Jamal Woodyard wasn't expected to play this season after injuring a knee during last season's bowl game. Then he was arrested in May on robbery charges. For most teams, that kind of turbulence in the running game could be devastating. Not for Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles still have a deep and talented backfield. As many as five running backs could see substantial carries this season, including senior Desmond Johnson and junior Jeremy Hester, both of whom are listed as first-string players. Junior Kendrick Hardy is listed as third, and he led the team in rushing as a freshman.
Scouting The Offense: New head coach. New offensive coordinator. New starting quarterback. In many ways, the Southern Miss offense will look at lot different this season. First-year offensive coordinator Steve Buckley plans to use the Golden Eagles running backs in the passing game more than the previous regime. Good idea. Southern Miss has depth and talent in the backfield with four experienced players - Johnson, Hardy, Hester and Tracey Lampley, who will play more in the slot than in the backfield.
Scouting The Defense: Southern Miss lost seven defensive players from last year's bunch, and it was hit particularly hard on the defensive line and linebacker groups. Both projected started linebackers have yet to make a start on the Division I level. The unit has plenty to prove, but they looked smooth this spring because the new defensive coordinator Tommy West kept the 4-2-5 defense that was so successful for them last season. Two of the top returning players are defensive lineman Jamie Collins and defensive back Deron Wilson, who led the Golden Eagles in interceptions last season.
Quote To Note: "I'm not trying to pull a trick. We don't feel like we know right now." - Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson when asked if he was trying to keep hidden the name of his starting quarterback
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game: Southern Miss at Nebraska, Sept. 1-So how is Southern Miss starting the encore to what may have been the best football season in school history? With a trip to Nebraska, to play one of college football's elite at their venerable home venue, Memorial Stadium. The last time Southern Miss opened the season on the road against a nationally ranked team was 2010, and the Golden Eagles lost badly to South Carolina. But the last time Southern Miss ventured to Nebraska, in 2004, it left with a win.
Keys To The Game: If Southern Miss' defense can't win some significant battles against Nebraska's powerful running attack, this could be lopsided. Behind running back Rex Burkhead and chiseled dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Cornhuskers should be strong on the ground. Southern Miss' new quarterback, whoever he is, will has to play with poise at a rowdy Memorial Stadium,
Players To Watch:
QB Chris Campbell - Through spring ball and the early part of preseason practice, Campbell has been the one slated to replace record-setting Golden Eagles quarterback Austin Davis. He is an honor student with a quarterback pedigree (his great-grandfather was a signal caller at Memphis), but he is unproven. Steady play early could assuage worries about the Golden Eagles' offense.
DE Jamie Collins - A gifted athlete, Collins is projected to be an early-round NFL draft pick. He was among the team's leaders in sacks, tackles and tackles for loss last year. He is also one of the few returning starters on the defense, so leadership will be important.
RB/KR Tracey Lampley - There is probably not a more dangerous kick returner in all of Conference USA. He was named the preseason C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year after compiling nearly 800 return yards last year. He also adds a big-play threat to the backfield, in part because of his receiving skills.