Southern Miss

2016 sets up as potentially huge season for Southern Miss football

 Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens (9) looks for an open receiver against Washington.
RON JENKINS/ASSOCIATED PRESS Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens (9) looks for an open receiver against Washington. AP

The Southern Miss football team exceeded expectations in 2015. Next year, the bar will be set significantly higher.

The Golden Eagles finished off a 9-5 season in a 44-31 loss to Washington Saturday in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas.

USM lost its final two games of the season, starting with a 45-28 defeat to Western Kentucky in the Conference USA title contest, but the back-to-back losses won't diminish the impact of the 2015 season on the program.

Southern Miss is back to winning football after going 4-32 in the three previous seasons.

In 2016, USM will be among the favorites to contend for a Conference USA championship and possibly a major bowl bid.

The Golden Eagles should be considered the favorite to repeat as the C-USA West champion next year with Marshall and Middle Tennessee both likely to contend in the East.

USM will face the same conference opponents it saw in the regular season in 2016, which means Marshall will have to come to Hattiesburg, giving USM a good shot to clinch home field in the C-USA title game.

The four non-conference opponents set for USM in 2016 are the Sept. 3 season opener against Kentucky, a Sept. 10 home game against Savannah State, a Sept. 17 home game against Troy and an Oct. 15 trip to LSU.

The trip to Kentucky gives USM a shot at its first win over an SEC opponent since it won 21-0 at Alabama in 2000.

USM does have a good deal of production on offense to replace, including its top two receivers in Mike Thomas and Casey Martin. The two players accounted for a combined 2,316 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns this season.

The Golden Eagles will also have to replace running back Jalen Richard, who led the Golden Eagles in rushing this season until injuries limited him in the WKU contest and kept him out of the bowl game. He rushed 185 times for 1,098 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The main reason for optimism in 2016 will be the return of quarterback Nick Mullens for his senior campaign. He established himself as one of the best quarterbacks among the Group of 5 conferences this season by completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year set school marks in passing yardage and touchdown passes.

After throwing for 331 yards and two scores Saturday, Mullen ranked fourth in the nation in passing yardage. He will be among the nation's top returning passers in 2016, joining quarterbacks like Washington State sophomore Luke Falk and Texas Tech sophomore Patrick Mahomes.

Mullens will return his third leading receiver D.J. Thompson, who had a breakout season as a junior with 55 catches for 779 yards and six touchdowns.

Also returning to the fold will be USM's leading rusher, Ito Smith. As a sophomore, he ran 171 times for 1,156 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also ranked fourth on USM in receptions with 49 for 515 yards and three touchdowns.

The challenge for USM will be developing depth at running back, but it will return George Payne for his junior season after he sat out the 2015 campaign with an injury.

The next breakout player for USM may be receiver Korey Robertson, who played well in limited opportunities as a redshirt freshman. He had 14 catches for 200 yards and three touchdowns.

The USM staff was aggressive in recruiting junior college receivers, signing four in mid-December. Hinds Community College's Marquez McNair, who has three years of eligibility remaining, appears destined to fill Martin's spot in the slot.

USM will have to replace starters at the two tackle spots in Rashod Hill and Norman Price, but it returns three starters in the interior of the offensive line who will be seniors next year - center Cameron Tom, left guard Brandon Farmer and right guard Oliver Bates.

Southern Miss will have to replace five starters on defense - defensive tackle Michael Smith, defensive tackle Andrew Bolton, linebacker Anthony Swain, middle linebacker Brian Anderson and cornerback Kalan Reed.

USM does, however, return plenty of experienced depth in the secondary including starting cornerback sophomore Cornell Armstrong and two starting safeties who played well in 2015 - junior D'Nerius Antoine and sophomore Picasso Nelson, Jr.

USM may again have to go the transfer route to shore up its linebacking corps. Strongside linebacker Elijah Parker is the only returning starting linebacker and his backup, sophomore Sherrod Ruff, was the only other linebacker to see significant playing time in 2015.

USM does return depth along the defensive line, including its two starters at defensive end in junior Dylan Bradley and redshirt freshman Darian Yancey. Naim Mustafaa, Ja'Boree Poole and Xavier Thigpen also add depth to USM's defensive end rotation.

Younger players will have to step in at the defensive tackle spots with redshirt sophomore Draper Riley, freshman Ladarius Harris and sophomore Rod Crayton all expected to contribute.

The 2015 season has come to a close, but talk of a big 2016 campaign has already begun.