Southern Miss is fresh from a bye-week, Saturday is homecoming and they know SMU is coming off a huge win over reigning conference champion UCF. In other words, they're pumped to hand the Mustangs their first league loss of the season.
But despite emotional wins over TCU and UCF, SMU is anything but cocky right now. They're focused and know that this weekend's game in Hattiesburg will be another defining moment this season.
"This one is going to be similar to the A&M one where we can't hear anything," June Jones said this week, referring to Southern Miss' stadium, known as "The Rock." "I've heard from other coaches that it's even louder [than Kyle Field] because they enclose one of the ends. They know they have a home-field advantage and the crowd really gets into it."
Both teams head into this weekend with matching 5-1 records. With a win, SMU would extend its winning streak to six games, which would be its best record since 1984.
"We have to get our A-game going early," Zach Line said.
What SMU needs to do to win: The defense must stop the run and force turnovers.
The Golden Eagles have the No. 1 rushing offense in C-USA (No. 19 in the nation) and are averaging 212.8 yards per game. Jones called their offense "very athletic" and praised quarterback Austin Davis, saying "he's the best quarterback we'll have played so far next to [A&M's Ryan Tannehill]."
"Any team that has a quarterback like [Davis], and they maybe have the best quarterback in the conference, always has a chance to win," Jones said of Austin, who is breaking Brett Favre's records at Southern Miss. "They make a lot of big plays because of him."
Davis has thrown six interceptions this season.
Jones also complimented USM's running attack of Jeremy Hester and Tracy Lampley.
"Both kids are undersized but are lightening fast," Jones said.
Hester is only 5-foot-6 and Lampley is 5-foot-9.
Kendrick Hardy is also a threat in the backfield, ranking second in C-USA behind Line averaging 85.2 ypg.
"The game is really going to come down to explosive plays and taking care of the ball," Jones said.
The Mustangs' defense only has one interception and four forced fumble recoveries to their name this season. But the group is the conference's second-best total defense behind UCF. To guarantee a win for SMU, they'll have to be better in causing turnovers.
Keys for SMU: A win could very well grant SMU its first spot in the Top 25 since the Death Penalty, as they're currently ranked No. 29 in the AP and Coaches polls.
Cole Beasley, who caught 10 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown last week while not being 100 percent healthy, should be good to go (although still not 100 percent healthy) to be J.J. McDermott's main go-to man.
McDermott is coming off a career performance last week, throwing for 358 yards and two touchdowns, the longest being a 72-yarder.
This week he'll face a defense that allows 346.5 total yards a game.
Southern Miss has a hurry up offense, but that's nothing SMU hasn't seen before (over half the Mustangs opponents have been hurry up offenses this year). But the Golden Eagles did put up 63 points against Navy two weeks ago, so that's something SMU's defense has taken note of.
Prediction: SMU has come a long way since that miserable night in College Station. They have an overflowing confidence about them right now.
"The last two weeks was the first time in four years that I felt the kids knew they were going to win," Jones said. "You still worry about the little things, but I could still tell there was a different confidence."
Jones, who calls this sort of swagger "Mana," says that great teams who exhibit this sort of confidence, know they are going to win.
"It's like the Miami Heat vs. the Mavericks," Jones said. "The Mavericks had "it" and they know they had "it" and that's why the won. It's like New England taking the ball against the Cowboys at the end of the game. Everyone in the stadium knows that Tom Brady has "it" and that New England can do that. You get that from doing it in competition and excelling in those difficult situations and that's how you become a great team."
This game is huge for both teams, but with all SMU has accomplished as of late – beating TCU, dominating UCF, talking to the Big East and inching closer to the Top 25 – it's hard to see them slowing down right now.
SMU 42, Southern Miss 24
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