Coach:Larry Fedora (7-6 in one season). | Staff In 2008: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in Conference USA (tied for second in C-USA East). Beat Troy in the New Orleans Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 8. Special teams: 0. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 64th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 53rd in 2009, 37th in '08, 55th in '07, 58th in '06.
THE SCHEME: New coach Larry Fedora installed his version of the spread last season, and the Golden Eagles broke 36 school records and tied five more.
STAR POWER: Senior TB Damion Fletcher has rushed for 4,287 yards and is trying to become just the eighth back in major-college history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Fletcher also is a good receiver, making him a great fit for Fedora's offense. Sophomore WR DeAndre Brown lived up to the hype as a freshman, leading the team with 67 receptions, 1,117 yards and 12 TDs. Brown suffered a broken leg in the New Orleans Bowl, but he is expected to be 100 percent when the season begins. While coaches expect him to be fine, the offense would lose a big-time playmaker if his leg bothers him.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Two junior college transfers are expected to produce this season. T Ben Schoenberger is in the mix to start on the right side; at the least, he will be a key backup. WR Justin Jordan, who was a big-play guy at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, is expected to start the season as a backup. But his speed and playmaking ability could elevate him into a starting role, where he could be an interesting complement to Brown.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: QB Austin Davis – who was a walk-on – proved to be a great fit for Fedora's offense as a redshirt freshman last season. He threw for 3,128 yards and 23 TDs and ran for another 508 yards and nine TDs. Fedora wants more accuracy out of him this season – Davis completed 57.5 percent of his passes last season – but the coaches were pleasantly surprised by how few mistakes Davis made (just eight picks). It's not a stretch to see him becoming more comfortable in the offense and increasing his totals to at least 3,400 yards and 25 passing TDs; it's important for Southern Miss that Davis again be effective on the ground.
STRONGEST AREA: The Golden Eagles are strong offensively thanks to a ton of skill-position talent. Southern Miss went into last season with a new coach, a new offensive system, a redshirt freshman quarterback and a true freshman as the go-to receiver. The result? A school-record 5,636 yards of offense. The defenses in Conference USA generally are lacking, so expect big numbers from the Golden Eagles' "big three" – Davis, Fletcher and Brown – this season. There also is good depth at running back. Brown has a chance to be one of the nation's top 10 or so wide receivers, and Fletcher is a proven commodity who has a chance to make NCAA history.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Southern Miss will miss TE Shawn Nelson, who was the Golden Eagles' second-leading receiver last season. Nelson was a good fit in the spread, as he was much more proficient as a receiver than as a blocker. The new starter is expected to be junior Jonathan Massey, who had four catches – with two for touchdowns – last season. Nelson caught 53 passes last season. Massey seems more likely to have a catch total in the high 20s or low 30s. The line returns three starters but both tackles will be new; the unit had some issues with pass protection last season, so that bears watching early on.
THE SCHEME: The Golden Eagles run a base 4-3 defense. They traditionally have had one of the toughest, hardest-hitting defenses in their league, but they struggled early last season before righting themselves late in the season.
STAR POWER: The safety duo of senior Eddie Hicks and junior Chico Hunter should be the best in the league. Hunter, the strong safety, was third on the team with 68 tackles; he also had six pass breakups. Hicks, the free safety, was fourth with 64 tackles; he had 3.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and three pass breakups.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: LB Hendrick Leverette began his career at Auburn before transferring to a junior college. He enrolled in December at Southern Miss and went through spring ball. He goes into fall drills as a second-teamer, but it's not a stretch to see him emerging as a starter at some point this season. He has good speed and was a big-play guy in junior college.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: We've already mentioned one linebacker to keep an eye on, and here's another. Southern Miss is looking to replace two starters at the position – including Gerald McRath, who was the team's best defender last season – and sophomore Korey Williams looks poised for a breakout season. He missed much of last season with a broken jaw, but he runs well and hits a ton. He's a dark-horse contender for all-league honors.
STRONGEST AREA: The secondary returns all four starters, including the big-time safety duo of Hicks and Hunter. Junior CB C.J. Bailey usually was matched up against the opposing team's best receiver and did a nice job last season. His running mate at corner will be senior Andre Watson, a JC transfer who didn't arrive on campus until the summer. He became a starter in early October and seemed to settle down the secondary. Both corners are physical and can run. T Anthony Gray is a budding star in the middle and has all-league talent; he led the team with six sacks last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Southern Miss had just 20 sacks last season, and in a league where passes fly, that's not going to cut it this season. The Golden Eagles used some 3-4 sets in the New Orleans Bowl, and that could be something that extends into this season, with coaches cutting loose some of the young linebackers to get to the opposing passer. The ends were young last season, and the year of experience should help this season. E Roshaad Byrd, who started all 13 games, didn't record a sack and had just 3.5 tackles for loss, so he especially needs to turn it up this season. E Cordarro Law could end up being a pass-rush specialist; he had a good spring.
Britt Barefoot handled the kicking and punting duties last season, but he's gone. The new guys won't be decided until fall drills, and that has to worry Fedora. The new punter might be Davis, the starting quarterback. The kicker likely will be Daniel Hrapmann, a transfer from Southeastern Louisiana. The return men were disappointing last season; figure on a full-scale tryout for a few guys in the fall, and this team has enough athletes that you'd think someone would emerge. The kick-coverage unit was solid, but the punt-coverage unit was awful last season.
Fedora had overseen some powerful offenses at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State when he was plucked off Mike Gundy's Cowboys staff to oversee this program before last season. His newly installed offense led the way last season, and he and his staff again did a nice job on the recruiting trail after the season. The defensive staff needs to get more consistent play from their players this season.
The Golden Eagles open the season with three consecutive home games – three consecutive winnable home games. There are three tough road games – Kansas, Houston and East Carolina – but the schedule is conducive to an eight- or nine-win season as long as the defense tightens up. The first two league games are against teams that didn't go bowling last season, and if the Golden Eagles want to contend for the league title, they'd better win both.
Southern Miss quietly has become one of the most successful programs in the nation. The Golden Eagles are one of just four Football Bowl Subdivision schools with at least 15 consecutive winning seasons; the others are Florida, Florida State and Virginia Tech. They also have been to seven consecutive bowls and 11 in the past 12 seasons. Last season was a struggle at times. The bowl streak looked to be over after Southern Miss started 2-6. But the Golden Eagles rallied down the stretch and carry a five-game winning streak into this season, which they enter as a prime contender in the East Division of Conference USA. The bowl streak should continue this season, and the regular-season finale at East Carolina could decide the division title.