USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Southern Mississippi didn't celebrate the end of its two-year losing streak with balloons, confetti, champagne or otherwise, partially due to the locale – the visitor's locker room at UAB is pretty small – and the final result: USM was tickled, obviously, but one win out of 12 still means, yes, 1-11.
So there are bigger moments to celebrate in the future, Todd Monken hopes. Like, for example, an extended winning streak – two or more in a row, something the Golden Eagles haven't achieved since December 2011. Or a win against a bowl team, another feat unmatched since the salad days under Larry Fedora.
2014 COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
This is still a program that went 18 years without a losing season, then the fourth-longest active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and still a program that fairly recently cried in despair over a conveyer belt of seven wins, five losses, another seven wins, another five losses. The Golden Eagles have been dragged through the mud; that doesn't mean this team – and this program – don't hold itself to a higher standard.
Let's just update the standard for 2014. Rather than expecting seven wins, Southern Miss wants more than one. Rather than a great offense, the Eagles might settle for a good one. Instead of a vintage USM defense – aggressive, crushing, jawing – just one that limits opponents to an average of, say, less than 42 points.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Monken will eventually bring USM back to the light offensively. I don't think he'll do so in 2013, and when combined with an unsteady defense, I'm not convinced that the Eagles have what it takes to leap back into postseason play. Another factor is this schedule, which sends USM to Nebraska, Arkansas, Boise State, ECU, Marshall and Louisiana Tech. It's the most difficult schedule of any Conference USA team and perhaps the most difficult of any non-AQ in the country. While there will be some major improvement seen across the board, I'm not picking USM to get to six wins and a bowl game in Monken's first season. That's coming soon – just not from the start.
In a nutshell: USM ended one of the most inexplicable losing streaks in college football history – 23 games, or nearly two full seasons – with a year-ending victory at UAB. There are worse ways to enter the offseason. But the Golden Eagles remained one of the bottom teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision under Monken, as was the case under Ellis Johnson, as was never the case under Fedora, now at North Carolina, or Jeff Bower, the most consistent winner in Conference USA history. But here's one crucial difference: Southern Miss was still terrible in 2013, but it felt different. Thank Monken, who seems to have a vision for reclaiming the Golden Eagles' perch in a new-look conference. If we look beyond the standings, the early returns have been positive.
High point: The 62-27 win against UAB in the finale. The 62 points topped the Eagles' output from the previous four games combined – and accounted for 30.2% of the team's total scoring output for the season. More than anything, it snapped the losing streak.
Low point: Losing to Florida International.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Conference USA
Tidbit: Now that it's over, let's put the Eagles' losing streak into perspective. For one, the 23-game stretch ties Duke (1999-2002) and Northern Illinois (1996-98) for the fifth-longest in FBS history, trailing Northwestern at 34 games (1979-82); Virginia (1958-61) and Kansas State (1945-48) at 28; New Mexico State (1988-90) and Eastern Michigan (1980-82) at 27; and Colorado State (1960-63) at 26. Of USM's 23 losses, six came by single digits. In total, USM was outscored 957-441 during this two-year span – roughly an average final score of 40-18.
Tidbit (winning streak edition): At the time of its ugly death, USM's 18-year streak of winning seasons was the fourth-longest in the FBS, trailing Florida State, Virginia Tech and Florida. With the Gators' stretch also coming to an end, the five longest active streaks of winning seasons belong to the Seminoles (37 years), Hokies (21), Boise State (16), Oklahoma (15) and LSU (14).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Last active 2012 FBS hire to reach a bowl game
1. Charlie Weis, Kansas
2. Norm Chow, Hawaii
3. Tim Beckman, Illinois
4. Justin Fuente, Memphis
5. Bob Davie, New Mexico
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Monken is pretty sure he's found his quarterback. He's found the Eagles' starter, at least; whether Nick Mullens is the answer hinges on how the sophomore performs this fall, his first as the program's full-time quarterback after an uneven FBS debut. Don't be surprised: Mullens wasn't perfect last fall, but let's remember the circumstances – the 11 losses, the awful defense, the lack of assistance from his teammates at the skill positions. In essence, that Mullens struggled was utterly predictable. But then it clicked: Mullens threw for 370 yards and five scores in the finale against UAB, cementing his starting status heading into the offseason and showing Monken and this staff the sort of potential he brings to the table in this system. It's a big year for the sophomore; if he delivers, USM knows it can use Mullens as the foundation for the offense as a whole. Don't expect an all-conference season – that's far too much to put on Mullens' plate – but expect improvement. If Monken doesn't see early progression, don't be surprised if the Eagles quickly turn to another option, whether senior Cole Weeks, redshirt freshman Parker Adamson or true freshman Gunner Roach.
