Coach: Jeff Bower (15th season, 96–67–1) 2004 record: 7-5 (Beat North Texas in New Orleans Bowl) C-USA finish: 5-3 (t-2nd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 71st (145 ypg) Passing: 89th (181.3 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 76th (175.1 ypg) Passing: 38th (201 ypg)
at East Carolina
at NC State
Depth Chart: Offense
6 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
7 returning starters in red
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As Conference USA enters a new phase of existence -- saying goodbye to founding members Cincinnati and Louisville and welcoming a group that includes SMU, UTEP and Marshall -- one constant remains: Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower.
Of the four remaining original members -- Houston, Memphis, Southern Miss and Tulane -- Southern Miss has the only coach who has been pacing the sidelines since the league's inaugural season in 1996.
"I don't know if that's a compliment or not," Bower said. "But I think we've had some good years here and I enjoy it here."
Bower's teams have won four C-USA titles and played in seven bowls the past eight seasons. On three occasions, his teams have gone unbeaten in league play, including an 8-0 mark in '03.
While his team may not go unbeaten this fall, it likely will make a run at the C-USA East Division title. Consider: a challenging league contest against division rival Memphis will be played in Hattiesburg, where Memphis has lost 10 straight; USM has never lost to division contender UAB (which it plays at Birmingham); and USM doesn't play West Division favorite UTEP.
Bower said he laments the departure of Louisville, with whom a strong rivalry was developing, but he welcomes the new teams and a new format (two divisions, a league title game) to determine the C-USA champion.
Forgive senior fullback Anthony Harris if he lines up in the wrong spot early in the season. Harris has bounced back and forth between tailback and fullback since arriving at Southern Miss five years ago. His punishing running style and blocking ability make him more suited for fullback, where he'll spend this fall. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he's also a legitimate pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
That'll help the offense, under new coordinator Jay Johnson and veteran quarterback Dustin Almond, improve upon its 326.3 yards-per-game average, which ranked just 10th in the league.
Taking over at tailback will be Larry Thomas, a sophomore who averaged 6.9 yards per carry in a limited role a year ago.
The offense also will need Antwon Courington and Anthony Perine, the top receivers from a year ago, to step up. Courington, at 6'2", had 47 catches for 659 yards to lead the team and proved to be an inviting option, particularly over the middle. Perine emerged during the second half of last season. While not as big as Courington, Perine (5'11", 174) possesses breakaway speed and good hands.
Southern Miss ushers in new starting linebackers across the board. Kevis Coley will play middle linebacker, his twin brother Trevis will play the weak side and senior Naton Stewart will handle the strong side. Trevis will be making the switch from free safety, where he was a second-team all-conference selection in 2004. Trevis has great speed, excellent cover abilities and is a punishing tackler. He was the team's second-leading tackler last year with 104 and the interceptions leader with four.
The secondary should be a strength again. Senior John Eubanks, also a dangerous return specialist, will start at one cornerback position. Quick and instinctive, Eubanks led USM defensive backs with nine pass deflections last season and was second on the team with three interceptions.
The Golden Eagles need to improve against the run. USM allowed 175.1 yards per game last year, and Bower is hoping nosetackle Tom Johnson and defensive tackle Terrance Ford can become effective run stoppers.
Most C-USA teams covet what Southern Miss possesses on special teams. Darren McCaleb will get All-America consideration at kicker after making 16-of-19 last year. Eubanks, C-USA's '04 Special Teams Player of the Year, averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return to finish fifth nationally. Eubanks also could return punts, if need be.
USM also boasts of senior punter Luke Johnson, who averaged 41.8 yards on a league-high 67 kicks.
Offensively, Southern Miss will need Courington to become a playmaker in the mold of past Golden Eagle standouts Sherrod Gideon and Todd Pinkston. Harris returns to fullback, his natural position, which should create holes for Thomas. Almond returns at quarterback to give head coach Jeff Bower a veteran leader.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles will need their new starting linebackers to be as productive as their predecessors and a defensive line, which returns three starters, to bring more pressure than it did in '04. Expect the special teams to win a game or two for USM.