Monday, November 23, 2015

Rick Cleveland: USM turns it around.

When assessing the turnaround of Southern Miss football this season, you'd first like to find a similar situation with which to compare it. Who else has gone from so bad to this good this quickly?

No similar case study comes immediately to mind, certainly not in USM history, because USM had never been that bad.

Southern Miss was 0-12 three seasons ago, 1-11 two years ago and 3-9 last season. That's 4-32 if you're keeping score. The current Golden Eagles are 7-3 and lead Conference USA in both total offense and total defense. They have won four straight games by an average margin of 34 points. (This disclaimer: Those four teams are a combined 12-28. But they were the same teams who have been beating USM in recent seasons.)

USM had played Rice in two of the past three seasons. Combined score: Rice 85, USM 40. The two teams played again last Saturday at historic Rice Stadium. Final score: USM 65, Rice 10.

Todd Monken's team is setting records. Junior quarterback Nick Mullens has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, compared to just seven interceptions. Two years ago, as a freshman starter, he threw for 13 touchdowns, while throwing 14 interceptions.

Quarterbacks always get too much credit and too much blame. Yes, Mullens is better, but so are the people who surround him. It's easier to throw when you aren't running for your safety. It's easier to throw when you have runners who can run, catchers who can catch and blockers who can block.

Mullens has all that now. Plus, USM has a defense that gets him the ball back. It all works together.

Still, the question remains: How did it happen so quickly?

The party line: Returning players have improved and there has been a huge influx of talent. True in both cases. I would also suggest this: USM was much better than 3-9 in 2014. The Eagles were 3-4, playing much better and leading Louisiana Tech 7-0 when Mullens went down with a foot injury from which he never really recovered. Tech came back to win 31-20. Mullens missed the rest of that game, the next two and never really was healthy again. A team that might have finished 6-6 finished 3-9.

So that's part of it. And then there's this: Monken and his staff have recruited several key players who have become instant starters or provided badly needed depth. The depth has provided competition, which in turn makes everyone better.

Another huge factor: Strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin, hired from UAB, has made a huge difference. You can see it with the naked eye. USM players look different. They are more fit: bigger, faster and stronger.

Most impressive to these eyes is how the old and the new have blended. Any time you bring this many new players in for instant playing time, you have a double-edged sword. You might add talent, but you can also add discord. We've seen it happen in Mississippi before. Jackie Sherrill dipped his net heavily into junior college waters toward the end of his tenure at Mississippi State. To be nice, the resulting haul wasn't what he wanted.

At USM, it seems to have worked brilliantly. Two-year transfers have made a huge difference. To these eyes, wide receiver Mike Thomas, a senior, and safety D'Nerius Antoine, a junior, appear future pros.

In all, nine of 22 listed starters came to USM through juco ranks or from other four-year schools. Several of the top backups are transfers including quarterback Tyler Mathews (TCU transfer), who would be starting at many, many places.

That's not the way you would prefer to do it. You'd prefer to bring in a full class of freshmen every season, red-shirt the majority and build from within.

Todd Monken did not have that luxury. He inherited an absolute disaster, which he has fixed. Remarkably fast. And he is red-shirting 11 freshmen currently. That bodes well for the future.


 Rick Cleveland ( is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.


Anonymous said...

and the fact that C-USA is right there with the Sun Belt and MAC for weakest Div I FBS Conferences.

but still a turn-around of epic proportions

Anonymous said...

@ 10:39

Unlike State and ole miss, who until the last two years, have been completely irrelevant in the SEC. State has never won the SEC, and ole miss, who has never even been to Atlanta, gave out rings for TYING LSU for a west division title. Neither wanted to play USM just a few years ago, and though State played them early this season, they would not want to do it now.

Better to be strong in a "weak" conference than totally irrelevant in a strong one.


Anonymous said...

That 21 pts victory over a LSU team was sweet. imagine if we are seeing LSU in a death spiral like USM had recently. Kudos to USM golden eagles for a remarkable tuenaround..... good luck with whoever coaches the LSU team- Very traumatic times in Baton Rouge

Anonymous said...

LSU leads the series 59–41–4.
Let us know when you finally play in the SEC title game, much less a National Champinship game.

Anonymous said...

