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What Has Caused Southern Miss To Improve Significantly In 2015?

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With Southern Miss being the talk of Conference USA heading into week six, what has made the Golden Eagles one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 season?

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Southern Miss Golden Eagles can finish in the top two in the Conference USA West division. A team that had only won four games in two years under head coach Todd Monken has the chance to double that total in a single season and go to a quality bowl game.

What has caused Southern Miss to go from a cellar dweller to one of the top five teams in Conference USA heading into week six of the 2015 season?

Offensive Stability: Of the current starters for the Southern Miss offense, 11 players have made four or more starts at their position. Running back is a little tricky as all three backs are listed as co-starters and see lots of action. The only player to miss a start due to injury was left guard Oliver Bates. Injuries can make or break a season, and the Golden Eagles have been lucky on the injury front.

A Trio of Good Running Backs: As mentioned earlier, Southern Miss has a trio of more than capable running backs on their roster. Senior Jalen Richard (66/365/5TD), sophomore Ito Smith (45/365/3TD), and senior Justice Hayes (35/163/2TD) have been able to give some much needed balance to an offense that is on the verge of tipping to pass happy territory.

Offensive Explosion: The Golden Eagles rank #6 nationally in the IsoPPP category, a category that measures explosion on positive plays. What this says is that when Southern Miss makes a positive play, that play is more explosive than 122 other teams in the FBS. The number is at #17 nationally when rushing and #13 passing.

The Rise Of Dylan Bradley: Bradley was lost in the shuffle by many heading into the season with the Golden Eagles bringing in a large group of JUCO and FBS transfers to the defense. Bradley has quietly performed very well with 23 tackles, 7 tackles, for loss, and 4 sacks. With the overall talent level increased on defense, Bradley has stepped his game up and become a key cog in the defense.

Buying Into Monken’s Plan: For many teams under a new head coach, the third year with him in control is the year that comes with significant improvement. Monken and company knew that the talent level from bringing in high school seniors alone was not enough to make that jump. Instead, they went with a large mix of FBS and JUCO transfers. They still got high school seniors, but made it clear that the talent level for 2015 had to improve. Many times, a coach can lose his team with so many new faces expected to see significant playing time over established starters. For the Golden Eagles, it was the opposite with everyone buying in to the philosophy. More than anything, buying into the coaching staff’s plan has resulted in a great start to the season.

D’Nerius Antoine: The JUCO transfer was originally brought in as a linebacker, but it was quickly realized how much more effective he would be at safety. The junior is the team leader in tackles and forced fumbles, while second on the team with four tackles for loss. Yes, the Golden Eagles defense is giving up 443.6 yards per game and 28 points per game, but without Antoine, Southern Miss would be 2-3 at best.

Scoring Inside The 40: When the Golden Eagles are crossing the 40-yard line in enemy territory, they are not wasting opportunities. The offense is #31 nationally with 5.29 points scored per trip inside the 40. That number would be even higher if not for the missed opportunities in the Nebraska game.

With all that said, the Golden Eagles face a stiff task versus Marshall that will show just how far this team has progressed. If they can get by this game with a close loss or even a win, we could easily be looking at a team that is 7-5 or even 8-4 heading into bowl season.

Where do you see the Golden Eagles ending up at the conclusion of the regular season? Can they get to second in the west, or will they stumble in the second half of the schedule?