HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Korey Williams speaks for everybody at Southern Miss: Seven wins just isn't good enough.
"I hate losing more than I love winning," the middle linebacker said. "If you have any love for the game, you know 7-6 is not any good at all."
Coach Larry Fedora kicks off his third season with the Golden Eagles with a sense of urgency after slow starts scuttled high hopes the last two years. In both cases, Southern Miss put together late runs to earn bowl berths.
But that wasn't the mission statement when Fedora replaced Jeff Bower following a 7-6 season.
Southern Miss has achieved many of the things it wanted by bringing in Fedora. The excitement level has been high since the start of his tenure. Ticket sales are up and donations are easier to come by.
The wins have to come now.
"We need to get it done," quarterback Austin Davis said. "It's just frustrating when you know you have the talent to win and you're coming up short for whatever reason. Everybody, the coaches and players, we're doing everything we know to fix it."
How far that repair job has come will be tested immediately when the Golden Eagles open the season with games against South Carolina and Kansas in the first three weeks.
To compete, Southern Miss has something to prove in each phase of the game.
Is the offense still a threat despite the loss of Damion Fletcher — one of nine Football Bowl Subdivision running backs to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons — and four offensive linemen?
Can the defense finally reach expectations after two disappointing years? And what about those extra points? The Golden Eagles missed six last season.
With the defense, nine starters are returning. For many of them, this is their third year, Fedora said.
"They've been playing since they were really young. We started with them. I think they totally understand what we're trying to do," he said. "They've got a lot of plays under their belt now. Experience, there's probably no substitute for it. Up front will be strength of our defense."
The Golden Eagles return their entire front seven, including defensive end Cordarro Law and all three starting linebackers — Williams, Martez Smith and Ronnie Thornton.
Williams says the group played it vanilla the last two years because of youth and the switch to a new defensive system. But no more. He expects the Golden Eagles to finally go on the attack.
"We're at a point now where we can do just about everything with our defense," Williams said. "We have the defensive backs that can match up and really cover this year. That gives the linebackers a chance to blitz or roam free. When the defense has knowledge of what's going on, it gives you a chance to throw in things here and there and keep the offense off balance."
On offense, the Golden Eagles are more worried about who will block for the backs than who will carry the ball. Only center Cameron Zipp, a favorite among players and coaches, returns. But Fedora liked what he saw in spring practice and believes the group has what it takes to come together.
"Those guys have got to know every detail about each other, where they're going to step and what they're going to do and what the guy next to them is going to do without really talking about it," Fedora said.
How those guys do will have a lot to say about how successful Southern Miss will be running the ball this season. It's a priority in Fedora's spread offense and he's got plenty of candidates to replace both Fletcher and heavy contributor Tory Harrison.
VJ Floyd, son of former Florida State and San Francisco 49ers tailback Victor Floyd, is penciled in as the starter. He's got the most experience in the group as a senior who has played sparingly over the years when Fletcher was hurt.
Three others figure into the rotation, including Tracy Lampley, who scored touchdowns as a rusher, receiver, kick returner and punt returner as a true freshman, and Kendrick Hardy, a gifted 220-pound bruiser who redshirted as a freshman.
Williams, who as a linebacker pays a lot of attention to running backs, thinks the group will be pretty special.
"All our running backs are going to play because they understand there's three or four of them" who can contribute, Williams said. "They ... work in altruistic ways, and are not concerned about playing time and just concerned about winning. I believe they showed that this spring and really came together as a running back group."