11:45, All the best to USM who seems to have a coach that was up to the task of righting a sinking ship. I hope you keep him around a while because he can really do some good things for USM. Namely, he showed up to the press conference and chewed out the entire fan base for being awful football supporters. That needed to happen. We'll see if you get to keep him, though. Not many would want to play in front of 15,000 fans each week.

Anonymous said...

Just a matter of time before Monken leaves...assuming the Buzzards keep winning. Keep in mind that there has only been one who really wanted that job for the long term (Bower) and he got pushed out.

Go Buzzards Go....and please take JSU with you

Anonymous said...

11:45 said like a true homer. I'd rather be a doormat in the SEC than #1 in CUSA any day of the year.

Who Buried The Colonel? said...

I've lost track of the stats, but last year read that USM had tied nationally for either the most consecutive winning seasons or the most bowl appearances in their conference. Someone will correct me. I've had tickets for decades and remember their back to back to back to back winning seasons and bowl appearances. We all wanted Bower gone but that might have been a mistake.

The hapless Fedora came in and did well, only to leave and leave the place in shambles only to be resurrected by Monken, after several failed dismally.

You pissheads who like to refer to Mustard Buzzards, etc can jump up a goat's ass! Sip your cheap bourbon while celebrating seasons with Brewer, Orgeron and the'll always have Sheppie Smith in The Grove and penny loafers.

Anonymous said...

We all wanted Bower gone but that might have been a mistake.

No.......we all didn't. And it was a terrible mistake and poorly handled.

Anonymous said...

@ 2:03

oormats.That's a great description of those schools up north.

Anonymous said...

Southern Miss holds a one-game advantage in the series with MSU 13-12 with one tie in twenty-eight meetings.

ole miss lost the last 2 meetings withUSM, and decided to take theire ball and go home.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the term Mustard Buzzards. Did not know that one. Will definitely use now. But maybe you should redirect your jealousy & anger towards updating your high school stadium. All you need are alumni who will commit to buying season tickets and spending money at the game. Oh well, snowballs chance of that happening in fantasyland. So keep venting that anger…that's all you have.

Anonymous said...

For the record, the Black Bears are 18-6 against Suthern Piss all time.

Nasty Brunch said...

C-USA is Sun Belt II. Most of he good teams left for the AAC.

Anonymous said...

Use to love it when Southern played State at Memorial Stadium. Or when anybody of any significance played there.

Yes, it's true that 'everybody' wanted Bower gone. He had nothing for the fan base, acted dejected all the time, hated the Eagle Walk and had his head up his ass. In order to survive, a coach at least has to acknowledge the existence of the fan base. The only three who wanted him around were family members.

Anonymous said...

Great article by Rick. The Eagles deserve recognition for 2015 team. The turn around is a great story. Yes, I am an Eagle. However, I just don't understand why our folks and "their" folks have to get on here and act like junior high kids. I know the bickering and mud slinging have gone on for decades in Mississippi and will continue long after I leave this earth. Just enjoy your teams and let others enjoy theirs. More importantly, enjoy life. Happy 8-3 to everybody!! (Looking forward to watching the USM and LaTech game and also the Egg Bowl this Saturday.)

Anonymous said...

6:40, agreed. As for the MSU/OM fans talking attendance smack, I will point out that USM leads CUSA in attendance. Yeah, I know the conference blows but we're still doing better than our peers. To The Top, bitches.

Doak W. said...

When SMU was in Conference USA, had a guy ask about the difference in The Rock and Ford Stadium. I said that instead of a water tower behind the stadium that had Hattiesburg painted on it, Ford Stadium had a gold skyscraper behind it with Merrill Lynch on it. We didn't even get into the difference in academics.

Anonymous said...

USM would beat the Ponies by 40 this year.

Anonymous said...

MSU has won the SEC title before, albeit a long time ago. Same for UM.
MSU was ranked #1 for a month and UM was ranked #3 as recent as last year.

Monkin has done a great job. All three teams are relevant. USM and MSU/UM don't compete against each other.

Most of the posters above need to take two Midols and go to bed.

Bowers said...

Check U. S. News and World Report's ranking of SMU and compare it to Southern Miss.

Basty Nunch said...

"Louisiana-Monroe: Southern Miss offensive coordinator / quarterbacks coach Chip Lindsey is in the mix for the ULM head coaching job, according to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman."

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