DALLAS -- The usually happy-go-lucky Nick Mullens got choked up Saturday when asked about his bowl experience in Dallas.
"It obviously hurts to lose, but the overall trip to Dallas, you know, it's memories I'll never forget," Mullens said as he struggled to get out the words.
The junior quarterback for Southern Miss could have been talking about the entire 2015 campaign for the Golden Eagles and the seniors who played their final game Saturday.
After three years of being among the worst teams in FBS, Southern Miss is back to being a contender in Conference USA and a team that will likely be a hot pick to contend for a major bowl bid next season.
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For a USM fan base that had grown accustomed to losing, the 2015 campaign will be remembered as the season that Southern Miss football got off the mat.
Southern Miss had its season come to a close with a 9-5 mark Saturday after losing 44-31 to Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl
Third-year head coach Todd Monken thanked his seniors for helping rebuild a program that endured a combined record of 4-32 over the three previous seasons.
"I'm awfully proud of our team and our seniors for what they have accomplished because it's a special group when your seniors, your leaders, your best players are your hardest workers, and that's what we have," Monken said. "They've left quite an impression on all of us and a legacy that we have to live up to. They will always be revered, in my opinion, for bringing our program back to start a new streak."
While Washington's freshman duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin ruled the day at the Cotton Bowl, the case could easily be made that USM senior receiver Mike Thomas was the best player on the field Saturday.
Thomas finished with nine catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
The Chicago native went full extension to pull in a 36-yard pass to set USM at the 1. A play later, Ito Smith punched it in the end zone to cut the Washington lead to 21-17 headed into the half.
His most impressive play of the day came in the first quarter when Thomas pulled in a Mullens pass and outran the Pac-12's best secondary for a 56-yard touchdown.
When USM needed the big play, Mullens regularly found Thomas.
"Mike's one heck of a player," Mullens said. "Anybody who watched our team noticed that. And he's become a great player because he worked hard.
"Every time when it's one-on-one man coverage, I'm looking to get him the ball because I know he will win every time. And you saw that today. He's just a good player."
Thomas was just one senior who played a major role in making sure USM is no longer one of the bottom feeders in FBS.
"I'm proud of (Thomas)," Monken said. "We wouldn't be the team we are without him and the seniors that we had this past year. I hope they left here feeling like we all did it better this year. Starting with me and our staff and them, we did it better."