HATTIESBURG, Mississippi — Southern Mississippi coaches believe the Golden Eagles have enough talent to end a three-year postseason drought.
Coach Todd Monken is entering his third season at Southern Miss after taking over a program that had a winless 2012 season. They've slowly improved during his tenure, with one win in 2013 and three last season.
Now Monken believes Southern Miss is ready to be competitive in Conference USA after a 2-22 record in league play over the past three years. Returning quarterback Nick Mullens, who threw for 2,470 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, is competing with TCU transfer Tyler Matthews for the starting job.
Monken said during the first few days of practice that this is the "best I have felt in the three years that I've been here" because the team has 10 returning starters on offense and more options on the roster.
"We have depth, which means you have competition," Monken said. "Our guys will have to compete every day to play. We have the right guys who understand that."
Some things to watch as Southern Miss tries to make the postseason for the first time since 2011:
EXPERIENCED OFFENSE: Southern Miss has 10 returning starters on offense, including quarterback Nick Mullens and the entire offensive line. This might be the year that coach Todd Monken's spread offense finally produces after two seasons of inconsistent results.
CROWDED BACKFIELD: Another reason why the Southern Miss offense could be poised for a breakout season is all of team's options in the backfield. Ito Smith returns after running for 536 yards last season and Michigan transfer Justice Hayes will also fight for playing time.
INTERESTING OPENER: The Golden Eagles have an interesting game during the season's opening weekend, hosting Southeastern Conference opponent Mississippi State in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss would obviously love to get a win, but even a close game could be a boost to a program that lost 49-0 to the Bulldogs in Starkville last season.
NEW DEFENSIVE LOOK: Southern Miss lost five of its top six tacklers from last season. The Golden Eagles do bring back quite a bit of depth. Senior middle linebacker Brian Anderson, who had 65 tackles last season, will be one of the leaders.
SEEMS LIKE A LONG TIME AGO: Southern Miss has been so bad during the past three seasons it's easy forget how good the program was as recently as 2011. That was the season senior quarterback Austin Davis and coach Larry Fedora led the Golden Eagles to a 12-2 record and the Conference USA championship over Houston. Now Fedora is at North Carolina, Davis is in the NFL and Southern Miss is still trying to find its way back to relevance in CUSA.