HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Southern Miss has its first 10-win season since 1988. Now the 24th-ranked Golden Eagles want their first Conference USA title since 2003.
Standing in the way: The most prolific passing quarterback in NCAA history.
Southern Miss is preparing for its first C-USA championship game appearance since 2006. The Golden Eagles travel to face No. 7 Houston and its high-flying offense on Saturday, led by sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum.
"We wouldn't rather be anywhere else," Southern Miss defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "But it's a heckuva challenge. They can humble you quick and we're well aware of that."
After three oh-so-close seasons under coach Larry Fedora, the Golden Eagles finally captured the C-USA's Eastern Division title on Saturday with a 44-7 win against Memphis 44-7. Fedora's teams have always possessed a potent offense, but it's an improved defense that moved Southern Miss to the top of the division.
That defense is about to face easily its biggest challenge.
"There's no secret to what they do," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. "It's not like they are doing something different week in and week out. They do what they do. They are going to run the routes the way they run them. They are going to go up tempo. They are going to run the ball when you give them numbers, and they will try to take advantage of you."
Keenum's numbers are staggering, and the Heisman candidate is already the NCAA career leader in passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense. He's completed 342 of 467 passes (73.2 percent) this season for 4,726 yards, 43 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The Cougars lead the Football Bowl Subdivision by averaging 52.7 points and 613.2 total yards.
Southern Miss linebacker Ronnie Thornton said Keenum's obviously a huge reason for all those yards and touchdowns, but he has plenty around him.
"His timing with his receivers is great and they've really got an ability to make a play after the catch," Thornton said. "Some teams, you have one or two players you have to watch for, but wherever he throws that player can make a huge play."
Houston's Patrick Edwards has caught 74 passes for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. Charles Sims has rushed for 750 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 7.9 yards per carry. The Cougars have won their past seven games by a combined score of 406-101 for an average margin of victory of nearly 44 points per game.
But Thornton said the Golden Eagles aren't going to get distracted by the gaudy statistics.
"At the beginning of the season we set the goal to win the conference championship," Thornton said. "We didn't set a goal to see if we could get to the championship. We want to win. Come Saturday, we'll see how that goes."
Southern Miss may not have the same immaculate resume as the Cougars, but there are still reasons for confidence.
The Golden Eagles have won nine of their past 10 games, with the only setback coming on Nov. 17 in a surprising 34-31 loss to Alabama-Birmingham. But they recovered with an easy victory over Memphis to gain some momentum heading into Saturday's showdown — which is the first time the C-USA championship has been played between two nationally-ranked teams.
And even though the numbers are quite as eye-popping, Southern Miss has its own successful veteran quarterback — fifth-year senior Austin Davis. He's thrown for 3,052 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season, providing a steady influence that led the Golden Eagles to win after win even as the team's top three running backs were injured for large parts of the season.
The revolving door of running backs was just one of the challenges the Golden Eagles faced this season. They also lost starting middle linebacker Korey Williams to a knee injury after just four games and learned an entirely new defensive scheme during the offseason when Disch installed his 4-2-5 scheme after coming to Southern Miss from Illinois.
Fedora said figuring out a way to stop Houston is just another obstacle. After four years of waiting for a chance at a conference title, the Golden Eagles aren't going to complain about the matchup.
"It's probably taken longer (to make the C-USA title game) than I wanted it to, to be honest," Fedora said. "I felt like we've been in a position to do it each and every year and just didn't get over the hump or didn't get it done for a lot of different reasons ... This year, this team has overcome a lot of things to put themselves in a position to play for the conference championship."
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