HATTIESBURG, MS - "If we work hard, focus on the next play, focus on the next game, then we deserve a lot," said Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens at USM's Media Day in August. "But if we don't, then we'll get what we deserve."
That was the mantra head coach Jay Hopson preached to the Golden Eagles all season long.
Southern Miss saw Hopson's words come to fruition a number of times throughout 2016. After a 2-0 start including the school's first win over an SEC team since 2000, the Eagles were humbled with a home loss to Troy in week three.
"Coach Hopson has told our guys for the last two weeks to be careful patting yourself on the back when you win a game because the fall is pretty quick," said Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson following the Golden Eagles loss to Troy. "We won two games and our opponents are going to get tougher."
The Eagles bounced back with two straight wins including a 44-28 victory over Rice in which a list of Southern Miss records were broken - total yards of offense (702), passing yards (Mullens, 591) and receiving yards (Allenzae Staggers, 292).
With a 4-1 record for the first time since 2009, the Eagles were soaring high. But they brought back down to Earth with blowout losses at UTSA and LSU and sat at 4-3 heading into their bye.
"We're good enough to win these next five games but we're also bad enough to lose these next five games," said Mullens following USM's 45-10 loss to LSU. "It's time to step up, honestly. This season could be great or it could really go down hill."
The latter seemed apparent. A win over Marshall was followed by a disappointing home loss to Charlotte in which the Golden Eagles' all-time leading passer Mullens was sidelined with a concussion. Two more losses with freshman quarterback Keon Howard under center and Southern Miss found itself at 5-6.
"It probably comes down to just I'm living wrong," said Dawson following USM's 51-35 loss at Old Dominion. "Karma's got me by the you-know-what. I just need to start living right and we'll start making better plays."
A season that started with Conference USA Championship hopes suddenly became one in which USM was staring at potentially its fourth losing season in five years.
Twenty-two seniors weren't ready to go out like that. Southern Miss rallied – a 342-yard passing performance in Mullens' return helped – and beat the streaking Louisiana Tech 39-24 in the final week of the regular season to become bowl eligible at 6-6.
"I told [my teammates] I don't care if we go right up to Jackson Mississippi where I'm from and play a bowl game there and go to the mall," said Southern Miss senior wide receiver D.J. Thompson after the regular season finale. "I don't care."
"We came in here as a group that was going through a team that was 0-12," said Southern Miss senior defensive end Dylan Bradley. "We believe in this university. We believe in the tradition. And to finish this with a ring and a bowl champion, that would put a stamp on our mark here."
After a winless 2012 season, Southern Miss has been on a quest to bring the program back to the standard the 2011 C-USA championship team set. The Golden Eagles were unable to capture that conference title but with a bowl win for the first time since 2011, the seniors have more than left their mark on Southern Miss.
"This whole senior class though," said Mullens following USM's 28-21 New Orleans Bowl win over Louisiana-Lafayette. "We came in 1-11, 0-12 and to finish like this is really a blessing."
"This is a team that battled through a lot but to finish like this I think is a special feeling for all of us," Hopson said.
"I'm just grateful to be here," Bradley said. "Grateful to be here with some of my teammates and to experience this. I don't know how to put it in words. It's just an amazing feeling to be able to say I'm a champion."