Golden Eagles set bar high after strong 1999

Saturday, July 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Editor's Note: Today continues Dallas Morning News' look at their pre-season Top 25 college football teams. will reprint the entire countdown.

Southern Mississippi took a big jump in the polls at the end of last season, finishing with the highest final rankings (13th and 14th) in school history. Now, coach Jeff Bower wants to take his program even higher.

More likely than not, however, the Golden Eagles will be taking a little detour.

Bower will open the season by taking his team on the road to Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma State. Winning one of those games, for most programs, would be considered a major accomplishment. Bower understands his record might not be pretty in late September. But he has the future in mind.

"As I said on our football signing day, playing a schedule like this helps in the recruiting process," he said. "It's good for us. The only way we can progress to the point of being considered for Top 10 status and the bowl championship series is by playing a schedule like this."

Southern Miss has won three of the past four Conference USA titles, and has a strong chance to make it four of five.

Bower lost eight starters (four to the NFL), but he has a lot of talent returning and some new faces who are expected to make immediate impacts.

USM's strengths on defense will be up front with Cedric Scott, who teamed last year with Adalius Thomas (Baltimore Ravens, sixth round) to make the Golden Eagles eighth nationally in total defense (294.1 ypg) en route to a 6-0 record in C-USA and a Liberty Bowl victory over Colorado State.

Bower also will have a ton of depth in the defensive backfield, led by standout safety Leo Barnes.

Offensively, the biggest losses came at wide receiver. Todd Pinkston (Philadelphia Eagles, second round) and Sherrod Gideon (New Orleans Saints, sixth round) are gone after combining for 18 receiving touchdowns.

Derrick Nix, one of only two running backs in school history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and Dawayne Woods return in the backfield along with quarterback Jeff Kelly, who was outstanding as a sophomore last season. And the offensive line, a huge question mark at the start of last season, returns intact after an up-and-down year overall.

"We're pretty athletic, but I was disappointed last year that we didn't make any improvement," Bower said. "I just didn't feel like we improved from a fundamental technique aspect. I hope they are closer to playing up to their potential [this year]."

They'll have to be, early in the season particularly. Otherwise, the Golden Eagles could end up taking a couple of thumpings, which may happen anyway.

They won't be debilitating losses, though. Not for a coach who knows it's simply part of the process.

Schedule- Sept. 2 at Tennessee; Sept. 16 at Alabama; Sept. 23 at Oklahoma State; Sept. 30 Memphis; Oct. 7 So. Florida; Oct. 14 at Tulane; Oct. 28 at Houston; Nov. 4 Louisville; Nov. 11 at Ala-Birm.; Nov. 18 at Cincinnati; Nov. 24 East Carolina

So. Miss. Tigers Capsule

COACH: Jeff Bower (59-43-1 in nine seasons at USM and overall).

LAST YEAR: 9-3, No. 14 AP, No. 13 USA Today-ESPN.

OUT: The biggest tasks will be to replace linebackers T.J. Slaughter and Ty Trahan, and Todd Pinkston and Sherrod Gideon at wide receiver. Slaughter and the two wideouts were three of four USM players selected in the NFL draft (along with defensive tackle and C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Adalius Thomas).

IN: Rod Davis, a redshirt freshman, moves into the starting middle linebacker role, replacing Slaughter, and gets to learn the ropes against Tennessee and Alabama to open the season.

BIG PLUS: Shawn Mills, a return specialist last season, moves in at one of the wide receiver positions.

BIG MINUS: The start of the season, on the road against Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma State, might not be pretty.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: It's an extreme long shot, but if the Golden Eagles pull off huge upsets the first two weeks of the season, they're set.

BOTTOM LINE: A 1-2 start would be a plus. But another nine-win season isn't a pipe dream.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. Southern Miss