Did Southern Miss redeem itself?
Sports reporters react to bowl eligibility
The new era of Golden Eagle football under new Head Coach Jay Hopson encountered problems after what looked to be a historic season after starting 4-1. Soon, it became one that fans were wanting to forget after a three-game skid.
“A lot of people on the outside don’t understand all of the battles and adversities this team went through,” Hopson said.
USM was capable of being the best team in the conference — and then play like the worst team in the conference from week to week.
The Golden Eagles look primed to pick up right where they left from last season with a comeback win over favorite Kentucky. Yet after the Kentucky game, the team fell into a pattern of falling behind early, being outscored 132-86 in the first quarters.
The win at Kentucky may have given the team false pretenses that they could afford to make mistakes, like the defense learning on its offense to try and bail it out. This trend began to catch up with them in almost every loss in the season with the exception of LSU, then doubling down with the 55-32 loss at Texas-San Antonio.
Although the defense was inconsistent, the defensive line was solid throughout the entire year. The emergence of junior Xavier Thigpen and senior Dylan Bradley combined for 87 tackles, 5 forced fumbles and 26 tackles for loss. Senior safety D’Nerius Antoine led the team with 82 tackles and a forced fumble.
The offense itself had one of the most historical seasons in school history with Nick Mullens at the helm. Mullens broke the schools’ career passing yard and touchdown records. At the same time, junior running back Ito Smith proved to be the most clutch player on the offense making big plays when the team needed them, totaling 1,774 total yards and 16 touchdowns averaging 5.5 yards a carry.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, Louisiana Tech was on a seven-game win streak and coming to USM as a 14.5 point favorite. A combination of senior day, the return of Mullens and a need for one more win to make the team bowl-eligible, led to a release of all their frustrations, thrashing the Bulldogs 39-24.
“This team never quit,” Hopson said. “Even though we didn’t win all the games we wanted to win, we battled through a lot. I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a football team in my life.”
The win made the Golden Eagles bowl-eligible for the 20th time in 23 seasons and for the second time in a row.
The Golden Eagles entered the 2016 season with high expectations after a stellar 9-5 campaign in 2015, which included representing the West Division in the Conference USA championship game and an appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Despite having to adjust to a new coaching staff led by former Alcorn State Head Coach Jay Hopson, the Golden Eagles were selected to win the West Division for the second year in a row when the C-USA preseason media poll was released in July.
The Golden Eagles also had the advantage of returning key players from 2015 like quarterback Nick Mullens, running back Ito Smith and defensive lineman Dylan Bradley.
After a hot 4-1 start to the season, which included a 44-35 upset victory over SEC opponent Kentucky in the first week of the season, it looked as if the Southern Miss squad would live up to those preseason expectations. Then, the Golden Eagles season started to trend downward.
Texas-San Antonio hung 55 points on the Golden Eagles on Oct. 8, followed by a 45-10 defeat at the hands of LSU the next week.
While the team was able to get within one win of bowl eligibility during their Oct. 29 homecoming contest against Marshall, the three- game losing streak that followed would define the season for Southern Miss.
Quarterbacks Nick Mullens and Parker Adamson would both suffer injuries during a 38-27 loss against Charlotte, forcing Hopson to burn the redshirt off inexperienced freshman quarterback Keon Howard who gave the Golden Eagles a powerful dual-threat presence at the quarterback position, but he also had major turnover issues.
Howard committed five turnovers in a 51-35 loss in his first start at Old Dominion, followed by a four turnover performance the next week during a 29-23 loss at North Texas.
With a record of 5-6 heading into their final game against Louisiana Tech, the Golden Eagles were able to salvage their season. Quarterback Nick Mullens returned to action after a two-week absence to lead the team to a 39-24 victory over La. Tech to secure bowl eligibility.
While the 2016 regular season was a disappointment due to the team’s turnover problems and injuries at the quarterback position, the chance to play in a bowl game and the possibility of finishing the season with a winning record is a big positive for the Golden Eagles and their fans after an up-and-down season.
For every rise, there is a fall.
Southern Miss was projected to win the C-USA West Division but finishing the second half of the season 2-5, killing conference championship hopes. Finishing 6-6 on the season with a bowl game being obtainable can be considered a fairly good season for the Golden Eagles, but much more was expected.
Everyone knows about all the new faces Southern Miss acquired this season. Many questions were in the air about what they could bring but after the 44-35 comeback win against Kentucky in the first game of the season, many of those concerns were silenced.
From Kentucky to Rice, Southern Miss was showing how dominant it could be. A shutout win against Savannah State and only allowing Texas-El Paso to score once proved defensively the Golden Eagles were on track for a good season.
After defeating Rice, Southern Miss’ schedule consisted of two games that were up in the air — LSU and La. Tech — and the remaining teams should have favored the Golden Eagles to win compared to last years turnout.
A 23-point loss to Texas-San Antonio raised many eyebrows but was not much to worry about as it was only USM’s second loss. The loss to SEC powerhouse LSU was also not a concern. But when Charlotte handed Southern Miss a loss, concerns started to surface again. A four-year old program with a fairly young roster against the mature Golden Eagles was in no doubt on paper an easy win. Southern Miss’ luck did not end there as they dropped the next two games to North Texas and Old Dominion to continue the three-game losing streak.
At 5-6, Southern Miss was one win away from missing bowl eligibility. With La .Tech being the last game and considering they are C-USA West champions, a 6-6 season did not look obtainable for the Golden Eagles. After winning 39-24, is 6-6 good enough?
With the Golden Eagles having a fairly easy schedule this year, many could have seen a 10-2 or 9-3 record being highly obtainable. So 6-6 can be a let down to some but not far from a productive year. If Southern Miss ends the season winningz a bowl game, one cannot be mad but if they do not much more talk will come into play.