Alabama has a home game and a non-conference game this week. But anyone who has been paying attention knows that Bryant-Denny Stadium has not been that good to the Crimson Tide this year and that the Southern Miss Golden Eagles are not easy homecoming fare in this or any other year.
Southern Mississippi brings a 3-2 record to Tuscaloosa, both losses coming to non-conference foes (California and Nebraska). Indeed USM has established itself as a conference powerhouse, winning or sharing four of the last six league titles. Last week, true freshman kicker Darren McCaleb hit three field goals, two of them in the fourth quarter, to knock off Conference/USA adversary Cincinnati, 22-20. The Golden Eagles also made good on a 94-yard kickoff return by John Eubanks (5-11, 179, So) to post the second highest point total of the year. USM scored 23 in a win against Memphis.
Coach Jeff Bowers is in his 13th season with Southern Mississippi, and he has spent his time in Hattiesburg well. Under Bowers, USM is one of only 10 teams in Division I football that have had a winning record every year for the past nine years. Bowers has also led USM to a bowl in five of the last six seasons.
Bowers has spent much of his life at USM, first as a quarterback, then an assistant coach, and finally as head coach, and he has advanced the Golden Eagles to being perhaps the top football school in Mississippi. Bowers is 80-58-1 in his career at USM, and has populated his staff with other USM alumni. Five assistants claim Southern Mississippi as alma mater.
Easily the most successful coach in Golden Eagle history, Bower continues his winning ways. The 2000 USM squad became the first Southern Miss team that has ever been to four-straight bowl games and finished with a four-year record of 33-15, tying the '99 senior class for the most victories under Bower. Bower's teams are 45-11 (.804) at home during his 13-year tenure. Overall he has posted an impressive 83-60-1 record, while playing only 38.2 percent of his games at home.
In a profession where coaches are constantly jumping ship, looking for that next job, Southern Miss has been fortunate to have Jeff Bower for 12 seasons, now in his 13th. Bower is second only to Thad "Pie" Vann (20 years) in USM coaching longevity. He is in a tie for seventh on the current list of NCAA Division 1 head coaches, who have the longest tenure at a given institution. Bower has twice been voted C-USA coach of the year, 1997 and 1999. Both years he led the Golden Eagles to a victory in the Liberty Bowl.
The Golden Eagles are led by two-time All-America linebacker Rod Davis (6-3, 246, Sr), a four year starter at middle linebacker who is being watched for the Butkus, Lombardi, and Nagurski awards. Davis was 24th in the nation last year in total tackles and he has had double digit tackle games in 26 of his 38 starts. Davis was named the nation's top defensive player on ESPN SportsCenter, as well as the No. 3 overall player--Top Defender--in ESPN The Magazine's Top 100.
Last week Davis turned in his career-best performance against Cincinnati, totaling 22 tackles, including four for a loss. In the national rankings, Davis is fifth in the nation in solo tackles, sixth in total tackles, 16th in TFLs and 23rd in forcing fumbles.
However, Davis isn't the only Golden Eagles linebacker that the folks from the Butkus and Lombardi awards are keeping an eye on. Junior Michael Boley (6-3, 233), who hails from Elkmont High School in Athens, is an All-Conference/USA selection who is up for the awards.
Backing up these two all-star candidates is All-America free safety Etric Pruitt (6-1, 190, Sr), a three year starter who is up for the Thorpe and Nagurski trophies. Pruitt prepped at Theodore High School. (As always, USM has a number of players from Alabama.) For the season, Pruitt is third on the team in tackles. Earning C-USA and All America honors for his play last season, Pruitt was USM's third-leading tackler. As a junior he totaled six interceptions and 13 pass breakups on a defense that led the nation in terms of fewest touchdown passes allowed.
Pruitt, Davis and Boley worked together last season to accumulate 289 tackles, and they are the leading tacklers for USM this season.
Under new offensive coordinator Rip Scherer, Southern Miss features a variety of looks, one-back, two-backs or no backs. This is the first time in several years that the two-back system will be implemented.
The offense this year was expected to be shaky. When starting quarterback Mickey D'Angelo (6-3, 220, Jr) was lost due to injury early in the season, points became even harder to come by. True freshman Damion Carter (6-3, 185) started against Cincinnati, but was pulled early in the game in favor of sophomore Dustin Almond (6-2, 212). Bowers announced that Carter will get the start against Alabama. Previously Bowers was 14-of-17 passing against Nebraska for 143 yards and a touchdown. Almond is also expected to see action in a backup role.
Tim Blackwell (6-0, 195, Jr) is USM's leading rusher on the year, but he did not see action against Cincinnati due to injury and will be a gametime-decision Saturday. Blackwell sat out last season, but has played well in 2003. He made his first start against Nebraska, finishing with 4.4 yards per carry and one touchdown. Blackwell averaged 6.4 yards per carry against Memphis, scoring on a 38-yard run. For the season he's averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
If Blackwell can't go, James Walley (5-10, 200, Jr) will be expected to pick up the slack. Walley is averaging 2.2 yards a carry. Marvin Young (6-0, 165, Jr) is Southern Miss's top receiver as he has racked up 243 yards on 14 catches. He will start opposite DeRon Lawrence (6-3, 202, Jr).
As evidenced by the all-star candidates, the strength of Southern Mississippi is the defense. Davis, Boley, and Pruitt lead a squad that starts seniors in all four spots of the secondary. The 2002 USM defense ranked in the Top 25 nationally in several categories, finishing 34th in Total Defense.
On the other hand, the Golden Eagles front four is somewhat undersized. All of USM's defensive tackles are in the 280-pound range, and starting defensive end Akeem Lockett (6-2, So) weighs in at only 230 pounds.
Bama will once against face a solid place-kicker in Darren McCaleb. He is 8-9 on field goals and has hit all seven of his attempted extra points. Eubanks proved to the Bearcats how dangerous a kick returner he is. Marvin Young handles punt returning duties. Young leads C-USA in punt returns and is ranked third nationally. For the season he's returned 11 kicks for 191 yards, an average of 17.4 yards a return.
Alabama leads the all-time series, 31-6-2, but the Golden Eagles have designs on evening the series record at 2-2 for the 21st century.