UCF-Southern Miss. Preview

BY foxsports • November 8, 2011

Enjoying its best start since 1996, Southern Mississippi has climbed its way into the AP Top 25 for the first time in seven years.

While coach Larry Fedora is certainly pleased with the accomplishment, he knows it won't last long unless his team continues its tremendous play.

The 25th-ranked Golden Eagles look to win eight straight for the first time in 53 seasons when they host Central Florida on Saturday night.

Southern Miss (8-1, 4-1 Conference USA) is tied for 17th in the FBS with 37.6 points per game and ranks 19th with an average of 19.6 points allowed, helping the program garner some well-deserved national attention.

"It's good to be noticed," Fedora said. "Our guys have a special type of chemistry that comes with a lot of maturity. We're excited, but we also understand there's a lot more that we want to accomplish. There are plenty of teams that were in the AP poll earlier this season that have fallen out of it."

The Golden Eagles, who hadn't been ranked by the AP since November 2004, recorded their seventh consecutive victory last Saturday with a 48-28 road win over East Carolina. Southern Miss, which last opened 8-1 in 1996 but closed with back-to-back losses, hasn't won eight straight in a single season since going 9-0 in 1958.

Austin Davis has been superb during this win streak, throwing 16 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. While he had a season-low 133 passing yards and a TD last Saturday, the defense and special teams stepped up in a big way with returns for touchdowns on a 60-yard punt, a blocked punt and two interceptions.

Southern Miss' ground game, which leads the conference with 206.8 yards per contest, stands to become all the more potent with Desmond Johnson back on the field. Johnson, who entered the season as the No. 1 back, returned from a seven-game absence (knee injury) to rush for 47 yards and a TD on a team-high 11 carries.

"It was great that Desmond was able to knock off some rust," Fedora said. "He made a few really good runs and it was great to see him out on the field, because we're going to need every man possible over these final games."

The Golden Eagles, 5-1 all-time against the Knights (4-5, 2-3), have taken three straight meetings behind Davis' seven touchdowns - six through the air - and zero INTs. The fifth-year senior threw a career best-tying four TD passes during last season's 31-21 win at then-No. 25 Central Florida.

Despite Southern Miss' recent success in this series, Fedora knows his team will have its hands full against a Knights team that ranks fifth in the country with 15.3 points allowed per game.

"They have a great defense. Not just a good defense, a great defense," he said. "Statistically, they are in the top five in just about everything defensively. So, we know offensively we are going to have our work cut out for us.

"I'm counting our home on being our advantage. I'm counting on our crowd being the difference in this game. I'm counting on "The Rock" to be our edge. Our players are, too."

Central Florida had difficulty slowing down Tulsa last Thursday, surrendering 251 rushing yards - its highest total in more than five years - during a 24-17 defeat.

While the Knights seem unlikely to repeat as conference champions, they have their sights set on finishing the season on a positive note.

"All year long we've been facing adversity, but we have to really improve and do the best with what we have left," guard Cliff McCray told the team's official website. "The conference championship looks like it could be out of the way, but we have three more games to get us to a bowl game. We're going to be fighting our butts off and doing whatever we can to do that."

Central Florida, 0-4 on the road this season, hasn't lost five straight as the visiting team since an 0-6 effort in 2004.

Southern Miss has won its four home games this year by a combined 146-50 score.

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