HATTIESBURG, MS - At 4-3, Southern Miss is not where it wanted to be seven games into the 2016 season but its goal of winning a C-USA title is still very much in reach with five games remaining.
USM started with a road date at Kentucky; not too intimidating for a USM program whose last SEC win was in 2000.
The Golden Eagles would rally from a 28-7 deficit in Lexington, scoring 34 unanswered to open the Jay Hopson era 1-0.
"The bottom line is, we have to understand that it was a great win," Hopson said. "But we have to understand that we have a long season ahead."
After a beat-down of Savannah State, Southern Miss welcomed Troy, who a week prior played a then-top five Clemson team to a one-score contest.
Much like in their season-opener, the Golden Eagles turned the ball over three times, getting down early to the Trojans. USM unable to come back in week three as its first loss of the season went down to the last play of the game.
"We deserved every bit of that loss," said Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens. "There's no real way around it. "We've just got to prepare harder, have to work harder, have to hold ourselves to a higher standard."
"Coach [Jay] Hopson told our guys, be careful patting yourself on the back when you win a game because the fall's pretty quick," said Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. "We won two games and our opponents are going to get tougher."
A blowout of UTEP highlighted by Curtis Mikell's school-record tying 100-yd pick six and the Golden Eagles were 3-1 for the first time since 2009. It set up a record-breaking evening against Rice at the Rock.
A school-record for 702 yards of offense, a record 591 of those coming from Nick Mullens' arm, and 292 yards being hauled in by junior wide receiver Allenzae Staggers, who was able to set the USM single-game record with just six catches.
"That's something I do on Madden," said Southern Miss senior defensive end Dylan Bradley. "I throw the ball a lot."
"It's a scary sight," said Southern Miss junior wide receiver Allenzae Staggers. "We have a lot of weapons so you don't know who to key on and that's a good thing. We're on the verge of being unstoppable."
But like offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said many times before, the Golden Eagles would have to learn how to handle success and failure with the same mindset. A 55-32 loss to UTSA the following week was a rude awakening.
"For us to lose to Troy and lose to UTSA, we have to go and re-evaluate ourselves," said Southern Miss senior wide receiver D.J. Thompson. "In order to beat teams like LSU and Kentucky, we have to overcome what just happened to us today."
Big plays and turnovers were things that came back to haunt Southern Miss in its second loss. With a visit to Death Valley and LSU in week seven, a quick start was a must for the Golden Eagles.
In maybe its best drive of the season, Southern Miss opened the game with a 75-yd, 8 minute plus touchdown drive and took the Tigers into halftime tied at 10.
But LSU awoke in the second half, scoring 35 unanswered and handing USM its second consecutive loss.
"We've got to execute," Hopson said. "That's a word I use a lot but we've got to put it into action."
Southern Miss knows what is at stake what is possible. The Golden Eagles railed off six straight wins to end 2015 before losing to Western Kentucky in the C-USA championship. This football season, like every season, all comes down to November.
"Five game playoff," said Southern Miss junior running back Ito Smith. "We want to play in that conference championship in December, we've got to win these next five games. That's our goal."
"We're good enough to win these next five games but we're also bad enough to lose these next five games," Mullens said. "It's time to step up, honestly. This season could be great or it could really go downhill."