HATTIESBURG, Mississippi — It's been a brutal two seasons of football for Southern Mississippi.
The Golden Eagles finally had some success in last season's finale, beating Alabama-Birmingham 62-27 to end a 23-game losing streak. The win brought some positive energy to a program that desperately needed it.
And after getting a long-awaited taste of victory, the Southern Miss players say they crave success more than ever.
"Everybody always has a chip on their shoulder — we're 1-23," defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches said. "We're tired or hearing this and that from the commentators. We're tired of walking through the city and hearing bad things. We want to bring it back to what it used to be — positive and family and everything that we once had."
It was just three years ago that Southern Miss finished with a 12-2 record and a Conference USA championship. But coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina and the losses started piling up in a hurry.
Southern Miss second-year coach Todd Monken says his program has a much better foundation for this season's preseason camp, and a nucleus of young players should help the Golden Eagles be much improved.
"The second year is always easier," Monken said. "It's the same voices — my voice, coordinator voices, strength coach voices. The terminology is the same and you can see the progression. We've got more guys carrying the message."
Sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens returns after throwing for 1,776 yards, 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as a true freshman. Monken said better talent around Mullens should help him have much better numbers in his second season.
Here are five things to watch at Southern Mississippi this season:
MULLENS TIME: Southern Mississippi's quarterback job belongs to sophomore Nick Mullens, who had some encouraging moments while starting the final half of last season. An improved offensive line and a deeper group of receivers should help him improve some fairly ugly stats: He completed just 49.3 percent of his passes in 2013 for 1,776 yards, 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
TOUGH STRETCH: The Golden Eagles will have some tough tests early, facing Mississippi State and Alabama on the road during the first three weeks of the season. It's probably too much to ask for a victory, but Southern Miss could gain some valuable confidence if either game is close.
RUN THE BALL: Southern Miss had the worst ground game in Conference USA, averaging 72.9 yards per game and just 2.6 yards per carry. The Golden Eagles hope an improved offensive line and the emergence of Jalen Richard and George Payne will help change that trend.
BUILDING A PASS RUSH: The Golden Eagles struggled to put any pressure on opposing QBs last season, finishing with just 13 sacks in 12 games. Coach Todd Monken hopes the return of three starters and defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches — who missed most of last season with injuries — should help the defensive line improve quickly.
A LITTLE MOMENTUM: There hasn't been much good news in Hattiesburg over the past two years, but the Golden Eagles snapped a 23-game losing streak by beating UAB in last year's season finale. That's allowed Southern Miss more time worrying about getting better and less time having to answer questions about when the nation's longest losing streak with end.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP