VISITING LECTURER: SMQ ON SOUTHERN MISS

Teams: there are a lot of them. Consider Southern Miss, here previewed by Matt Hinton, a.k.a. SMQ, who we're gonna go ahead and run while he's still free content. Enjoy.

One: what color is your season? In other words, please explain the metaphorical state of your program through the metaphor of color:

In studies, workers in offices painted blue complained the room was too cold; when the same room was painted a warm peach, even though the temperature was the same, they tended to start removing jackets and sweaters.

Did someone say...blue?

Apologies--we couldn't help ourselves. Good luck getting that out of your head. We recommend a claw hammer for the job.

For some USM partisans, blue -- that is, the conservative, consistent, running-and-defense pastiche of the Jeff Bower era -- was just fine.

It was familiar, anyway, and could have been an awful lot worse. But for most, it was starting to get a little chilly in here, and theyÕre enthusiastically welcoming a coat of something that at least seems a little warmer. The temperature, or the talent, might not really be any different, but after eight years of diminishing returns in a conference the Eagles dominated in the first four-and-a-half years of its existence (USM won or shared three C-USA championships from 1996-99, but has only one since 2000), the new, more offensive-oriented Larry Fedora administration promises a sense of flamboyance and energy. It may be superficial, but Southern Miss might also be the most talented team in the league, and the coaching change was essentially a
bet that the new perspective in itself could bring a cozy but stagnant program out of its shell.

Two: What historical nation and period do you resemble most right now?

World War I Holland/Netherlands. Small, respectable, but lacking the resources to avoid being caught up in the conflicts of stronger regional powers, or, in most cases, to keep them from trampling all over us. On a more modern note, like the Dutch following the tragic, high-profile murder of Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in 2004, the Bower Affair caused an identity crisis that threatened to cleave the people into hostile camps with wildly diverging values and interests.

Hattiesburg's central location (90 minutes from New Orleans, Jackson, Mobile, Baton Rouge and Biloxi/Gulfport) also makes it a significant marijuana hub. I mean, that's what I always heard.


No personal knowledge informs this opinion. None at all.

Three: You have important players. Discuss a few of them hastily.

RB Damion Fletcher: The offense's first legitimate star in years, and the favorite to become the first Eagle to win C-USA's offensive player of the year. Kinda small, kinda slow, and had some nagging injury problems as a freshman, but Fletch is versatile, a much stronger and tougher runner than his size suggests, and he's decisive and correct on his cuts. Seventeen 100-yard games in two years can't be wrong.

TE Shawn Nelson: Has caught somewhere in the 30-35-reception range for 500-ish yards three years in a row, which led the team in 2005 and 2006 and was second last year in an offense that historically ignored the tight end in the passing game. The hope is Fedora's system will put his ability to better use -- by all accounts, Nelson is a future NFL talent, but he's always seemed to lurk just below the surface of his potential, coming up for a game or two and then submerging.

OL Calvin Wilson: Miss. State transfer is 6-6, 350 pounds. Likely an all-conference pick, maybe a draft pick, just for being a breathtakingly huge individual.

WR DeAndre Brown: A top five receiver prospect nationally, the first five-star recuit in Southern Miss or C-USA history. Against the predictions of jilted LSU fans, he finally qualified in full earlier this month, and unrealistic expectations are (of course) the order of the day -- I watched him often in high school, on a team without even a prayer at quarterback, and his size, strength and body control easily justify the hype. The No. 2 guy for now, since everyone's also high on sophomore Torris Magee, but USM hasn't landed any player of Brown's caliber in the past and almost definitely won't be reeling in many more in the near future, so the pressure is on to make the most of this chance.

LB Gerald McRath: A fifth-year junior (redshirted because of injury in '04, suffered another early injury and earned a medical hardship in '05), and the fourth different USM linebacker to win C-USA defensive player of the year in five seasons (Rod Davis, Michael Boley, Kevis Coley). Depending on who you ask, he'd be one of the top three or four outside linebackers in next year's draft -- given his age and prospects, this is probably his last go-round.

