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USM VS UF: OMG CFB WOOOOOOO!!!!

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We asked SMQ to give us a bit about the Southern Miss/Florida game on Saturday, and he responded with the depth, feel, and sheer volume you've come to expect from him. He's also more than just a little invested, since he's a USM alum and therefore sort of cares a bit about the game. Thanks to him, we now know that USM's got a player who actually killed someone on their team. Get your knowledge on below:

1. You're selling us on why we should quake in our boots at the mighty Golden Eagles: explain the one offensive and one defensive reason behind ourcringing, wobbly fear.

I wasn't going to attempt to sell the team on its "giant killer" reputation, because I think that's
overwrought, and much less likely to happen now than four or five years ago. If this were any year between 1997 and 2001, I'd be about three times as confident of a possible upset, and very assured of a respectable performance.

If you insist, though, the scariest proposition about Southern Miss is always the "giant killer" tag. USM's gone on the road in the last ten years to beat Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska, taken out top ten, undefeated TCU at home, and played the hell out of Tennessee, Nebraska, and Alabama on the road and that very good 2004 Cal team in Hattiesburg in eventual losses. The list of big wins and near misses prior to the past few seasons is fairly epic.

You should really, really quake if Southern Miss does knock you out early on. The last two big "upset" road wins came over a highly-touted Alabama team that wound up 3-8 and an unranked Nebraska team that finished 5-6 (and, truth be told, dominated the USM game aside from
Joe Dailey being Joe Dailey on about half a dozen plays). The "marquee" wins in between were at home to defending Big Ten champ Illinois (final record: 5-7) in 2002 and No. 8 TCU to win the C-USA title in 2003. There's much less to hang the hat on recently than we like to admit.

Last year's team was about as lucky as it could be to extend the winning streak to 13 years. I was feeling the impending doom of 5-7 with this year's team, but here are a couple reasons I1ve been feeling a little better:

Shawn Nelson: A 6-4, 230-pound sophomore tight end who's definitely an SEC-caliber talent. Really a receiver at heart: the tight end has been forever an invisible blocker in USM1s offense, but Nelson was so good they got him involved often enough for him to lead the team in catches and touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. The receiving corps in general is pretty good, and Nelson's the guy I want to see with the ball the most. "New Orleans Bowl MVP" may not have much cache, but he was it.

Damion Fletcher: Hate to mention him, because he's an OMG Freshman!, and therefore inevitably overrated at this stage. But the last true freshman running back to play for Jeff Bower was Derrick Nix in 1998, and even if the undersized Fletcher is the stylistic antithesis
of the "Baby Bull," he's getting rave reviews from Bower in press conferences and will definitely play. This is a surprise, because freshman usually see very little playing time early on, he wasn't all that highly recruited and the top two guys, Cody Hull and Larry Thomas, are back from last year (Thomas will start Saturday). It doesn't take a whole lot to compete with that underwhelming combo, but the fact that Fletcher has asserted himself so quickly without
very high expectations might be a sign he's a special player. I really have no idea.

Brandon Sumrall: I have a big soft spot, as all Eagle fans should, for Caleb Hendrix, who stepped in off the bench because of an injury in his first game after being moved from receiver to cornerback as a sophomore to miraculously knock away a sure game-winning
touchdown from Matt Herrian to preserve the Nebraska win, and hasn't left the lineup since. That said, he and newly-installed starter Jasper Faulk are an iffy pair of senior corners, and adequate at best. The depth there is horrifying. Which brings me to Sumrall, the bright spot in the secondary at strong safety, where he made a ton of tackles, a couple big hits and
five interceptions in his first season as a starter. Another guy who's good enough to start at some SEC schools.


What should not happen on Saturday, inshallah.

The linebackers: Humongous things are expected from undersized but fast outside guys Gerald McRath and Tokumbo Abanikanda. USM has had a different linebacker win C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in three straight seasons, and those two are going to be
counted on to continue that tradition. Both come in technically as new starters, but McRath supposedly was going to play a lot at a crowded position as a true freshman in 2004 but went down injured in the preseason, then came back to make six tackles and return an interception for a momentum-changing touchdown at Alabama, won conference Defensive Player of the Week, and broke his leg the following game against McNeese State; Abanikanda had a little hype as a true freshman, played very little, and made seven tackles and a sack in his first start in the bowl game. Not a sparkling resume, and the optimism might be a projection towards 2007 and 2008 rather than an immediate inducement to tremors from Florida fans, but last year’s starters, James Denley and converted fullback Wayne Hardy, are hopefully on the back burner
for the long haul. Recent developments could push McRath into the middle and keep Denley outside, which is less desirable.

The Middle of the Defense: The other linebacker in the starting mix is Marcus Raines, a physical beast with a manslaughter conviction for kicking a guy's head in at age 17.

