USM expects improvement in 2013

Coach Monken demonstrates where he wants the football to be thrown during a preseason practice. Christopher Little/Printz

Coach Monken demonstrates where he wants the football to be thrown during a preseason practice.
Christopher Little/Printz

The Southern Miss football program faces an uphill battle to return to its rightful place in college football. The pieces are already in place for the Golden Eagles to continue their tradition as a fixture in January bowl games.

No one needs to be reminded about the disastrous 2012 season. With a new athletic director, head coach and quarterback, Southern Miss will attempt to start a new streak of winning seasons and re-establish a winning culture.  That battle begins Saturday, Aug. 31 when the Golden Eagles play host to the Texas State Bobcats at 6 p.m.

Texas State is entering their second season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision and first as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.  The Bobcats held their own last season, finishing 4-8 with an impressive win against Houston. The team barely lost to Louisiana Tech who finished the season ranked 20th in the nation.

The Bobcats are virtually unknown to many college football fans, but may not be an easy team to beat. Head coach Dennis Franchione will have his team more than ready to play Saturday night. However, after losing last year’s star quarterback, Shaun Rutherford, the team could struggle against the talented Golden Eagles.

After Saturday, the Eagles will play their next three games on the road against perennial powerhouses, Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State.  With so much uncertainty surrounding USM’s starters, the Golden Eagles could struggle in all three contests.

The USM offense runs ball-carrying drills during a preseason practice.  Offensive coaches are stressing ball security to the inexperienced running backs. Christopher Little/Printz

The USM offense runs ball-carrying drills during a preseason practice. Offensive coaches are stressing ball security to the inexperienced running backs.
Christopher Little/Printz

Nebraska quarterback and Heisman hopeful Taylor Martinez could have another field day against USM.  Martinez threw for 354 yards and five touchdowns against the Golden Eagles’ defense to open the season last year.

Arkansas had a down season a year ago, but they still have plenty of top tier SEC talent that will be tough for USM to match up with.  Expect more rushing attempts from the Razorback offense with new head coach Bret Bielema. His Wisconsin teams were known for a physical running game.

Boise State head coach Gary Petersen has made a name for himself over his seven-year tenure. In his time as head coach, the Broncos have lost a total of eight games. Petersen has his guys ready to play every game, every year.

USM should provide great competition in these games. First-year head coach Todd Monken has a plan in place for the Eagles, even though he won’t comment on what the starting roster will look like.

After three tough games on the road, the Golden Eagles will start their conference schedule Oct. 5 against Florida International.  FIU had a rough year in 2012, stumbling to a 3-9 record.  This will be the first meeting for FIU and USM as the Panthers are new to Conference USA.

This could be the first time this season that the Southern Miss football program will be able to see where they stand moving forward.  It’s a true make or break game for the Golden Eagles as they could earn their first conference win.

USM will continue their conference schedule when they travel to take on the East Carolina Pirates. They’ll have their hands full with an impressive ECU team who only had one conference loss last season.

The Pirates are returning a lot of talent and their passing game could cause some major headaches for the USM secondary.  The attack will be led by junior quarterback Shane Carden, who progressed over the 2012 season.  Carden averaged 298 passing yards per game along with throwing for 21 touchdowns over the Pirates’ final nine games.

With USM’s revamped offense, this matchup could easily turn into an entertaining shootout.

The following week, USM will host North Texas. They are another newcomer to C-USA after previously being a member of the Sun Belt conference.  The Mean Green had a 4-8 record last season and are under the direction of third-year head coach Dan McCarney.

The Mean Green won’t be a cakewalk for USM as they possess two talented running backs in Brandin Byrd and Antoine Jimmerson. Southern Miss could generate some momentum going into the heart of their schedule if they can hold down the Mean Green rushing attack.

The following week, the Eagles will travel to West Virginia to take on Marshall. The Thundering Herd have given Southern Miss trouble over the past two years and possessed the best passing attack in the FBS last season.

Prolific quarterback Rakeem Cato will be entering his third season as the starter and if last season was any indication, he will shred defenses all year.  Marshall’s defense is shaky to say the least.  Marshall ranked 123rd among 124 FBS teams in points allowed per game in 2012.

With two offenses that love to throw the football, expect another shootout.  With points at a premium in today’s game, there is only so much a defense can do to slow down an offense to keep them from putting points on the board.  Whoever is lining up at quarterback for USM should be able to produce some eye-popping numbers in this game. It could come down to which team has the ball last.

The Golden Eagles will then travel to Ruston, La. to face a Louisiana Tech team who are also new to C-USA.  La Tech finished 20th in the nation last season, but lost dynamic duo Colby Cameron and Quinton Patton to the NFL along with head coach Sonny Dykes.

This will be a season of firsts for the Bulldogs.  They are in a new conference, have a new head coach in Skip Holtz and have a new starting quarterback in Scotty Young.

While their passing game may suffer, the Bulldogs have a special runner who put up huge numbers as a true freshman a year ago.  Sophomore Kenneth Dixon ran for 1,197 yards and 27 touchdowns during his first year on campus.  The Bulldogs would be smart to make the Arkansas native their workhorse this season as they move forward with a new quarterback.

The “Rivalry in Dixie” should produce another great game regardless of what the two teams look like.  The Southern Miss and La Tech rivalry has been around since 1935. The Golden Eagles have dominated the series, winning 31 of the 44 matchups, though the games have come much closer recently.  The last three games between the teams have been decided by a total of six points, with USM winning all three.

The following week, USM will return home to take on another new conference opponent, Florida Atlantic. The Owls had a rough season last year, finishing 3-9.  FAU didn’t really have a strength in any level on either side of the ball.  If the Golden Eagles have hopes for a bowl game, this is a must-win game. By this point in the season, USM’s offense should be firing on all cylinders and won’t let this one get away.

Southern Miss will have their hands full again when they host Middle Tennessee State Nov. 23.  The Blue Raiders posted an 8-4 record a year ago, but did not participate in a bowl game despite being more than qualified.

MTSU are returning some key pieces on offense, but lost their leading receiver Anthony Amos. He was able to take the top off the defense time and time again last season with his elite speed. Amos’ production will be hard to replace and MTSU doesn’t have a lot of proven receivers to replace him.

If the Golden Eagles’ defense is able to key in on the running game, they should be able to get another conference win.  It won’t be an easy task with MTSU leading rusher Jordan Parker returning. Parker rushed for an impressive 851 yards last season as a true freshman and will get the bulk of the carries.

The Blue Raiders’ defense could have a hard time with USM’s up-tempo offense considering they lost many of their starters from last season.  It’ll most likely be a close game and most close games in college football go to the home team.

USM will finish the regular season on the road against UAB.  The Blazers struggled last season and ended with a 3-9 record.  Their offense was able to move the ball between the 20’s, but struggled scoring much-needed touchdowns.  Their biggest hurdle was not scoring points.

The Blazers’ defense allowed the 11th most points in the country last season.  Most of that came by passing. It’s what USM should be able to do against UAB.  Points could be plentiful on both sides, but the Golden Eagles should be able to put up more.

If USM can manage to win against weak conference opponents, they should be bowl eligible with six or seven wins.  One win would be an improvement over last season, but this team is easily capable of restoring its tradition.  There will be some growing pains for Southern Miss, but look for them to rebound in a big way.

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