- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2011

HONOLULU (AP) - As if being 5,500 miles from Hattiesburg and having Waikiki beach as a backyard wasn’t enough, Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi had to deal with even more distractions.

The 22nd-ranked Golden Eagles (11-2) face Western Athletic Conference runner-up Nevada (7-5) in the Hawaii Bowl on Saturday in what will be the final game under coach Larry Fedora.

“It’s going to be tough. There’s a piece of my heart and soul in this football team,” said Fedora, who is leaving after four seasons to lead North Carolina. “I deeply care about each and every one of those kids. … But I do know, they’re going to look back at this season and say we won however many games, a conference championship and we went to Hawaii. That’s what they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

Southern Miss won a school-record 11 games this season en route to capturing its fifth C-USA title by upsetting Houston 49-28 in the conference championship game behind Austin Davis‘ four touchdown passes. It was the Golden Eagles’ first 10-win season since 1988.

Despite the record year, Davis said the team isn’t done yet as Southern Miss makes its 10th straight postseason appearance and is looking to snap a two-bowl losing streak.

“I would hate to end it on a bad note. We want to finish strong and get No. 12,” said Davis, who has thrown for 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns this year.

Fedora said his team isn’t letting down after its big win over Houston.

“You can go out and watch practice and you wouldn’t know if it was Aug. 5, the first day of practice for us, or if it was the next to the last practice. They’re still practicing the same way,” he said. “They understand what it takes. They understand how important it is. We’re not playing another game. We’re making history at Southern Miss.”

Fedora is being replaced by South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who was introduced in Hattiesburg while the team was in Honolulu.

“There’s a lot of distractions going on with this football team and their future. So that makes it difficult,” Fedora said. “The thing is, I’ve got to allow these seniors … they’re going to be the ones that lead us through the distractions. I expect us to play as we do week in and week out.”

While Southern Miss is making its first trip here since beating Hawaii in 1977, Nevada is no stranger to the islands, or the Hawaii Bowl.

Nevada is making its seventh straight postseason appearance and 12th overall. It will be playing in the Hawaii Bowl for the third time since 2005. Nevada defeated Central Florida 49-48 in overtime in 2005 and lost to SMU 45-10 in 2009.

“We’ve been here. It’s great and beautiful and we love it here, but for us, it’s a business trip,” Nevada defensive tackle Brett Roy said. “We know what we’re here to do.”

Featuring a high-powered offense that ranks fifth in the nation with 522.8 yards a game and eighth in rushing (251.8), Nevada is coming off a roller coaster year where it started 1-3 and won five straight before losing to Louisiana Tech and Utah State, blowing its chances for a conference title in its final season in the WAC before moving to the Mountain West Conference.

“We want to get that bad taste out of our mouths,” said Roy, who is eighth in the nation in both sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18.5). “In order to do that, we have to go through Southern Miss, which is a high-caliber team.”

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