One factor that could limit Mullens' growth is a paltry running game. As elsewhere, and with young quarterbacks across the country, USM needs to remove pressure from the sophomore with a productive ground attack – loosening up the box and balancing out an otherwise uneven offense. The job will fall to sophomore Jalen Richard (318 yards), one of last season's primary options, with some help from sophomore George Payne (173 yards). Both are on the bigger end, but that size seems to come with a cost: USM had only 11 carries go for 20 or more yards last fall, the fifth-fewest in the FBS. Two incoming recruits will be asked to lend a hand.
On paper, this is the worst offensive line in the country. Inexperience? Check. The Eagles lose half of last year's starters – 10 linemen shuffled in and out of the lineup – and will be heavily reliant on underclassmen. A lack of production? You know it. The Eagles kindly ushered defensive linemen into the backfield on run plays and pass plays alike. One thing that's clear: Chip Lindsay, the Eagles' new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will have his hands full scheming around this front five. The lone positives comes from a few holdovers, like left tackle Rashod Hill, center Taylor Peterson and right guard Fred Moore, who should improve; and the addition of two JUCO transfers, Norman Price and Thomas Collins, who will absolutely play from the start. Even with the youth at quarterback, the lack of explosiveness at running back and the ongoing search for a go-to receiver, the line is the Eagles' greatest concern on offense.
Defense: This defense is in good shape – really, without any exaggeration. Not that there aren't issues. The biggest is the pass rush, or lack thereof, a weakness the Eagles hope to address with a reworked front four. The interior remains the same, and it's a pretty good one: Rakeem Nunez-Roches returns from injury, which is simply enormous, and joins Adam Williams, Wil Freeman and three fairly impressive redshirt freshmen. Nunez-Roches' return also allowed USM to shift sophomore Dylan Bradley (52 tackles) from nose to end, where's a far better fit; two birds, one stone. The ends should be good – should be, because Michael Smith and Dasman McCullum (37 tackles, 10.5 for loss) are capable of far more production. I really like this line, to be honest: USM is big inside, quick at one end and strong on the other, so the pieces are there for a very successful season. But the Eagles' front clearly needs to do a better job harassing quarterbacks.
The second level returns senior Alan Howze (38 tackles) after turf toe derailed his season in late September. At the time, Howze was leading the team in tackles; now healthy, he's set to assume a leadership role at the middle of the defense. He'll have some help from junior Terrick Wright (90 tackles), the team's leading returning tackler, and a number of new additions – such as freshman Darian Yancey, who enrolled early and rapidly grabbed a spot in the rotation. A very simple reason to expect improvement: USM might not be overly deep, but putting a healthy Howze together with Wright is a good thing.
Opponents found little difficulty through the air last fall, though most opted to merely pound away up front rather than take advantage of a youthful secondary. If not quite at its peak – this group needs another season – the Eagles' backfield is stronger, in a sense, though still unproven. One player to consider is senior safety Jacorius Cotton, who returns from a season away from the program to give USM a ball-hawking, punishing presence over the middle. Many of the same faces occupy familiar spots: Ed Wilkins and Kalan Reed are back at cornerback, joined by a handful of redshirt freshmen; Emmanuel Johnson (54 tackles) returns at safety; Kelsey Douglas makes the move to safety, where he'll enter the summer as Johnson's backup; and David Bertucci returns at the spur position, joined by Justin Penn. Like the defensive front – though I like the line more – this secondary is stronger than at any point a year ago.
