The main story line at the outset of the 2011 season should look familiar to Southern Miss fans.
The Golden Eagles have been one of the most consistently competitive programs in all of college football. Since 1994, Southern Miss hasn't endured a losing season. A bowl game is almost a given.
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The problem is that while Southern Miss hasn't flopped, it hasn't thrived either. The Golden Eagles haven't won a conference title since 2003.
"I've been here since '07, and going to just any old bowl game is starting to get boring," Southern Miss linebacker Korey Williams said. "There's a sense of urgency in this program. We've let it slip out of our hands the last couple of years. We've been a tight-knit group, and it'd be great to go out and finally reach that goal."
The Golden Eagles are expected to contend for the Conference USA title, as they have for several years. Southern Miss has 18 starters returning, including quarterback Austin Davis. The Golden Eagles received votes in both major polls, but not enough yet to be ranked.
Southern Miss also has a favorable schedule this season. Don't be surprised if the Golden Eagles reel off an undefeated September.
• Southern Miss's offense should put up points, and its defense should make plays, but don't overlook the special teams. Kicker Danny Hrapmann was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award last year. The Golden Eagles were solid on special teams last year, except for kickoff coverage.
• If there is a worry on the offensive side of the ball, it's about the line. The offensive linemen have size and experience, but with the graduation of Cameron Zipp, there's a leadership component that is missing. Without leadership up front, the offensive line could short circuit the offense.
• Southern Miss will unveil a new helmet design for 2011. The new helmet features the traditional Southern Miss logo on one side, and the wearer's jersey number on the other side.
Series History: Southern Miss leads, 30-13. Last meeting, 2010, 13-12 Southern Miss
Scouting The Offense: The Southern Miss offense is the most experienced of any of the team's units, so it might have to carry the team early, or through difficult stretches. To continue their impressive string of winning seasons, the Golden Eagles need quarterback Austin Davis and running back Kendrick Hardy to play at the same level, or better, than last season. A strong running game could help the tweaked defense by giving Southern Miss an advantage in time of possession.
Scouting The Defense: Southern Miss has many returning players on this side of the ball, but a scheme change could lead to struggles early in the year, even if they aren't bad enough to cost wins. If Southern Miss doesn't quickly get the ropes of the 4-2-5 defense, it could struggle to contend in Conference USA, one of the most shootout friendly leagues in the nation.
Quote To Note: "No one on this football team has won a conference championship. That's the goal. We've had good seasons but not great seasons."-Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game: Louisiana Tech at Southern Miss, Sept. 3-The first game of 2011 might not be as exciting as the one in 2010 (South Carolina was the opponent) but it should be more winnable for Southern Miss. The Bulldogs could provide an early test to Southern Miss's new defense.
Keys To The Game: Southern Miss needs a strong start in this one. Last year, the Golden Eagles didn't get a two-score lead until late in the third quarter. By that time, Louisiana Tech already believed it could win and almost rallied to shock Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles could derail the Louisiana Tech offense with a strong running game and a big advantage in time of possession.
Players To Watch:
QB Austin Davis-Davis was recently named a candidate for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, which is an honor based on community, classroom, character and competition. He is the spark to the Southern Miss offense.
LB Korey Williams-He missed significant time in the offseason due to a sports hernia, but Williams is still expected to lead the defense. He should have a critical role in how well the defense transitions to the 4-2-5 scheme.
K Danny Hrapmann-One of the most consistent kickers in the nation, Hrapmann made his first 17 consecutive field goals. He also made clutch field goals. If his performance stays consistent, it could give a significant advantage to Southern Miss.
• DT Terrance Pope (knee) is working back to form slowly, according to local reports. Southern Miss is being cautious so that he doesn't have to miss time during the season.
• DL Michael Brinson will redshirt the 2011 season due to shoulder surgery.