UT must be wary of USM

Perhaps the two toughest tests on the University of Tennessee's 2007 football schedule are Game 1 at California and Game 3 at Florida. That makes Game 2 the most dangerous "sandwich" game on the schedule.

Sandwiched between the Golden Bears on Sept. 1 and the Gators on Sept. 15 is Southern Mississippi on Sept. 8. If the Vols are looking back or ahead that weekend they could be in serious trouble. The Golden Eagles aren't as highly regarded as they were in the 1980s and '90s but they're still capable of giving college football's big boys fits.

Anyone who witnessed USM's last visit to Neyland Stadium already knows that. Jeff Bower's troops pushed Tennessee to the limit before bowing 19-16 in the 2000 opener for both teams. That Vol squad was good enough to crush Louisiana-Monroe 70-3, beat Alabama 20-10, manhandle Arkansas 63-20 and trounce Kentucky 59-20 en route to a Cotton Bowl bid.

Southern Miss has played in bowl games nine of the past 10 seasons and remains one of those pesky teams that always seems to rise to the occasion against more heralded opponents. That makes the Golden Eagles especially dangerous if they catch the Vols looking ahead to Game 3 vs. Florida.

USM has a seasoned quarterback in senior Jeremy Young and a sensational running back in sophomore Damion Fletcher (1,388 rushing yards as a freshman in 2006). Moreover, Young will be running some read-option plays this fall. That's cause for concern, considering how mightily Tennessee struggled with Air Force QB Shaun Carney and Florida QB Tim Tebow on option keepers last fall.

A Southern Miss preview is posted on the front page at collegefootballnews.com today. The article, written by Richard Cirminiello, suggests the Golden Eagles are the class of Conference USA and a very capable opponent.

Here's an excerpt from Cirminiello's preview:

"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 postseason wins in a row, capped by last year's 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 ten-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 and Boise.

"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."

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