Southern Miss hasn’t had a losing football season since 1993. The Golden Eagles haven’t missed the postseason since 2001.
Both streaks are crashing to an end during a dismal season.
Southern Miss (0-10, 0-6 Conference USA) is the only remaining team in the Football Bowl Subdivision that hasn’t won a game. The latest setback was a 34-6 loss on Saturday to SMU, a team the Golden Eagles had beaten three straight times coming into this season.
The nightmare continues for first-year coach Ellis Johnson, who has had to deal with a rash of injuries, a difficult schedule and an increasingly angry fan base that is used to winning on a regular basis.
As the losses have piled high, the 60-year-old Johnson has usually remained stoic on the sidelines. But the veteran defensive coach, who has spent time as an assistant at Alabama, Clemson, Mississippi State and South Carolina, hasn’t been able to pull the Golden Eagles out of their tailspin.
He says there’s plenty of frustration, but no panic.
”I’m just a very pragmatic, deliberate person in the way I do things,” Johnson said. ”A lot of people don’t have the stomach for that. But frankly, that’s the way I’m going to do it.”
Still, it’s easy to wonder how things became so bad so quickly. It’s possible Southern Miss could go from the best season in school history to the worst.
The Golden Eagles won a school-record 12 games and finished at No. 20 in the national rankings after a Hawaii Bowl victory over Nevada. There were signs that difficult times might be ahead: Four-year starting quarterback Austin Davis departed and coach Larry Fedora left to take the North Carolina job.
But with 13 starters returning, including eight on offense, it appeared Johnson’s transition could be smooth.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
Fedora said Southern Miss’ decline was an ”unfortunate situation” after North Carolina’s practice on Monday. When he left the Golden Eagles last year, he predicted there would be many more successful seasons.
”It’s hard. I mean, I haven’t followed it, but it’s hard not to know what’s going on over there,” Fedora said. ”I don’t have an answer, I’m not there. I don’t know what the situation is and why it’s the way it is.”
The Golden Eagles have had plenty of issues, but an anemic passing offense is the biggest one. Johnson has been forced to use five quarterbacks, including four starters, because of injuries and inconsistency. Southern Miss ranks 113th in the nation with 145.2 passing yards per game and the quarterbacks have thrown just four touchdowns to 12 interceptions.
”(The injuries have) just crushed our ability to grow in that area and continue to improve,” Johnson said.
It’s not just the quarterbacks who have been injured. Johnson says all three of his tight ends are out with various ailments, which limit the formations the Golden Eagles can run. Senior receiver Tracy Lampley, who was expected to be the team’s premier playmaker this season, has been hobbled by a knee injury and caught just 19 passes for 284 yards.
Now only two games remain on the schedule. The Golden Eagles host UTEP on Saturday before road game against Memphis.
Considering those two teams are a combined 4-16 this season, including 3-9 in C-USA, a win could be on the horizon. But nothing has come easy for Southern Miss.
Johnson said players and coaches are still working hard, trying to figure out a way to end the season on a positive note.
”When you talk to people who have never been in this business, you get emotion, you get panic, you get everything,” Johnson said. ”I’m not defending what we’ve done, what I’m saying is we’ve done the best we can. And we’ve done the things I’ve seen done over 31 years in college. There are no magic fixes when you get your roster depleted with injuries.”
Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tommy West said the past three months have been difficult on the entire program, but he doesn’t believe the team has quit.
He pointed to a blocked field goal in the SMU game, when the Golden Eagles already were down three touchdowns, as evidence that the Golden Eagles were still giving effort.
”That’s pretty good stuff,” West said. ”And right now we’re all looking for good stuff.”
West spent nine years in Conference USA as the head coach at Memphis from 2001-09 and the game against Southern Miss was always a contested rivalry. He always admired the Golden Eagles’ consistency during that span, and said that’s one big reason these 10 straight losses have been so painful.
”You hate to be a part of this kind of season, but it’s happened,” West said. ”Now you want to be a part of turning around the way it should be going.”