Southern Miss Preview

One decade after the formation of Conference USA, Southern Miss stands alone as the league's most consistent, successful and recognizable member, a reputation it's poised to enhance in 2007. With Jeff Bower at the helm throughout the run, the Golden Eagles have strung together 13 straight winning seasons, nine bowl games in ten years and three post-season wins in a row.

Last season was capped by the GMAC Bowl defeat of Ohio to close a better-than-expected 9-5 season. Still, the program that used to be on everyone's short list of most dangerous mid-majors hasn't had a 10-win season since 1988, leaving it hungry for the national attention Boise State and Utah have enjoyed the past few years. The Eagles will get a chance this year to prove they're more than just the class of their conference, with September trips to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Boise, Idaho.

Head coach: Jeff Bower, 18th year: 115-80-1 (Current)
Returning Lettermen: Off. 19, Def. 19, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 23

Ten Best USM Players
1. RB Damion Fletcher, Soph.
2. TE ShawnNelson, Jr.
3. LB Gerald McRath, Soph.
4. DE Robert Henderson, Sr.
5. OT Chris Clark, Sr.
6. DT Martavius Prince, Sr.
7. ROV Brandon Sumrall, Sr.
8. FS LeVance Richmond, Sr.
9. QB Jeremy Young, Sr. (injured/questionable for MU)
10. OT Ryan McKee, Jr.

2007 Schedule
CFN Prediction: 9-3
Sept. 1 Tennessee Martin WON 35-13
Sept. 8 at Tennessee LOST 19-39
Sept. 15 at East Carolina WON 28-21
Sept. 22 at Boise State LOST 16-38
Oct. 3 Rice LOST 29-31
Oct. 13 SMU WON 28-7
Sunday, Oct. 21 at Marshall 0-6/0-2; 8 p.m. ESPN-TV; Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network and Southern Miss/ISP Sports Network-Radio
Oct. 28 UCF 3-3/1-1
Nov. 3 at UAB 2-4/1-1
Nov. 10 Memphis 2-4/1-1
Nov. 17 at UTEP 4-3/2-1
Nov. 24 Arkansas State 3-3. 1-1 Sun Belt Conference

With a stocked backfield and the league's best defensive front seven, Southern Miss likes its nucleus for 2007, but also recognizes that without reinforcements on the offensive line, at wide receiver and in the secondary, another four- or five-loss season will be as good at it gets. Sophomore backs Tory Harrison and Damion Fletcher, a record-setting rookie in 2006, will lead the charge to prevent mediocrity from setting in, provided the remade interior can create running lanes.
After winning the East a year ago but losing to Houston in the Conference USA title game, the Golden Eagles have a sense of unfinished business heading into the upcoming season. With a reputation to uphold, anything less than a league championship from this group will be a disappointment.

What to watch for on offense: With his shifty feet and great vision, Fletcher came out of nowhere to debut with 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Harrison has an extra gear and was actually considered the better prospect out of high school. Incoming recruit Antwain Easterling, who had offers from Notre Dame, Florida and Miami, has the biggest upside. Together, they give Bower as much backfield depth as he's had in Hattiesburg, a nice start for the balance he desires. Just how far this offense goes will depend on quarterback Jeremy Young's development in his final year, and the Eagles' ability to replace George Batiste, Travis Cooley and Robby D'Angelo, the heart of last year's line.

What to watch for on defense: The defense has long been the calling card of the Southern Miss program. It's typically fast, attacking and a training ground for future NFL players. This year's edition will maintain that tradition with a top-notch front seven that welcomes back six key contributors from a unit that allowed just 308 yards and 18 points a game in 2006. If his first season was any indication, sophomore Gerald McRath is on his way to becoming the next really productive Eagle linebacker. The defensive focus this summer will be on rebuilding a secondary that parted ways with starting corners Jasper Faulk and Caleb Hendrix.

The team will be far better if …Young blossoms into a play maker behind center, now that a season of experience is in the vault and last year's painful turf toe has healed. He has the size and athleticism to be much more than just a decoy, which is why the offense may experiment with some read-option wrinkles this fall. An unleashed Young, combined with the running game, would make the Eagle offense dramatically harder to contain. (Note: Young has missed games with injury and is questionable for MU game).

The Schedule: USM likely will be everyone's favorite to win the Conference USA title, but the schedule doesn't help with road games against the East's top teams, East Carolina and Marshall. Missing Houston and Tulsa from the West is nice, but the Golden Eagles have to go on the road to face UTEP. The non-conference slate is interesting, with chances to make national noise on the road against Tennessee and Boise State, along with cupcake wins against Tennessee-Martin and Arkansas State.

Best Offensive Player: Sophomore RB Damion Fletcher. A yardage machine with tremendous quickness and a nose for the goal line, Fletcher ran for 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns despite being the focal point of every opponent's game plan. He'll be used even more as a receiver this season in order to get him the ball in space (through six games, Fletcher has rushed 120 times for 637 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and his 106.2 yards per game is sixth in C-USA).

Best Defensive Player: Senior DE Robert Henderson. A tweener at the Bandit position, a hybrid of defensive end and linebacker, Henderson came up with a nice year, delivering 59 tackles, four sacks and 12 tackles for loss. At 280 pounds, he has the size to be even more of a factor against the run while being given the room to move as a pass rusher (sophomore Gerald McRath is leading USM in tackles through six games and leads C-USA with 73 total tackles, 28 solo, and averaging 12.2 tackles per game. Henderson has 30 tackles and two sacks to date).

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Jeremy Young. He has the receiving corps, the franchise running back and the tackles necessary for a big year. Now he has to be a more effective passer to make Southern Miss more than just a running team. If he can make just a few more big plays, be a bit better on third downs and keep the offense moving, he could be the difference between a nice year and a Conference USA title (Young is 61-of-113 (54%) for 796 yards, four TDs and 2 int. Fellow senior Stephen Reaves is 48-of-85 (57%) for 466 yards. 2 TDs and 5 int, and is a transfer from Michigan State. Reaves has minus-50 yards rushing and a TD).

The season will be a success if ... Southern Miss wins the league championship. It's gotten to the point where it's title or bust. While there are big holes to fill on the interior of the offensive line, at cornerback and at kicker, and while the schedule isn't a peach, anything other than a title, considering the overall returning talent level, will be a major disappointment.

Key game: Sept. 15 at East Carolina (Won 28-21). This is the game ECU wants to use to springboard its way into the East lead (although Pirates rebounded from 0-1 start in league and is now leader with 3-1 mark in East), and to show it's back as a conference powerhouse. Coming off a trip to Tennessee, and with a long flight to Boise State the following week, this is more than just a tough road sandwich game for Southern Miss.

2006 Fun Stats:
- Second quarter scoring: Southern Miss 132; Opponents 59
- Penalties: Southern Miss 75 for 589 yards; Opponents 106 for 848 yards –
- Third down conversions: Southern Miss 75 for 181 (41%); Opponents 54 for 179 (30%)

2007 Fun Stats:
Coming into the Marshall game, the Golden Eagles are No. 1 in league in Scoring Defense (24.8 ppg), No. 1 in Pass Defense (204.8 yards/game), No. 1 in Total Defense (354.8 yards/game) and No. 2 in Rushing Defense (150 yards/game), but is just No. 8 in Pass Offense (210.7 yards/game), No. 8 in Total Offense (387.3 yards/game), No. 6 in Scoring Offense (25.8 ppg) and No. 5 in Rushing Offense (176.7 yards/game).

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