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From The Bottom To The Top: Southern Miss Has Turned Things Around

A quarterback upping his game and a series of transfers that significantly improved the defense has turned Southern Miss from a CUSA cellar dweller to a conference title game participant.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

I took over covering the Southern Miss Golden Eagles in this past offseason. They were coming off of a 3-9 season with many openly talking about head coach Todd Monken getting fired at the end of the year. No one expected them to finish anything higher than a possible 6-6 if they were lucky.

With the season right around the corner, the Conference USA writers at Underdog Dynasty had a vote on what teams would win the divisions and play for a Conference USA title.

I wish I could say that I was bold enough to make the claim that Southern Miss would get to the CUSA title game, but I cannot. I can say that I did choose the Golden Eagles to finish seventh in the conference overall, the highest of anyone polled.

So, how did Southern Miss make it from 3-9 in 2014 to the West Division Champs of Conference USA?

The answer is as simple as quarterback Nick Mullens playing like a madman and a series of transfers that hit the mark on both sides of the ball.

It's hard to believe now that Mullens ever had to earn the starting position at quarterback over TCU transfer Tyler Matthews. The junior quarterback has left the rest of the CUSA West in his wake in route to the statistically most impressive season by a Southern Miss quarterback ever. He is at 35 touchdown passes on the season and nearly 4,000 yards in the air with two games (CUSA title game and bowl game) left.

It would be fair to say at this point that picking Mullens as the opening night starter was the right decision. Remember that until the offense came out for the first series, no one was completely sure which quarterback Monken and company would choose.

Let's talk about transfers. The Golden Eagles wanted to make a statement with an influx of talent via JUCO and FBS transfers this fall.  That decision has proven to be quite wise with FBS players like Stephen Brauchle, Casey Martin, Naim Mustafaa, Andrew Bolton all making a huge impact immediately. Martin is a bit of a cheat though as he started playing for the Golden Eagles in the 2014 season after leaving Houston.

Adding in team defensive MVP D'Nerius Antoine, Devonta Foster, and Elijah Parker from the JUCO ranks has elevated the defense to heights not seen in quite a while. Antoine in particular has been able to help in the run game and show great coverage skills in what should be an All-CUSA season.

One of the most important moments in the season was a 34-16 loss to Mississippi State. On the road at night versus a Bulldogs team that had Dak Prescott, the Golden Eagles held their own until the final minutes of the game. The same can be said for a 36-28 loss to Nebraska. The Golden Eagles had a real chance to win that game before falling at the end, building significant confidence for the future.

After sitting at 3-3 on the season and coming off of a disappointing 31-10 loss to Marshall, Southern Miss turned the corner and held their next four opponents to 13 points or less. This four game winning streak brought them to 7-3 and a real chance to make waves. A comeback win over Old Dominion set Southern Miss up with Louisiana Tech in a winner take all season finale.

With the score 31-17 in favor of the Golden Eagles, one of the wildest things you can ever see in college football happened. Louisiana Tech turned the ball over three times on three straight offensive plays with Southern Miss scoring on the very next play all three times. That turned a 31-17 lead into a 51-17 blowout.

When the clock hit zero, Southern Miss was guaranteed a spot in the CUSA title game.

For those that never imagined a scenario with the Golden Eagles playing for a conference title, me included, enjoy the ride and watch Saturday to see if they can again rule Conference USA.