Problem is, he was beat out for the middlespot in the Spring by a former walk-on quarterback, Mitch Craft, because Raines is reportedly dumb as a brick (This is not my personal opinion, Marcus! I've
just heard from other people, is all! I know you are really a talented, capable young man with a bright future at whatever endeavor you may choose!) Craft is currently fighting off some injury problems, and if Raines winds up in the spot, the middle of the defense could feature one-time transfers from Kansas State (Raines), Southern Cal (DT Ryan Watson) and LSU (DT
Sean Merrill), which would have to represent a significant talent upgrade there. Or they could all be on the bench. But the ends are a three-year starter ("high-motor" senior Matt Chatelain) and a once-touted JUCO recruit who finally flashed some of his pass rush potential last year (Robert Henderson, another SEC-quality physical talent), which has me believing the line as a whole could be a strength again after two years of very frustrating weakness. If Florida has
more offensive line trouble, this is the one area with Henderson there could be some legitimate hope.

2. Conversely...who frightens you on the Gators? Besides brain-slamming, wide receiver-jamming Reggie Nelson?

Don't know anything about Reggie Nelson, besides the crazy predator dreads, but his status as a starter at Florida makes him fearsome enough for me. Frankly, the whole team is frightening, and with the duck-and-cover quarterback situation and very likely another impotent
(againt a team like Florida) running game, I wouldn't be surprised if USM didn't gain a first down until the third quarter. I guarantee we can't block you.

I also have little faith in the abilities of the paper thin secondary to cover any of UF's receivers
consistently. The cornerback depth, again, will singlehandedly sell out the stock of Mylanta from the Walgreen's across the street from MM Roberts Stadium.


Caldwell, Cornelius, Baker, Ingram, Casey, Boateng, Harvin...yeah, stock up.

3. Why can't you just be normal eagles? Why...Golden? Is this a Gulf Coast bling thing we
wouldn't understand?

I'll proceed here on the assumption you're aware the golden eagle is an actual bird species, Aquila
chrysaetos
.

Also, Hattiesburg is not on the Gulf Coast. It's about 90 miles to the north, in a very different cultural environment. Still was wrecked pretty hard by Katrina because of the unhealthy concentration of fragile pine trees (it's the epicenter of the state's "Pine Belt"),
but to a far, far lesser degree than my native Coast, and not enough to prevent its population from swelling by a reported 25,000 or more possibly permanent new residents. That's a pretty huge deal to a town that was at about 45,000 or so before the storm, not counting neighboring "suburbs," and campus traffic on already-hellish Hardy Street between Highway 49 and I-59 is even more of a no-go now while school's in.

As for the name, you'll have to ask the student bodyof 1971-72 for the answer to that. They supposedly voted that year on "Golden Eagles" to replace the obviously racist "Southerners," which, while technically accurate in that all the players and the overwhelming majority of students were indeed Southerners, took on certain unpleasant connotations with the sideline presence of a mascot dressed in Confederate battle gear and known as "General Nat."

Unlike the celebrated nostalgia of certain other in-state schools, this "tradition" has been erased from USM's general consciousness – very few students from the past two decades are even aware of it, I'd guess - and is not a proud one in any sense.

Back to Golden Eagles: I say "supposedly" on the vote because I have heard a claim or two that the election was actually carried by "Warlords," an acknowledged finalist and clearly much cooler pick that, for obvious reasons in the fraught post-Vietnam political climate, was nixed by the higher-ups. No evidence exists to back up this claim. I don't remember if it was an option, but if we were looking for a quirky regional animal, the choice would have to be "Armadillos," or possibly "Bucks," though both are seen more frequently dead in these parts than alive. There are very few eagles, golden or otherwise, in the area.

You may catch a glimpse during the game of the new mascot, debuted last season, which is very wrong. The old Seymour (officially "Seymour d'Campus," cheekily named for something of World Fair fame in the early eighties, I think) costume was the perfect embodiment
of animated menace, a big, potbellied, round-headed, Disney-like creation bearing an oversized beak, massive blue eyes and a scowling unibrow forming a sort of half smirk, half growl. The cartooniest of the logos featured anachronistic teeth.


Retro. Cute. A bit obese.

Everything now is about being modern, sleek and fierce, and the new creation seems to almost attempt to re-create an
actual eagle, with terrible results: the previously closed mouth opens up wide, the eyes become vicious and all the expression and character in the face is lost. No being can walk around with its mouth open all the time; this is unnatural and disconcerting.


Like Casey Clausen, keeps his mouth open all the time.

At least that mascot isn't going to starve to death, which is allegedly what happened to the live golden eagle the school kept until some apparent misfortune (either a prank or simple neglect, it's uncertain) ended its run in the early nineties. I can't find any links to this, but it's a pretty well-known story. I don't doubt its truth a bit.

4. Besides claiming Jimmy Buffett as an alum, what's your university done that justifies its
existence?

First of all, as a matter of course, from the standard e-mail closing of Margie P. Jepson, director of Public Relations and Marketing: "Southern Miss is freeing the power of the individual through quality academics, research, economic development and an excellent student experience!"

