This is a program on the rise. The last time Southern Mississippi fans had this much to be excited about was 2011, when head coach Larry Fedora managed a 12-2 record, capped off with a dominant Hawaii Bowl victory over a Derek Carr-led Fresno State team. It would be Fedora's last season.
Ellis Johnson's tenure would be a brief disaster. He lasted one winless 0-12 year before Todd Monken took over the program in 2013. Progress came slowly. First only a single win, then a bit of improvement to three wins in 2014. Finally, in his third season, a huge leap to 9-3 in the regular season with an opportunity for double-digit wins.
For this fan base, electrified by the validation of several years of patience, the Heart of Dallas Bowl selection is ideal. Presented with the chance to witness Southern Miss demand national attention with a bowl win over a Pac-12 foe, these fans will likely make the reasonable trip to Dallas in large numbers.
And why wouldn't they jump at the opportunity to see their explosive offense match up with the top defense in the Pac-12? This is an offense that carved up Conference USA through the air and on the ground. As confident as Husky fans are in the defense, you can bet Southern Miss fans are just as confident in Nick Mullens and the offense and can't wait to see what they can manage against the Huskies.
Nick Mullens (Jr., 6-1, 196), Tyler Matthews (Jr., 6-4, 215).
Mullens has managed a pretty rare combination of production and efficiency. The volume is there: 4145 passing yards and 36 touchdowns. But he's also completed 63% of his passes, averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, and thrown a perfectly reasonable 12 interceptions.
Some of Mullens' most impressive performances: 26-41 for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns in an early-season loss at Nebraska and 23-31 for 386 yards and 5 touchdowns in a beatdown of Rice. His roughest game of the year actually came in the C-USA Championship, when he completed 15-30 passes for 181 yards, one touchdown, and a trio of interceptions against Western Kentucky.
Much will be made about the relative level of his opponents and the rough game against Western Kentucky, but this season has been flat out impressive.
LT Rashod Hill (Sr., 6-6, 309), LG Brandon Farmer (Jr., 6-3, 308), C Cameron Tom (Jr., 6-4, 287), RG Oliver Bates (Jr., 6-2, 297), RT Norman Price (Sr., 6-4, 311).
Cameron Tom was named 1st Team Conference-USA All-Conference, while Rashod Hill made 2nd team.
When an offense dominates in both phases, it stands to reason that the offensive line is doing its job. Evaluating offensive line play is tough enough as it is, but this is no Pac-12 team. I haven't had a chance to watch nearly enough to critique individual offensive linemen.
So instead I'll simply throw out a few numbers: Southern Miss ranked 16th nationally in rushing yards per attempt at 5.29. They ranked 54th in sacks allowed with 22, but when you adjust for the fact that the Golden Eagles ranked 12th in passing attempts, it suggests more than respectable pass protection. Washington attempted far fewer passes and yet allowed 33 sacks.
This appears to be a talented, experienced line.
Jalen Richard (Sr., 5-8, 210) OR Ito Smith (So., 5-9, 195), Justice Hayes (Sr., 5-10, 194).
One look at Mullens' production might lead one to believe Southern Miss largely ignores the ground game. In fact, they boast two thousand-yard rushers. Galen Richard has carried the ball 185 times compared to 155 for Ito Smith, but the two are listed as co-starters.
The two have gone back and forth, with Richard toting the ball 20+ one week only to see Smith carry the load the next. While Richard has amassed more carries, yards, and touchdowns, Smith has been the more efficient runner and put together a stretch of three hundred-yard games to close out the year. Both ended up on the Conference USA All-Conference team, Richard on the 1st team and Smith on the 2nd.
Expect both to see a lot of action, with the coaches perhaps sticking with the hot back down the stretch. The Huskies have been borderline great in stopping the run, but given the need to focus on Mullens, there will be an opportunity to catch the defense off guard and break off a few.
X Mike Thomas (Sr., 6-1, 200), H Casey Martin (Sr., 5-10, 180), Z DJ Thompson (Jr., 6-3, 198), TE Ricky Parks (Jr., 6-3, 270).
Thomas has made the most of his senior season, managing 62 receptions, 1201 yards (19.4 yards per catch!), and 12 touchdowns. It's always a good sign for a big-play receiver to lead the team in yards and touchdowns without having to pace the team in catches.
Martin has been a reliable target in the slot, with a team-high 74 catches, 855 yards, and 7 touchdowns. D.J. Thompson is not to be overlooked as a 6-3 third option. His 52 catches, 743 yards, and 6 touchdowns would lead Washington in all three categories.
It's also worth noting that Mullens has been very comfortable targeting his running backs, with Smith and Richard combining for 74 catches, 750+ yards, and 5 TDs.
A lot of the fun in bowl games is matching up opponents that occupy very different corners of the college football world. In this case, it's the intrigue of a mediocre team within the context of a power-five conference versus a very good team within the context of Conference-USA.
So should the Huskies get the benefit of the doubt and end up favored against a nine-win team because they went 6-6 against much tougher competition? Is it fair to discount the insane numbers from the Southern Miss offense because they didn't happen against Pac-12 defenses?
Perhaps to a certain extent, but I would recommend national analysts and Husky fans both give this offense the respect it deserves. I'm sure Coach Kwiatkowski and the defense will.
Washington's greatest asset, in my eyes, will be the secondary. The Huskies boast the best corner in the conference in Sidney Jones, but perhaps even more importantly, the dropoff from Jones to fellow starters Darren Gardenhire and Kevin King is hardly steep. Mullens is not dependent on Mike Thomas, so it's fortunate that the Huskies aren't dependent on Jones.
What do you all think? How worried are you about this Southern Miss. offense, and how confident are you in the Husky D?
Edit: Oh, and I forgot to mention that Southern Miss lost their second-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to Arizona State. He covered the play calling, so John Wozniak will take over the reins. Your guess is as good as mine as far as how much the change will impact this offense.