The slow climb back for Southern Miss football began on Jan. 27, 2013.
That was the day Spain Park High School's scrawny quarterback, Nick Mullens, verbally committed to play football for USM. He was the 2012 Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year after putting up big numbers at the Hoover school, but his recruiting interest was limited to offers from USM, UAB, Georgia State and Jacksonville State.
The decision to switch his commitment from UAB to USM that January served as arguably the most important step in ending a miserable three-year run for Southern Miss football.
Mullens took over as the Southern Miss starting quarterback midway through the 2013 season. After dealing with the usual freshman struggles, he threw for 370 yards and five touchdowns to lead USM to a 62-27 win at UAB in the season finale to end a 23-game losing streak.
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I'm going to offer a hypothetical.
What if Mullens was standing on the other sideline that day when USM and UAB met before a sparse crowd at Legion Field? Instead of buying into Todd Monken after he was hired at USM, he instead followed through with his prior commitment to UAB.
If that was the case, there's a good chance USM's losing streak wouldn't have ended in Birmingham. There's also a good possibility USM wouldn't have beaten Alcorn State, 26-20, in the second game of the 2014 season. The game was on a razor's edge in the final moments.
Granted, Mullens didn't play very well in a 21-20 win over Appalachian State in game four, but USM had no quarterback better than him on the roster that day.
USM's third and final win of the 2014 season, 30-20, at North Texas would have been far from a sure thing if Mullens wasn't on the field that night.
Mullens appeared set for a strong close to the 2014 season, but an injury early in the 31-20 loss to Louisiana Tech put him out for three games and the offense was never the same the rest of the way.
While a 36-game losing streak would have been unlikely for USM even without Mullens, the timetable for the program's turnaround would have been significantly slower.
If Mullens hadn't signed with USM, it also seems very unlikely that his former high school coach, Chip Lindsey, would be having a successful second season as the Golden Eagles' offensive coordinator.
Sure, Monken could have found a new quarterback in year two after California transfer Allan Bridgford didn't pan out to start the 2013 season. But he likely would have been dealing with another FBS transfer learning a new system or a freshman trying to find his way. USM football would have still been under construction going into the 2015 season.
Mullens' current backup, TCU transfer Tyler Matthews, would likely do a fine job, but he wasn't eligible to play until this season. There would have been an adjustment phase for Matthews.
In year three as the starter, Mullens has become one of the better quarterbacks in the nation outside of the Power 5 conferences, leading USM to a 6-3 start and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. He ranks sixth in the nation with 2,890 passing yards. He has completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
It's easy to give the quarterback too much credit when things go well or too much blame when they fall apart, but Mullens has been the steadying force for a program that hit a low point of 0-12 during Ellis Johnson's one year as head coach in 2012. That same malaise stretched well into the 2013 season.
Without the progress shown with Mullens behind center, it would have difficult for the USM staff to recruit the last two years and piece together the current group in the running for a Conference USA West title.
Mullens is by no means the only reason USM is bowl-bound, but it's hard to see the Golden Eagles at this point without him.