Southern Miss

After 3 long years, Southern Miss can earn bowl eligibility Saturday

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDSouthern Miss running back Ito Smith is brought down by UTSA's C. J. Levine, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDSouthern Miss running back Ito Smith is brought down by UTSA's C. J. Levine, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. SUN HERALD

HATTIESBURG -- Southern Miss made big plans for Saturday.

Oh sure, there's the Halloween thing -- USM is wearing all-black uniforms, UTEP is wearing all-orange ones, and fans are asked to wear black clothes and join in spooky pre-game campus fun -- but there is more to it than that.

A win, you see, would give Southern Miss a 6-3 record. And six wins qualifies a college football team for a bowl.

And for Golden Eagle fans -- who suffered through a winless 2012 season, a 1-11 2013 season and a 3-9 2014 season -- a bowl, any bowl, would be cause for celebration.

But not so fast, Southern Miss.

First things first, the Golden Eagles have not yet won six games.

"Do I think our guys know what's at stake this weekend? Yes," USM coach Todd Monken said. "We can't get to six without this game. We can't talk about what our destination is. That's foolish. We don't need to start making travel plans for where this team is headed when you're at five (wins).

"All that can be taken care of later, I promise you. It's about each week and how you prepare for this coming week. Then you wake up and the season ends and you reflect back. There's no reflecting now, there's no looking forward, it's UTEP."

UTEP's Miners are 3-4 overall and 1-2 in Conference USA. Southern Miss is 3-1 in C-USA.

And the Miners lost their first two games in October when their starting quarterback, Mack Leftwich, had a concussion and didn't play. Leftwich returned to action last weekend and completed 20 of 39 passes for 271 yards in leading UTEP to a 27-17 win over FAU, and he's expected to play Saturday.

The other thing is that six wins only makes a team eligible for a bowl. It doesn't guarantee it.

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Last season, six teams won six (or seven) games and did not get invited to a bowl: Middle Tennessee State, UAB, Ohio, Old Dominion, Texas State and Temple.

The good news is that Conference USA has partnerships with seven bowls. The R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl is Dec. 19, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl is Dec. 19, the Miami Beach Bowl is Dec. 21, the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl (former USM athletic director Richard Giannini is the executive director) is Dec. 24, the St. Petersburg Bowl is Dec. 26, the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl is Dec. 26 and the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl is Dec. 29.

C-USA also has a secondary agreement with the Independence Bowl if the ACC or SEC is not able to provide a bowl-eligible team.

While Monken downplays bowl talk, the players can't help but have it in their minds.

"Everyone's excited, just that buzz around the (athletic) building," Southern Miss cornerback Kalen Reed said. "Six, we haven't been there in a while, so we're ready to get back out there and play."

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said that winning has kept the players motivated.

"At practice every day, those guys are coming ready to go to work because they all feel like there's still a lot left out there, a lot of our goals are still available, so it makes practice better, Lindsey said. "It makes meeting times better where our guys are locked in and focused a little more. It's a good situation to have."

Gametime is 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

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