Four: Name two games we might actually want to watch featuring your team.

vs. Boise State (Oct. 11): I thought this would be a great game for both teams last year, but Southern was thoroughly humilated from the first snap of a nationally-televised, Thursday night debacle on the Blue Turf, one of two midweek losses (the other being the inexcusable home collapse against Rice the following week) that probably did more to bring the axe down on Jeff Bower than anything else. It's not reasonable to expect much from the early trip to Auburn, but there shouldn't be any significant talent gap here, so Fedora needs a much more competitive effort to solidify the sense of progress, optimism, etc.

vs. East Carolina (Nov. 15): East Carolina's ascendency from doormat to division favorite under Skip Holtz began with an overtime upset in Hattiesburg in 2006, a loss that really made me sick and must be avenged. This is the most wide open division race in the short history of the format -- USM, ECU, Memphis and defending champ Central Florida all have legitimate designs -- and if the Eagles can get by UCF on Nov. 8, there's a good chance this game could decide one of the berths in the C-USA Championship. USM won at ECU last year (the Eagles' only win over another winning team), but the fact that the long-suffering Pirates managed to take down Boise in the bowl game, after the Broncos blew Southern Miss off the field a couple months earlier, only confirmed the urgency of a new direction. I'd say Fedora's debut is a success if this game has meaningful implications.

Four-A: Save us all some time and mention the game we're better off NOT watching.

vs. UAB (Nov. 1): After the hell of losing to Rice, I certainly don't want to tempt fate by taking the Blazers for granted -- lord knows they've provided plenty of uncomfortably close games in the series -- but Southern Miss is 8-0 against Birmingham since UAB moved up to C-USA in 2001. UAB went 1-7 in-conference last year and lost to Southern by 30 at home, and nobody yet seems to have discovered any reason the Blazers should be very improved.

Five: Every hero forgets something in their toolbelt. What does your team lack?

A quarterback with a career pass attempt. That's not specifically true, since Martevious Young went 1-for-1 for two yards last year while instantly injuring himself in his only start, but it might as well be. Young actually seemed to lose ground in the spring, to both Austin Davis, a former walk-on who redshirted last year, and Bret Jefcoat, an incoming freshman who spurned, uh, Louisiana Tech. There are four new starters on the defensive line, too, which is a big deal, but with an unprecedented collection of skill talent on hand, finally, the complete lack of anyone to actually get them the ball is by far the greatest concern going into the season. The offense could be a revelation if one of these guys manages competence. They'll carry the blame if not.

Six: Describe your team with a Jimmy Buffett song. No, we're serious, do it.

Buffett is an alum. Otherwise, I refuse to acknowledge his existence.

I mean, who?

Seven: We're master wagerers. Give us a bet to place for up to ten dollars about your team.

Find a USM fan and bet on the under for the final record. Odds are your pal is excited about Fedora, the skill talent on offense and the promise of the highest-rated recruiting class in school history (even excluding Brown, its initial grade is better than any of Bower's classes by a couple miles), but it's telling that virtually no one outside the program is biting on an immediate shot in the arm. Personally, I'd swallow the bait if not for the radioactive inexperience at quarterback. Even given the situation there, the rest of the conference is vulnerable enough that a division title wouldn't be a surprise, but short of that, I'm less concerned about the record than I am about seeing some spark on offense and taking a fight to the tougher teams on the schedule (Auburn, Boise, UCF, East Carolina, even Memphis) -- if you substitute Tennessee for Auburn, last year's edition was 1-4 in that stretch, and was effectively blown out by Boise, UCF and the SEC heavy. Seven wins might be acceptable for a debut, given the quarterback/D-line situation, but multiple blowouts is not.

Phil Steele disagrees, but I'd also lay down a reasonable sum on another lower-tier bowl game, especially now that the conference has bought a guaranteed spot in six of them.

For further reading, we recommend SMQ on any subject whatsoever.

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