HATTIESBURG -- Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens looks at Christmas Day a little differently than the rest of us.
While many will gather around the Christmas tree with their family, open presents, cook and eat big, sit back in a recliner and enjoy a day off, Mullens can't wait to put on his football uniform and go to work.
"We're looking forward to having practice on Christmas," the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year exclaimed. "That's one heck of a Christmas present right there."
Many would call that perspective one heck of a case of optimism, but Southern Miss fans can understand the true meaning of practicing on Christmas.
For the next day, Dec. 26, at 1:20 p.m., the Golden Eagles will play the Washington Huskies in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl in the legendary Cotton Bowl stadium.
It has been a long journey for the USM veterans (and fans). An 0-12 season in 2012, followed by a 1-11 and a 3-9. Then this year, coach Todd Monken and his staff and Nick Mullens and his teammates went 9-4, winning the East Division of Conference USA and making it to the C-USA championship game before falling to Western Kentucky.
So if it takes practicing on Christmas Day to celebrate a bowl, so be it.
But don't think the Eagles will be all alone in Texas.
"All of our team will have plenty of family out there in Dallas," Mullens said.
The last bowl that Southern Miss played in was the 2011 Hawaii Bowl, in which the Golden Eagles defeated Nevada 24-17.
Before the 0-12 season, USM had gone to bowls at the end of 10 consecutive seasons. Then there was the three-year drought.
"It feels weird to practice," sophomore safety Picasso Nelson Jr., said. "Last year at this time, everyone was at home with their families.
"But even though we won't be home for Christmas, it's good to be playing because a lot of people don't have the opportunity. A lot of people, their football career is over. To be practicing is a blessing, to be playing is a blessing. I just hope we can go out there and show everyone that we're more than capable of being great."
USM's six-win improvement was the largest in the country this season. The Eagles broke single-season records for touchdowns (67), points (528), completions (312) and passing yards (4,263).
They were first in Conference USA in rushing offense (191.9 yards per game) and first in total defense (364.1 yards per game).
"We feel like we can play with anyone," Nelson Jr., said.
Washington, of the Pac-12, went 6-6. The Huskies defeated two ranked teams, Southern Cal and Washington State, and lost to three ranked teams (Boise State, Stanford and Utah).
"Washington is a great opponent, really the opponent we were looking forward to playing," Mullens said. "A big-name school with a lot of good athletes so it will be a good test for us. We're excited about it.
"We're very confident. We have a lot of weapons on offense and defense to play sound Southern Miss football. That's really what it's all about, to play football after Christmas."
Southern Miss wide receiver D.J. Thompson, who caught 52 passes for 743 yards and six touchdowns this year, hopes the team does not get too caught up in bowl activities in Texas.
"It's supposed to be a trip of fun and also a trip of business," Thompson said. "As long as we don't think we're just supposed to go there and have a good time, I think it's going to be fine.
"The biggest thing is that we're down there for a week, together, we're going to have a good time, there's going to be many events for us to do, but the most important thing is winning the game. I think that we're going to do that."