Special teams: Southern Miss will look for improvement from a group that remains intact from a season ago. That may not be a good thing. Kicker Corey Acosta has been inconsistent on makeable field goals, to put it mildly, though his ability to make tries from beyond 40 yards seems to bode well for a potential lights-on moment as a senior. The Eagles' coverage teams were unreliable, particularly on punts, and will need help from the redshirt freshmen in the secondary to improve.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Before fulfilling its promise in Monken's high-octane offense, the Eagles need to round out a very top-heavy receiver corps. Speed is of the essence: USM needs to surround Mullens with reliable targets to ensure his growth as a multiple-year starter in this system, one that clearly flows from the quarterback; if the passing game clicks, one can imagine USM's offense making a steady climb out of the bottom half of Conference USA. One thing USM was able to do reasonably well last fall was get downfield, with 37 throws going for 20 or more yards, tied for the fourth-most in Conference USA. With a pair of threats gone, however, the Eagles must perform a slight rebuilding project around senior Markese Triplett (33 receptions for 558 yards), last season's leading receiver.
It's not a bad starting group, at least. Your top four: Triplett is a weapon in the slot, due to his size and athleticism; sophomore Marquise Richard (24 for 306) should build on a productive rookie season; sophomore D.J. Thompson has returned from a year lost to injury carrying roughly an extra 15 pounds of mass, which will help; and sophomore Tyre'oune Holmes (53 for 410) has the quickness to make plays in space, though that wasn't always evident a year ago. The issues are depth, which could be helped by a number of inexperienced holdovers and a crop of incoming recruits, and the lack of a game-changing, attention-grabbing option on the perimeter. The receiver corps looks stronger despite the two losses, but the Eagles need a full step forward from the position.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Appalachian State: USM will lose road games to Mississippi State and Alabama – obviously – but beat Alcorn State on Sept. 6, meaning a date with the Mountaineers will decide whether the Eagles can enter Conference USA action at an even 2-2. Not that Monken is stressing a return to the postseason, technically, but it's difficult to imagine a scenario where the Eagles salvage a successful season with a loss to the FBS newcomer. For starters, winning five games against a league slate that includes the top two teams from the East Division – Marshall and Middle Tennessee State – seems highly unlikely. Then there's the idea that any team that can't beat Appalachian State at home probably isn't headed for a banner season.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Part of me wants to jump on board: Southern Miss seems energized, judging by its performance during the spring, and is clearly motivated by the task of moving back into Conference USA's bowl picture. In this sense – that the Eagles are looking forward, and never in the rearview mirror – Monken has been a successful hire, even if the record suggests otherwise. It'd be easy for this program to wallow in its misery; that hasn't been the case. Once the roster catches up with this mentality, USM will be ready to fight Marshall, Middle Tennessee State and others for the top spot in the East Division. The Eagles simply aren't ready for that leap in 2014.
But I like the potential on defense, if not the likelihood of a banner season. To me, the line is less a concern – though the pass rush needs to show up – and more the foundation of a cohesive unit. The interior is solid; the ends are promising, though much hinges on Bradley's ability to navigate the position change. Returning Howze gives the defense a leader in the middle; he and Wright are a solid pair, even if USM can stand to get more athletic on the second level. Now, I don't think the secondary is ready: David Duggan needs to scheme around some of its deficiencies, though returning Cotton does give USM the intimidator clearly missing a season ago. If this group jells, the defense could win the Eagles a game or two during the regular season.
The offense lags, which is ironic, given Monken's background. Mullens isn't ready for a major leap into the top half of Conference USA. The backfield is a weak link. The receiver corps must stretch the field; this group must prove it can get downfield for this offense to hit its groove. Then there's the offensive line, a total disaster zone. So there's a lack of balance: USM is growing – this is obvious – but the program needs another year before the offense and defense can work in tandem. Expect three wins, two more than the previous two seasons combined, but the Eagles aren't quite ready for the next step.
Dream season: USM leaps back into bowl play with the help of an improved passing game and an imposing defense.
Nightmare season: The Eagles notch another 1-11 season, with the lone victory coming against Alcorn State.
Who's No. 112? This program has scored 30 or more point in its last 10 conference wins.