The Southern Miss roster has seen several newcomers added since the Bulldogs and Golden Eagles got together a season ago. A strong collection of mid-year transfers highlight an influx of talent that has fans of the Black and Gold optimistic about their program taking a positive stride this fall.
"Southern Miss has 15 transfers from either JuCo or D1, and all of them will see playing time this fall," White shared. "All of the JuCo players except for Sherrod Ruff took part in spring practice, so they are ready to go. The transfers that came in for the start of fall camp are still for the most part working into the system and getting fully into game shape.
"Andrew Bolton, DT transfer from Kansas is the most game ready because he went through the summer with Kansas. Justice Hayes, RB transfer from Michigan, took part in most of the summer at Southern Miss so he'll be ready to go too. The transfers have come in and have not upset any chemistry, but are using their experience and have really helped from a confidence standpoint. Anthony Swain, Auburn LB transfer, has established himself as a defensive leader."
Coach Todd Monken and his staff inherited a difficult situation when the former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator was named as the Golden Eagles' head football coach. Now in year three, there is an expectation for Monken and his staff to show some improved play. There is certainly some pressure to win now.
"There is no doubt about it," White reported. "Coach Monken has said that no one wants to look down the road and their job is to win now. He's also said that there are no more excuses. His staff is in their third year and they have had time to put in the system and develop players. Southern Miss had 18 straight winning seasons and it is not a program accustom to losing. The staff and players are confident this is a bowl team and they have had no problem talking about that fact in the pre-season."
Bulldog fans got a glimpse of Southern Miss running back Ito Smith last fall. Smith went on to lead the teaming rushing as freshman. Back for more this fall, Smith has been less than 100% during fall camp. With the season opener now hours away, Southern Miss expect Smith to play and bring a more polished level of play to the team.
"Ito was thrust into action as a true freshman last season and started the first game against MSU," White shared. "He has been a little banged up this pre-season in fall camp but he's a competitor and has worked himself back to be ready to go by game time. Ito is a very smart running back, he played in a similar system in high school so he has been able to pick up the offense quickly.
He has a nice combination of both speed and power, so he can play any down. He's also been working hard this summer at route running and catching the ball out of the backfield, so I expect to see more of that from him this year."
The Golden Eagles had a very impressive run under Jeff Bower and won a conference championship under Coach Larry Fedora before he departed for the same post at North Carolina. Since knocking off Houston and Case Keenum on that magical day, Golden Eagle fans have not had a lot to cheer about. The hope is that this season brings a reversal of fortunes for the Southern Miss program.
"It is hard to believe that a culture change was needed in a program that has had 18 consecutive seasons, but of the current players only one was a contributing part of the 2011 C-USA champions and top 20 ranked team," White said. "An overall negative vibe still permeated the team. They were more competitive last season, but they did not have the confidence to finish games.
"Perhaps the most important hire Coach Monken has made as been strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin from UAB. Woodfin was named the strength and conditioning coach of the year last year, and as Mississippi State fans know, UAB was a much different team last season. He has revived the culture and has payed careful attention to the physical aspect that used to define Golden Eagle teams. He's focused on nutrition, recovery, speed, and positive energy. He has breathed a lot of life into this group.
"Also, for the first time in three seasons, Southern Miss has a full 85 scholarship players. They have depth which has led to competition that also hasn't existed in a few years. Monken played 18 true or redshirt freshmen his first year and they have matured and developed in the system. I'm expecting a big difference in game one. Against Mississippi State last season, it was obvious the Bulldogs could do what they wanted on the line of scrimmage and the game played out that way. All signs point to a more competitive and physical Golden Eagle team to take the field this year. "
Mississippi State players have said throughout the week that they expect an electric atmosphere in Hattiesburg and that they are not expecting a repeat of the Southern Miss showing in week one last season.
Southern Miss fans are excited to have the Bulldogs back in their backyard for the first time since 1989.
"The fan base is very excited to have this game back in Hattiesburg," White said. "The opportunity to bring a big time program and long time in-state rival at home is something the fan base has been waiting for since the series was discontinued in 1990. Because of the tough times the program has fallen on in the past few years, to say attendance has struggled is putting it kindly. A game with an in-state rival coming off one of their best seasons ever is just what the doctor ordered. Season Ticket sales have surged and there is an energy and anticipation that hasn't been in Hattiesburg for three years."
While there have been no formal talks about Mississippi State and Southern Miss making this an annual affair, there appears to be some real interest from some in the state for the series to continue in some respect.
"This game is a win for the entire state and the fact Mississippi State has made the effort to bring it back goes a long way with Southern Miss fans," White explained. "It is a good rivalry, and anyone associated with USM grows in their respect of the Athletic Directors that made it happen."