Otherwise, I like to think USM generally has the most liberal, artistic-leaning students among the state's "Big Three"; all are basically conservative, I guess, but if Ole Miss is for rich snobs/rednecks whose first names are actually last names, i.e. "Tucker" or "Cooper," who unironically listen to, say, Jimmy Buffet, and who tuck in the front of their shirts but not the back (known in some local circles as "the Ole Miss Tuck"), and Mississippi State is the Cow/Math College, Southern Miss' curriculum focuses on producing historians, writers, musicians and faculty/student rebellions that eventually force an unpopular
president to resign
himself back to the classroom. So we make way less money, but we're cool. This could probably be represented empirically on graphs of some sort.

USM's history is not a distinguished one, mostly because for decades it was a small teacher's school in the middle of nowhere and not a vaunted Institution of Higher Learning. It didn't become an actual university until 1962, and only just recently passed Ole Miss for the second-largest enrollment in the state (part of making the current president unpopular was that the university actually announced during the sold-out Thursday night home game against Nebraska in 2003 that it had also passed Mississippi State as the largest enrolled institution, only to rescind the "accidentally" bogus numbers after intrepid reporting by a colleague of mine on the student newspaper into "placeholder" graduate classes whose rolls magically shrunk the day after the official count). Today, it's a balls-out research institution with five colleges
dishing out bachelors degrees in 94 strenuous programs and graduate degrees in 92 programs while weathering only very minor accreditation issues.

Jepson sent me a rough press release the department is working on touting the football team's most recent performance in the National College Football Coaches Association’s assessment of graduation rates, which left it one of only six in Division I-A to top 90 percent. The other five, according to the upcoming release, were Notre Dame, Boston College, Northwestern, Duke and SMU, which makes Southern Miss the only team in the country from a public school that
graduates more than nine players out of ten.

Also: most everybody hates its founder, the current lame duck president, but is in consensus that the Polymer Science Center rocks, and is easily one of the top such facilities anywhere in the world.

Here is a list of prominent alumni, for starters, which is short on sports stars (no Clarence Weatherspoon, Louis
Lipps or Patrick Surtain?). While it does include New York news anchor Chuck Scarborough, it does not include his father (I'm assuming that relationship), Bill, who is not an alumnus but has taught at USM for upwards of 50 years, is considered among the foremost experts on the "Old South" anywhere and has won every possible award for his books. Probably the most noted
scholar there of many.

Another marketer, David Tisdale, notes the following in addition:

- USM has one of the oldest Honors Programs in thecountry; the Honors College was founded in 1976, but we have had an honors program since the 1960s.

- The Center for Writers rated as one of the top programs of its kind in the country

- The Psychology Department is nationally recognized

- The Francis A. Karnes Center for Gifted Studies (education and research with disabled children) (Are "gifted" kids in MS considered "disabled?" Just asking.--ed.)

So there you go.

5. Why do we feel like this game will be closer than people think, like a 27-17 thing or something like that?

I'd be stunned if USM scored 17 points without at least one defensive or special teams touchdown, but beyond that, you're worried about the "giant killer" thing. Because these kinds of games between potentially rusty behemoths and geeked-up, non-pushover underdogs often go that way. Southern Miss expects to be competitive every game out; I remember being kind of shocked a few years ago reading Nebraska message board posters who said they respected
USM and then, as evidence, only predicted a three touchdown victory. Similarly, "We Are the Boys" fretted over a close game, then guessed Florida would probably win "a scrimmage" by four touchdowns. Maybe mega schools are used to beating people like that, but
USM's not used to getting beat like that. Think of us as about the equivalent of a lower-tier SEC school (I wanted to write "middle of the pack SEC school," and would have as late as last year, but that’s not the case anymore): there will be an "Uh oh, what do we have here, the Eagles came to play" moment or two, guaranteed, but the only way Florida doesn’t pull away
late is if the offensive line, and subsequently Chris Leak, implodes in Joe Dailey-style fashion.

Not going to happen. But at the same time, given the conservatism and inconsistency I saw from Florida's offense last year, I wouldn’t get my hopes up for a greater margin than about two touchdowns, give or take a field goal.

6. Does your coach suffer from an overindulgence in the use of a single
gesture? Like, say, pointing? If so, please explain said gesture and the likely reasons behind its
overuse.

This is an interesting question, because my current roommate and old college friend is a photographer who at one point was putting together a book on pictures he'd taken of Jeff Bower in various states of grief, bliss and irritation on the sidelines. The best involve badgering officials, but one of the reasons it may have been ultimately scrapped was that Bower's not
overly interesting.

If there is one Bower trademark, I'd have to say it's a kind of stoic, laser death stare, the kind that makes you say, "Wow, look at Jeff, he is really pissed," even though he isn't yelling or acting angry. He will flip out on a side judge about once a game, really get up in his ear behind him like a baseball manager to an indifferent umpire, which of course is the preferred entertainment. Doesn’t throw things around, is not particularly animated when things go well. Otherwise, he’s got the visor thing going on a consistent basis.


Jeff Bower asks: my peoples if you with me where you at (in the front, in the back...)

In press conferences, he’s homey and genial and a little "aw, shucks" in a genuine, anti-Bowden sort of way, but still gets away without saying a whole lot. Certainly nothing controversial. Regardless of some minor fan complaints, Bower’s been on very solid ground for a decade, so he has no reason to shake things up.