Southern Mississippi’s 2016 football season started with a bang, a 44-35 victory over Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference.
And the regular season ended with another highlight, a 39-24 over Conference USA West Division champion Louisiana Tech.
An even happier ending could happen Saturday, when the Golden Eagles play Louisiana-Lafayette at 8 p.m. in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Each 6-6 team ended the regular season with a win.
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“I think we have a chance to have a really nice crowd,” first-year Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “We have to all show up there on Saturday on both sides. It’s got the making of one of the bigger bowl draws in the country this year.
“I think it’s going to be one of those games that’s going to draw a tremendous crowd and should be a great setting for football.”
It will be Southern Miss’ 24th bowl game, beginning with the 1953 Sun Bowl. The Golden Eagles are 10-13 in those games.
And tonight’s game will be USM’s fifth New Orleans Bowl. The Eagles won the first three — 31-10 over North Texas in 2004, 31-19 over Arkansas State in 2005 and 30-27 in overtime to Troy in 2008 — before losing 42-32 to Middle Tennessee in 2009.
While many Southern Miss fans grew weary of the New Orleans Bowl, having played in it four times in six years, there seems to be renewed excitement over tonight’s game. USM did not attend any bowls in 2012, 2013 and 2014 before getting back in action at the Heart of Dallas Bowl last year.
Southern Miss has not won a bowl game since 2011, when it defeated Nevada 24-17 in the Hawaii Bowl.
Southern Miss is led offensively by quarterback Nick Mullens, running back Ito Smith and wide receiver D.J. Thompson. Defensively, lineman Dylan Bradley and free safety D’Nerius Antoine are top players.
“Nick Mullens is one of the best quarterbacks out there,” Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “When they have him, they can get really hot.”
ULL relies on the run as much as the pass. Quarterback Anthony Jennings, who started at LSU before transferring, has thrown for 2,083 yards and run for 322, while Elijah McGuire has run for 1,028 yards this season. Al Riles is the top receiver with 55 catches.
Hopson is glad his team is still playing, as it lost four of five during a stretch late in the season.
“It’s a reward for the players for their hard work and effort they put in,” he said. “Our football team is excited about it. They’re fired up. It’s a game they are looking forward to.”
Hopson said not only would a win over ULL be a great way to end the 2016 season, but it would also help start the 2017 season.
“There’s always momentum, for sure,” he said. “You want to finish the season on a good note.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans