Since first fielding a football team in 1912, Southern Miss has carved out a niche as a program that’s overachieved and proven tough to handle against some of the region’s more prominent squads.
The school was called Mississippi Normal during its initial season and the first game didn’t exactly involve a powerhouse opponent – the Hattiesburg Boy Scouts.
You have to assume then head coach Ronald J. Slay wanted to make sure that year that his first game would be a guaranteed mark in the win column. His plan worked out as the science teacher led the team to a 30-0 victory in Hattiesburg.
The next week didn’t go quite as well with Mississippi Normal losing 6-0 to Gulf Coast Military Academy – a school that was located in Gulfport.
There have been plenty of bright moments on the gridiron ever since for the Golden Eagles.
With the 2017 season in the record books as the 101st in the history of USM football, it’s worth looking back and considering which teams are the best of the best in Hattiesburg.
As many as nine or 10 teams were considered for this group, but it’s been condensed five squads.
Here they are, the five best teams in the history of Southern Miss football:
1. 1981 (head coach Bobby Collins) – The Golden Eagles finished the season 9-2-1 with quarterback Reggie Collier, running back Sammy Winder and “Mr. Excitement” Ricky Floyd, a do-it-all tailback, leading a potent offense. Collins was in his seventh and final season as the USM head coach, leading the Eagles to a 13-13 tie at Alabama, a 7-6 win over Mississippi State in Jackson and a stunning 58-14 beat down of Florida State in Tallahassee. Alabama was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation and received a Cotton Bowl bid that year. MSU climbed as high as No. 7 and beat Kansas 10-0 in the Hall of Fame Classic. The only real knock against USM that season is that it lost 19-17 to a solid Missouri squad in the Tangerine Bowl. USM was ranked as high as No. 9 that season following the win at FSU.
2. 1958 (head coach Thad “Pie” Van) – This team finished 9-0 as only the second USM squad to finish with a flawless mark. The only other to do so was the 1942 team that finished 4-0 following an abbreviated season. The 1941 squad finished 9-0-1. The 1958 team became the first of two UPI College Division National Champions, joining the 1962 Eagles that featured a record of 9-1. Hugh McInnis, who played tight end for the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Lions, and Biloxi native George Sekul were among the stars on the ’58 team. The Eagles were dominant that year, easily beating teams like North Carolina State and Virginia Tech. The only tight contest was a 24-22 win over Memphis.
3. 1997 (head coach Jeff Bower) – Bower considers this team the best of his successful 17-year run as head coach. The Golden Eagles finished 9-3 overall and 6-0 in Conference USA. The three losses came on the road at Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. With Patrick Surtain, Adalius Thomas and Sherrod Gideon on the roster, there’s a good argument to be made that this was USM’s deepest team ever in terms of talent. A 24-17 win at then No. 24 Cincinnati and a 34-13 victory over Tulane in Hattiesburg were among the big regular season wins. USM finished with a final ranking of No. 19 after throttling Pittsburgh 41-7 in the Liberty Bowl.
4. 1990 (head coach Curley Hallman) – This was Brett Favre’s senior season and the quarterback closed out in style, leading his team to road wins over ranked Auburn and Alabama teams. USM finished 8-4, falling 31-27 to North Carolina State following Hallman’s departure for LSU at the end of the regular season. Jeff Bower coached the bowl game in his first contest as head coach. USM’s four losses that season were by a total of 12 points and they came to Georgia, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
5. 2011 (head coach Larry Fedora) – With quarterback Austin Davis setting the pace on offense and an opportunistic defense, USM rolled to a record of 12-2. USM beat a Virginia team that played in the Peach Bowl and dominated Houston 49-28 in the C-USA title game. Houston, which was ranked No. 7 in the nation and 12-0 headed into the game, was prevented from receiving a major bowl bid due to the loss. USM likely would have received its own major bowl bid that year if not for being upset by Marshall and UAB on the road.