The Conference USA West is there to be had for the Southern Miss football team, but it's becoming clear that little will come easy for the Golden Eagles the rest of the way.
USM is a 19.5-point favorite for Saturday's home game against FBS newby Charlotte, but even that game can't be taken for granted. The 49ers (3-5, 2-2) have suddenly become competitive against C-USA competition, winning two of their last three games. The two wins have come over FAU and Marshall and the one loss was 27-26 to FIU.
That being said, USM has a chance to win handily in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. contest at Roberts Stadium.
The Golden Eagles' defense seemed to find its way in last week's 24-14 win over Marshall, putting the team in position for a strong close to the regular season.
Still the favorite
At the moment, USM (5-3, 3-1) can be considered a slight favorite to win the C-USA West and earn a spot in the title game. The only reason it's in that position is that Louisiana Tech has to travel to Hattiesburg in the regular season finale on Nov. 25.
I wrote in early October that Tech could be riding a seven-game winning streak into the USM game if it managed to beat Western Kentucky on Oct. 6 in Ruston, La. The Bulldogs (6-3, 4-1) won that game and are currently on a five-game run.
Louisiana Tech's returning players surely remember last year's embarrassing 58-24 loss to USM in a game that decided the C-USA West champion. When the Bulldogs travel to USM in the regular season finale, they would love to return the favor.
Southern Miss is no longer the upstart it was a year ago. So far, it hasn't always handled well being the team with the target on its back.
USM also has to find a way to win the road at Old Dominion (5-3, 3-1) and North Texas (4-4, 2-2) before hosting Tech.
Staggers stands tall
The only obvious area of concern for USM coming out of the win over Marshall involved far too many drops by the receivers in the first half. A bad case of the drops seemed contagious among the receiving corps.
USM head coach Jay Hopson said Monday that he believes senior receiver D.J. Thompson will be back on the field Saturday after he missed the second half against Marshall with an injury. Thompson's health is key for a receiving corps that isn't all that deep.
While several receivers are still trying to reach consistency, junior Allenzae Staggers has emerged as the go-to man for senior quarterback Nick Mullens
After Mullens connected with his receivers on just 10 of 23 tries in the first half, it was Staggers who turned the tide early in the second half with a couple of big receptions.
The catch Staggers made in the back of the end zone to give USM a 17-7 lead with 12 minutes to go may prove to be the catch of the season. He jumped high in double coverage to come down with the pass.
After making just three catches through the season's first two games, Staggers has made 34 over the last six.
Staggers, who was added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list last month, has 37 receptions for 696 yards and six touchdowns this year.
He'll need more numbers like those for USM to get back to the title contest.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Charlotte
When: 2:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: 104.9 FM