- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - First-year Southern Mississippi coach Jay Hopson walks into a situation that many of his peers would envy.

There’s the loaded roster that includes 13 returning starters and an experienced quarterback. There’s a fan base that’s second to none in Conference USA and hungry for a return to prominence.

But with that comes the expectations. And Hopson knows nothing less than a C-USA title will be accepted.

“On our Eagle Walk, they only put the champions up there,” Hopson said. “At the end of the day, the goal at Southern Miss is to win a championship - that’s our charge.”

Hopson takes over a program that’s seen a remarkable variation of highs, lows and turnover since 2011. A quick history lesson:

- Coach Larry Fedora and quarterback Austin Davis led Southern Miss to a 12-win season and Conference USA title in 2011. Fedora left for North Carolina in the offseason while Davis went to the NFL.

- Coach Ellis Johnson took over the program and the Golden Eagles had one of the most remarkable collapses in college football history, falling to 0-12 in 2012.

- Johnson was fired after one season and Todd Monken inherited a depleted program and lost its first 11 games in 2013. But he slowly rebuilt the roster and led Southern Miss to a 9-5 record in 2015, including a trip to the C-USA championship game before a loss to Western Kentucky. Monken left to become offensive coordinator for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason.

That brings the Golden Eagles to present day and the arrival of Hopson, who led Alcorn State to two straight SWAC championships in 2014 and ‘15.

The pressure for Hopson will be intense. The Golden Eagles were especially effective on offense under Monken - quarterback Nick Mullens threw for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season.

Mullens says even with a new coach, he expects the same results.

“Every coach has to adjust to their personnel and they all have their little twist,” Mullens said. “So it’s a little different. But there are also a lot of similarities. So I think you can look forward to a balanced attack that’s going to score a lot of points.”

Here are a few other things to know about Southern Miss this season:

THOMPSON’S TURN

Southern Miss’ top two receivers from last season - Michael Thomas and Casey Martin - are gone. That means Mullens’ likely top target will be D.J. Thompson, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior who caught 55 passes for 779 yards and six touchdowns last season.

HOPSON’S DEFENSE

While Monken’s background was mostly on offense, Hopson has spent most of his career on the defensive side of the ball. The Golden Eagles return five of their top seven tacklers from last season, including safety D’Nerius Antoine, who had 103 tackles and two interceptions in 2015.

KEY GAMES

The Golden Eagles have a couple big opportunities against Southeastern Conference opponents, including the Sept. 3 season-opener at Kentucky. Southern Miss also travels to face LSU on Oct. 15. In C-USA play, the Golden Eagles’ conference title hopes could come down to showdowns against Marshall on Oct. 29 and Louisiana Tech on Nov. 25. Both of those games are at home.

PREDICTION

Southern Miss has the talent to win the C-USA’s Western Division for a second straight year. It’s just a matter of if Hopson’s system can gel with the new personnel in time.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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Online: AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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