Wild play hands Southern Miss C-USA title, celebration ensues
With the new year drawing near, now is a good time to reflect on 2016 at Southern Miss while understanding the uncertainty that awaits in 2017.
There’s no denying that 2016 offered a mixed bag at USM.
The same could be said for the USM football season, but it ended on a bright note with a 28-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl.
The high moments of the 2016 football season took place in the season opener, a 44-35 win at Kentucky, and in the regular season finale, a 39-24 victory over Louisiana Tech to earn bowl eligibility.
The low moments came over a six-week stretch in October and November when the Golden Eagles lost five of six games as senior quarterback Nick Mullens battled through injuries.
When Mullens returned to health, the all-time leading passer in USM history earned his triumphant exit in the final two games.
You can make a strong case that the best moment of 2016 at USM took place at Pete Taylor Park on May 29 when the Golden Eagle baseball team earned a dramatic 3-2 win over Rice in the Conference USA Tournament championship game. The 8-6-3-2 play to close out the win over Rice has to go down as one of the most dramatic moments in program history.
Gulfport’s Daniel Keating was named the C-USA Tournament MVP, going 6-for-14 with a homer, four doubles and six RBIs.
In softball, the Lady Eagles won a C-USA West title in Wendy Hogue's second year as head coach.
The exploits of former USM athletes also gave fans reason to celebrate in 2016:
▪ Brett Favre was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, becoming the second USM alum to receive the honor, joining legendary punter Ray Guy.
▪ Brian Dozier hit 42 homers for the Minnesota Twins to set a new American League record for second basemen.
▪ Tori Bowie likely accomplished the greatest fete ever for a former USM female athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She won gold in the 4x100 relay, silver in the 100-meter dash and bronze in the 200-meter dash.
The low points
A year that began with Todd Monken stepping down as football coach closed with another departure. USM announced last week that athletic director Bill McGillis is leaving to take on a similar role at the University of San Diego in January.
McGillis was hired at USM in July of 2013, bringing stability to an athletic department that needed it badly.
The men's basketball program received some good news in April when the NCAA decided not to hit the team with harder sanctions after finishing a probe of Donnie Tyndall's tenure as USM head coach from 2012-14. The Golden Eagles will play in the Conference USA basketball tournament for the first time since 2014 this year after dealing with a self-imposed postseason ban the last two seasons.
Tyndall was hit the hardest with a 10-year show-cause, but USM will still deal a three-scholarship reduction over the next two seasons. USM won't fully shake Tyndall's shadow until the 2019-20 season.
Many fans loved Tyndall while he was in Hattiesburg, but there's no denying that he is to blame for the darkest period in program history.
The departure of McGillis adds more uncertainty to the 2017 forecast at USM.
The baseball team appears set for another strong year and fans on the Coast can look forward to the C-USA Tournament taking place at MGM Park in Biloxi on May 24-28.
Jay Hopson will be in his second season as the USM football coach and the 2017 team should better reflect the head coach and his staff. Players like Mullens, defensive lineman Dylan Bradley, center Cameron Tom and safety D'Nerius Antoine are all set to graduate.
Freshman Keon Howard has a chance to make major strides at quarterback as a sophomore, but there will be uncertainty at the position for the first time since Monken's first season in 2013.
While it's unclear how 2017 will shake out, the one thing we know for sure is that the next athletic director will have his or her hands full on day one.