When assessing the turnaround of Southern Miss football this season, you'd first like to find a similar situation with which to compare it. Who else has gone from so bad to this good this quickly?
No similar case study comes immediately to mind, certainly not in USM history, because USM had never been that bad.
Southern Miss was 0-12 three seasons ago, 1-11 two years ago and 3-9 last season. That's 4-32 if you're keeping score. The current Golden Eagles are 7-3 and lead Conference USA in both total offense and total defense. They have won four straight games by an average margin of 34 points. (Disclaimer: Those four teams are a combined 12-28. But they were the same teams who have been beating USM in recent seasons.)
USM had played Rice in two of the past three seasons. Combined score: Rice 85, USM 40. The two teams played again last Saturday at historic Rice Stadium. Final score: USM 65, Rice 10.
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Todd Monken's team is setting records. Junior quarterback Nick Mullens has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, compared to just seven interceptions. Two years ago, as a freshman starter, he threw for 13 touchdowns, while throwing 14 interceptions.
Quarterbacks always get too much credit and too much blame. Yes, Mullens is better, but so are the people who surround him. It's easier to throw when you aren't running for your safety. It's easier to throw when you have runners who can run, catchers who can catch and blockers who can block.
Mullens has all that now. Plus, USM has a defense that gets him the ball back. It all works together.
Still, the question remains: How did it happen so quickly?
The party line: Returning players have improved and there has been a huge influx of talent. True in both cases. I would also suggest this: USM was much better than 3-9 in 2014. The Eagles were 3-4, playing much better and leading Louisiana Tech 7-0 when Mullens went down with a foot injury from which he never really recovered. Tech came back to win 31-20. Mullens missed the rest of that game, the next two and never really was healthy again. A team that might have finished 6-6 finished 3-9.
So that's part of it. And then there's this: Monken and his staff have recruited several key players who have become instant starters or provided badly needed depth. The depth has provided competition, which in turn makes everyone better.
Another huge factor: Strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin, hired from UAB, has made a huge difference. You can see it with the naked eye. USM players look different. They are more fit: bigger, faster and stronger.
Most impressive to these eyes is how the old and the new have blended. Any time you bring this many new players in for instant playing time, you have a double-edged sword. You might add talent, but you can also add discord. We've seen it happen in Mississippi before. Jackie Sherrill dipped his net heavily into junior college waters toward the end of his tenure at Mississippi State. To be nice, the resulting haul wasn't what he wanted.
At USM, it seems to have worked brilliantly. Two-year transfers have made a huge difference. To these eyes, wide receiver Mike Thomas, a senior, and safety D'Nerius Antoine, a junior, appear future pros.
In all, nine of 22 listed starters came to USM through juco ranks or from other four-year schools. Several of the top backups are transfers including quarterback Tyler Matthews (TCU transfer), who would be starting at many, many places.
That's not the way you would prefer to do it. You'd prefer to bring in a full class of freshmen every season, redshirt the majority and build from within.
Monken did not have that luxury. He inherited an absolute disaster, which he has fixed. Remarkably fast. And he is redshirting 11 freshmen currently. That bodes well for the future.
Rick Cleveland, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.