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NCAA Football Preview - Southern Miss Golden Eagles

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Oh boy, was it a rough 2013 season for Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles suffered through 11 consecutive losses before, in the final game of the season, Southern Miss was able to top UAB, 62-27.

It's not clear where the sudden offensive outburst came from in the win, but the Golden Eagles could've used it earlier in the year. Especially considering offense was the team's biggest problem for the better part of the season. Southern Miss was only able to reach the 20-point plateau in a game three times - twice in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Granted the defensive side of the football didn't exactly get the job done, either. Southern Miss allowed opponents to score over 40 points in seven of the team's 12 games, and over 50 points in five of those contests. The Golden Eagles allowed 435.5 offensive yards per game to the opposition, and 503 total first downs on the year compared to just 205 of their own.

Todd Monken will be returning as the head coach for his second year with the hopes his next time around will be a bit more smooth. The Eagles were 0-5 at home in 2013, and earned a 1-7 mark against Conference USA opponents - a record that was matched by three other teams in the league.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: At least part of the reason the Southern Miss offense was so dismal during the 2013 season was because it was in rebuilding mode. Even still, the Golden Eagles still averaged over 315 offensive yards per game behind a freshman quarterback for the better part of the year.

Nick Mullens returns for his sophomore campaign in 2014 after a turnover- riddled first season. But hey, plenty of coaches have their players learn on the job, which is what Mullens did last year. He completed 136-of-276 pass attempts for 1,776 yards and 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. With no more Allan Bridgford to take snaps away from Mullens, this will be the youngster's team to lead.

Thankfully for Mullens, he'll have his top two pass catchers back this season. Markese Triplett caught 33 passes in 2013 for team-high 558 yards and four touchdowns, and Tyre'oune Holmes topped the squad with 53 receptions for 410 yards and two scores. Add in Marquise Ricard and his three receiving touchdowns and emerging sophomore James Cox and Mullens may have a solid arsenal.

There wasn't much of a rushing presence in 2013 for the Eagles, who averaged a mere 72.9 rush yards per contest. So it doesn't necessarily help that the team's top statistical rusher, Kendrick Hardy, won't be back for the 2014 campaign. Instead, the ball-carrying duties will likely be handed off to junior Jalen Richard, who registered 85 carries for 347 yards and no scores last year. George Payne, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore will more than likely see his fair share of totes as well.

Three of the team's five linemen will return in 2014 as part of an offensive group seeing seven starters come back from a year ago. The one question everyone will be asking is can they start producing?

DEFENSE: Some of the top statistical leaders are back for Southern Miss on the defensive side of the football, but as was the case with the offense, it was just a bad year altogether. Not one player recorded more than one interception all season, and only two players recorded more than 70 tackles.

Linebacker DeBarriaus Miller topped the squad in tackles in 2013 with 92, adding 4.5 tackles for loss and an interception to his resume. He's not on the roster entering fall camp, but middle linebacker Alan Howze, who was injured in the fourth game of the season against Boise State and missed the rest of the year, is back.

Speaking of players returning from injuries, defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez- Roches is coming off a season-ending injury he suffered in the second contest against Nebraska. Nunez-Roches was a 2013 preseason All-Conference USA pick, and will join returning starters Michael Smith and Adam Williams on the defensive line.

"I am always expecting that we will play good defense and try to do it better than they do it," Monken said. "Play hard. Those are the things we have to do on both sides (of the ball) and on special teams to be successful"

The defensive backfield poses some question marks headed into the regular season. Sophomore Kelsey Douglas, last season's third-leading tackler, will be back, but could lose his strong safety job to senior Jacorius Cotton. Free safety Emmanuel Johnson is back, along with corner Kalan Reed. In all, there are eight returning defensive starters for the Golden Eagles. Hopefully playing experience did everyone some good.

SPECIAL TEAMS: At the very least, Southern Miss won't have to worry about replacing either the punter or place kicker from a season ago. Both kicker Corey Acosta and punter Tyler Sarrazin are returning for their senior and sophomore seasons, respectively. Acosta drilled 11-of-20 kicks last year with a long of 50 yards, while Sarrazin sent away 44 punts for an average of 39.4 yards.

OUTLOOK: It could be another long season for the Golden Eagles and coach Monken, but certainly better than the 2013 version. The pieces are coming together with a young core developing on offense and with a defense that had plenty of on-field experience a year ago.

"I don't see a reason why (this team shouldn't be bowl eligible)," Monken said. "I see our team doing it better. We have a number of guys and a little bit more depth. We are going to continue to grow. I don't see why that's not an obtainable goal. It is what this program was built on. It should be our goal."

The conference has experienced plenty of changeover in the offseason, and many teams will feature different starters at important positions than last season. So Southern Miss certainly has a great shot at improvement in the C-USA's West Division. But there will be some tough tests on the schedule, and the Golden Eagles would like to pick up wins much earlier than their Nov. 29 rematch against UAB.

Southern Miss opens the 2014 campaign at Mississippi State on Aug. 30, then hosts FCS opponent Alcorn State. The Eagles round out conference play with a trip to Alabama and a home bout against Sun Belt newcomer Appalachian State. Then they launch into conference play with defending champion Rice up first.

Trips to North Texas, Middle Tennessee and UTSA will be tough matchups for the Eagles, and a home clash against Marshall on Nov. 8 isn't any more favorable. Southern Miss fans know expectations aren't sky high, especially after one win in the past two seasons. But with some time this program could revert back to its winning ways like pre-2012 squads.