- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hope has returned to Southern Mississippi’s football team.

The Golden Eagles have had a modest start by most standards, but considering the school had just four wins over the previous three seasons combined, it’s been a very encouraging September.

Now Southern Miss (2-2) is eager to prove its one of the best teams in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles play their conference opener at home against North Texas (0-3, 0-1 CUSA) on Saturday.

“For the first time in a long time, we’re certain we have a good football team,” Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens said.

Southern Miss can even take pride in its two losses, which were against power conference teams Nebraska and Mississippi State. The Golden Eagles were particularly impressive last weekend against the Cornhuskers, with a chance to tie the game on the final possession before falling 36-28.

The high-powered offense that third-year coach Todd Monken promised when he arrived in Hattiesburg has finally come to fruition. The Golden Eagles are averaging 38 points per game, which ranks third out of 13 CUSA teams.

Monken was particularly proud of the way Southern Miss played against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska jumped out to 22-0 lead at halftime before the Golden Eagles rallied.

“We showed a lot of grit and resolve in the way we played,” Monken said. “I think our guys are excited because they realize we have a good football team.”

This is Mullens’ third season as the starting quarterback, but he faced a serious challenge for the job by TCU transfer Tyler Matthews during the offseason.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Mullens kept the job after playing well during preseason camp and after an impressive first four games seems to have solidified his grip on the position. He completed 26 of 41 passes for a career-high 447 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Nebraska.

Mullens is currently fifth in the country with 1,366 yards passing.

Monken acknowledges that Mullens has improved, but doesn’t want him to get too comfortable.

“Yes, Nick played well last week but he needs to play well this week,” Monken said. “You don’t carry over stats. Everyone has to show up every week and Nick has done that. He has earned that. We are paid to make those decisions to put in the best player and he has been the best player.”

Southern Miss also has two quality running backs. Jalen Richard leads the team with 344 yards rushing while Ito Smith is averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

The Golden Eagles have a proud history and just four years ago finished with a 12-2 record after winning the CUSA championship and the Hawaii Bowl. The program might not be back to that level, but September has been a reminder that Southern Miss can still have success.

“We’ve worked so hard the past few years and it’s great to see the fruits of our labor finally start paying off,” Mullens said. “We’ve just got to continue to be consistent.”

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP . AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org.

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