Most Interesting Modern Group of Five Champions: 2011 Southern Miss

During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.

Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tales.

All great teams have flaws. Sometimes those flaws are hardly exposed during a great season and other times these flaws undo teams at the worst possible times. 2011’s Southern Miss squad was an example of the latter.

Unlike most of the teams in this series, Southern Miss had consistent success as a program. They had gone to nine straight bowls going into the 2011 season and had produced several NFL regulars, most notably Brett Favre.

Naturally, the Golden Eagles had high hopes going into the season and it started on a high enough note, with a 19-17 win over Louisiana Tech, who would win the WAC by season’s end. A 26-20 set back against Marshall followed, where the Golden Eagles blew a 17-3 lead and committed six turnovers.

No big deal though, as Marshall was not a bad team, going 5-7 the year before. Plus, it was still early and everyone was in conference championship contention.

Sure enough, Southern Miss recovered, reeling off seven straight wins, including non-conference wins against Virginia, who wound up one game away from an ACC title game birth, and a 63-point scoring explosion against Navy.

During the streak, the Golden Eagles breezed through their Conference USA adversaries by an average margin of 17 points in five conference games. The lone hiccup was a 30-29 win against UCF, where a two-point conversion as time expired fell short for the Knights.

Flying to the BCS?

Southern Miss rose to #20 in the BCS standings, so all was well in Hattiesburg. This combined with Boise State, the frontrunner BCS Buster (try saying that three times), losing at home to TCU made the BCS a realistic possibility.

TCU had two losses as the Mountain West’s best team, and Houston was undefeated. The Conference USA championship could very well become a BCS play-in game if both teams ended the regular season unscathed.

The momentum was on the Golden Eagles side going into a Thursday road date at 2-8 UAB. The only question was how much Southern Miss had to win by to improve their attractiveness to the BCS.

Yet, this is college football and plans hardly go seamlessly. Southern Miss seemed well on its way as they scored two touchdowns in the first four minutes to go up 14-0. The Blazers fought back though and took a 24-21 halftime lead.

The two teams fought back and forth in the second half with the score tied at 31-31 midway through the fourth. The team no one expected came out on top as the Blazers’ Ty Long kicked a 38-yard field goal with 3:04 to go to seal the upset for UAB. Just like that a 2-8 team dashed the Golden Eagles’ BCS hopes.

The next week, Southern Miss properly disposed of a 2-win team in Memphis this time in a 44-7 win. The Eastern Division was the Eagles’, but the stakes were low for them.

From Spoiled to Spoilers

The opposite was true for Houston, who came in undefeated and ranked at #6 in the BCS, looking at a win-and-in scenario in the Conference USA title game. Case Keenum spearheaded a Kevin Sumlin juggernaut, posting a gaudy 43-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio on the strength of 4,726 yards and a 73% completion percentage.

Over the course of the season, Keenum threw for over 400 yards in six games, with his best performance being a 534 yard effort against Rice where he tossed nine touchdowns.

Clearly the Golden Eagles were not the favorites here. Yet, for whatever reason, the pressure on the Cougars or the looking ahead to a potential BCS date, it became Southern Miss’ redemption party.

In the final game at Robertson Stadium, and a rare ABC appearance for both schools, the Golden Eagles started fast, jumping to a 14-0 lead, and did not look back in a 49-28 win. Austin Davis outdueled Keenum, throwing for 279 and four touchdowns, as the Southern Miss defense held Keenum to 5.6 yards/attempt on 67 passes and nearly doubled his interception total for the year with two picks.

What Could Have Been?

While the UAB loss hurt for Southern Miss, the Marshall loss was just as painful. Marshall ended the season at 7-6 with only a win in the Beef O’ Brady Bowl over FIU to show for it. UAB ended at a pathetic 3-9. To make matters worse, Houston beat both of these teams by a combined score of 119-41.

Arguably, only one of those losses could have put Southern Miss in the BCS as that year lacked a BCS Buster. Losing to both put a major damper on an otherwise phenomenal season. Southern Miss fans might have the most heartbreaking account of falling short of the BCS or New Year’s Six, based on how unpredictable their losses were.

Even more strange was Southern Miss’s bowl destination. C-USA had a long-standing agreement to send their champion to the storied Liberty Bowl. Despite this, the Liberty Bowl chose to take Big East co-champs, Cincinnati, while C-USA sent a team to take the SEC’s spot in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham.

This sent the Golden Eagles to the Hawaii Bowl to play a 7-5 Nevada team. The drop-off in prestige from the BCS or even the Liberty Bowl was significant. Southern Miss played down to their opposition’s level again, falling behind early and not pulling away until a four-yard pass from Austin Davis to Kelvin Bolden gave the Golden Eagles a 24-17 win.

How the Mighty Fell

The peak was short-lived for Southern Miss. The next year, with Larry Fedora departing for Chapel Hill, the Golden Eagles dropped to an unimaginable 0-12, getting outscored 454-236. No team had fallen as quickly in college football.

Southern Miss’s 2011 team was a signature team for many reasons. They certainly had the talent, but their slips came at the wrong times, and has their fans still seeking closure. Their meteoric fall adds another element to the season as it gave Southern Miss fans another thing to ponder, in the form of how quickly things can turn sour.

 

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