Here is a look at game one opponent Southern Mississippi from Conference USA.
COACH: Jeff Bower (103-72-1 in 15 seasons) LAST YEAR: 7-5 (5-3 Conference USA) with a win over Arkansas State in the Wyndham New Orleans Bowl.
EXPERIENCE: The Golden Eagles return 15 starters from last season and 49 lettermen.
The Golden Eagles have plenty of experienced players coming back from a 7-5 team that was plagued by inconsistency on offense and fourth quarter troubles on defense. Still, they managed a winning season that was capped off with a bowl victory. Typically, Coach Jeff Bower's Southern Miss teams have outstanding skilled athletes and play tough defense. The skilled athletes are there again this year but the biggest questions are on the defensive side of the ball.
TEAM STRENGTHS: With five veterans returning on the offensive line and two productive tailbacks, the Golden Eagles have the making of a very good ground game. Travis Cooley, Robbie D'Angelo and George Batiste will be third-year starters on the offensive line that led the way for tailbacks Larry Thomas (647 yards) and Cody Hull (542 yards). Thomas and Hull are also threats in the passing game as they caught 27 passes between them last year.
Tight end Shawn Nelson was named to the Freshman All-America team after he hauled in a team-leading 35 passes for 540 yards and five touchdowns last year. He was the MVP in the Wyndham New Orleans Bowl. Wide receivers Anthony Perrine (31 catches, 421 yards, two touchdowns) and Damion Carter (14 catches, 252 yards, two touchdowns) are proven, reliable threats in the passing game.
On the defensive side of the ball, safety Brandon Sumrall (4 interceptions and 88 tackles in 2005) is the best returning tackler and a real ball hawk. Corner Jasper Faulk is another proven playmaker in the secondary. He had two interceptions and 7.5 tackles for loss last year. Speedy Caleb Hendrix is an outstanding cover corner opposite Faulk.
Placekicker Darren McCaleb is one of the nation's best. He was automatic (13-13) inside the 40 last year and extremely accurate from 40-49 yards (10-14).
TEAM WEAKNESSES: Three-year starter Dustin Almond is gone at quarterback so the Golden Eagles will be trying to find a replacement. Incumbents Jeremy Young and Travis Clark combined to go 7-12 for 84 yards backing up Almond last year so there's not a lot of experience there. The job could go to Stephen Reaves, the son of former Gator great John Reaves, if he can show consistency in August. Reaves sat out last year after transferring from Michigan State where he got a few starts as a sophomore.
Even with a veteran offensive line, two very good tailbacks and a veteran quarterback, the Golden Eagles produced only 111 yards per game rushing last year and they gave up 159 rushing yards per game. There is no question that Southern Miss has to reverse those numbers in 2006. The potential is there on the offensive side of the ball, but the defensive line will be inexperienced so the dramatic improvement the Golden Eagles need might be at least a year away.
Graduation claimed the Coley twins, Kevis and Trevis, who were the two best defensive players for the Golden Eagles from their linebacker positions. The Palatka natives combined for 259 tackles. It will be up to Wayne Hardy and James Denley to make up for that lost production. Because graduation wiped out the middle of the defensive line, the linebackers will have to be very active and very good but past Hardy and Denley, there is very little experience.
Defensive depth was a huge problem for the Golden Eagles last year. They were pretty good defensively in the first, second and third quarters, but fourth quarter collapses were commonplace. Southern Miss gave up 100 (out of 272) points in the final quarter last season.
Another serious question mark is who will replace Luke Johnson, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt and had 21 touchbacks on his kickoffs?
THREE KEYS FOR SUCCESS IN 2006: First and foremost, the Golden Eagles have to settle on a quarterback. Reaves has the most experience and if he can claim the job, Southern Miss should have a very good offensive unit. If the Eagles can establish the running game that will make the job easier for whoever takes the snaps.
The second key for success is to somehow replace the productivity of the Coley twins at linebacker. They were the heart and soul of the defense last year. The Golden Eagles have excellent athletes in Hardy and Denley but they have to prove that they can go sideline to sideline like the Coleys if there is to be no dropoff at the linebacker position.
The third key to success will be defensive coordinator Jay Hopson. He took over last year for Tyrone Nix, who became the defensive coordinator on Steve Spurrier's staff at South Carolina. The Golden Eagles forced 34 turnovers but too often they gave up the big play with their gambling style. The key for Hopson will be to produce the turnovers while seriously reducing the big plays, especially late in the game.
THE SCHEDULE: The out of conference schedule includes Florida and Virginia Tech on the road. NC State will visit Hattiesburg and there is a home game with Division 1-AA Southeastern Louisiana. The three toughest Conference USA opponents --- Tulsa, Central Florida and Memphis --- will be played on the road.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: Southern Miss has a chance to compete for the Eastern Division championship in Conference USA if it can put together some wins on the road. The Golden Eagles could be in the thick of their division race if they can find a way to split those back to back roadies with the two teams that played in last year's inaugural Con-USA championship game, Central Florida and Tulsa. An 8-4 season should be considered a huge success and 8-4 could very well land the Golden Eagles in the Con-USA championship game.
NEXT UP: Central Florida, Florida's September 9 opponent.