USM ready to break through?

For years, Southern Miss was known as a giant killer in college football. The Golden Eagles upset top-ranked Florida State in the late 1980s behind a quarterback named Brett Favre. They've beaten such football powers as LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia.

So coach Jeff Bower didn't care for the question that suggested a moral victory against California three years ago. That's when USM almost upset the fourth-ranked Bears, costing the Pac-10 team a chance to play in a BCS bowl game.

``I would hope – not even looking at that ball game – people would have respect for this program,'' Bower said. ``We've been pretty good over the years. We've won four championships in our league, had 13 straight winning seasons, played in nine or 10 bowl games and graduated 92 percent of our athletes last year. That's pretty good.

``We've had a good program here, so we're proud of what we've done.''

As he should be. But it's been 11 years since Southern Miss scored a big win over a quality SEC opponent. The Golden Eagles haven't beaten an SEC team since downing a 3-8 Alabama team in 2000. They have just one win over an SEC team since the start of the 1997 season. And under Bower, USM is 4-24 against SEC foes.

And one other thing.

``We haven't beat Tennessee yet,'' Bower said. ``Maybe this will be the year.''

Tennessee hosts Southern Miss on Sept. 8, one week after the Vols open at California and one week after USM hosts Tennessee-Martin.

That might be an ideal setup for an underdog program looking for – and capable of – scoring a win over a big-time opponent.

Bower said his team – Conference USA champs with a 9-5 record in 2006 – likes the challenge of playing SEC teams on the road.

``Tennessee has a great program, a nationally ranked program year in and year out,'' Bower said. ``We've done a lot of that (playing at SEC venues) and we're kind of used to it. But we need to get over the hump and try to be more successful against people like that.''

Is his team good enough to get over the hump against Tennessee?

``I don't know. We're trying to get them eligible right now,'' he said laughing.

Bower recently dismissed a receiver for violation of team rules.

``The expectation level is pretty high every year, like it is at Tennessee,'' he said. ``We enjoy opponents like that. It's a great challenge for us and we look forward to it.''

Bower has played Tennessee three times in Knoxville. The Vols won 42-0 in 1995, 44-20 in 1997 and 19-16 in 2000.

The scores have gotten closer, but that doesn't necessarily help this USM team. None of the players have played at 106,000-seat Neyland Stadium, but USM did play last year in The Swamp at Florida.

Can the Eagles handle the atmosphere in Knoxville?

``I don't think you ever know until the game is over,'' Bower said. ``We've been in a bunch of big stadiums with tough crowds. That one (Neyland) is probably as good as any one in the country. All you can do is prepare your team to play its best.''

Southern Miss returns nine starters on defense, six on offense and a quality group of seniors from a team that lost 34-0 at Florida and 36-6 at Virginia Tech.

``We've got a chance to be good,'' Bower said.

But he qualifies his statement.

``I've been doing this a long time, like Phillip (Fulmer) has,'' Bower said. ``Returning starters and a senior class, all that stuff is overrated. It's all the work you do in the summer and preseason and getting great leadership, not only from seniors but anybody else on the team.''

USM returns a good quarterback and an outstanding running back.

Senior Jeremy Young completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns last year against six interceptions. He was bothered much of the season by turf toe, which affected his throwing, Bower said.

``He's a good leader for us,'' Bower said. ``He's got some ability running the football. I like him a lot. He's got a 3.5 grade-point average. I like all those intangibles when you're talking about a quarterback. I think the best ones have great character. They lead and make good grades. I'm looking for good things out of him.''

If healthy, Young will run more option this year, Bower said.

As a true freshman, 175-pound Damion Fletcher rushed for 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

``He's very mature,'' Bower said. ``To do that as a true freshman is very unusual. He really came in here to compete. He wasn't intimidated with the competition. He's got good feet and vision. He's a very natural athlete. He learns fast.

``The thing you have go guard against with him is, you see so many guys as freshmen, whether true or redshirt, have a lot of success. They think they've arrived. We don't want him to become complacent. I've seen that so many times in coaching. It happens quite often. Hopefully, it doesn't happen to him.''

While Southern Miss is a regular against several SEC opponents, the Golden Eagles don't play Ole Miss or Mississippi State.

``I'm tired of talking about that,'' Bower said. ``They're scared. They won't play us. We beat Ole Miss the last seven of nine times, Mississippi State 11 of 15.

``I used to always want to keep that up front when I was a young head coach. Not any more. It ought to be done. If it goes in front of the State Legislature, we'll never win that vote. There's too many Ole Miss and State people up there.''

Southern Miss hasn't played Ole Miss and State on a regular basis since the 1980s. The Eagles' last win over Ole Miss was 1984. The last win over State was 1988.

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