NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Nearly every year, Brett Favre's alma mater fields a winning team that few beyond the small town of Hattiesburg, Miss., seem to notice.
Buried in SEC country, and playing third-string in its home state, Southern Mississippi again challenged for the Conference USA title last year, falling to Houston in the title game.
Such is life in C-USA, where even the top teams have a hard time grabbing headlines.
In a league that has undergone numerous lineup changes, seeing contenders come and go, Southern Miss has been model of consistency.
The Golden Eagles have had winning seasons for 13 straight years now. After last season's 28-7 triumph over Ohio in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the Golden Eagles improved to 9-5, marking the fourth time they had a nine-win season in the past decade.
Southern Miss will have a pair of key players back on offense this season in sophomore running backs Damian Fletcher and Tory Harrison.
As freshmen, Fletcher rushed for 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Harrison had 326 yards and a f 6.3 per carry average as a backup.
``That was a bonus to have two kids come in with their kind of ability, and they were able to come a long way in a short period of time to get themselves in the mix,'' head coach Jeff Bower said. ``They played well for us and gave us something that we hadn't had in quite some time in that position.''
Bower is looking forward to senior quarterback Jeremy Young's healthy return. Young played with a nagging turf toe injury for nearly all of last season and threw for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns.
``Offensively, we have a lot of key personnel back, but we do have concerns with the young receivers, holes on the offensive line and building depth is another task, because we are thin at a lot of positions,'' Bower said.
Still, if any Conference USA team is primed to try to sneak into the running for a BCS Bowl bid this season, Southern Miss could be it.
The Golden Eagles had the league's top rated defense last season and Bower expects that to the team's strength again.
As usual, the Golden Eagles face a tough nonconference schedule, including an intriguing trip to the Northwest to play Boise State, which busted into the BCS from the Western Athletic Conference and pulled off a stunning win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
Houston finished last season 10-4, and coach Art Briles has 17 starters back, including senior running back Anthony Alridge. He averaged a 10.1 yards per carry last season, rushing for 959 yards. The Cougars are a pass-first team, though, and will have to replace career passing leader Kevin Kolb.
Last season marked the first C-USA Championship for the Cougars since they took the league's inaugural title in 1996.
``We're not dealing in vision and hope. We are dealing with reality. They know that there are 12 universities vying to be Conference USA champions and we were it last year,'' Briles said. ``Now, we have to fight like heck and defend it this year.''
A capsule look at the teams in their predicted order of finish:
SOUTHERN MISS - With three new starters on the offensive line, it might be tough for the team to match last season's 4,635 yards of total offense. ... The Golden Eagles led the league in scoring defense last season while ranking second in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. The top seven tacklers from last season are back.
EAST CAROLINA - The rebuilding Pirates won seven times in 2006, good enough to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2001. ... Expected starting quarterback Rob Kass saw little more than mop-up duty last season behind James Pinkney. Kass' adjustment to being a starter will be a major factor in Pirates' season, especially since Aundrae Allison, the top receiver from last season, has left for the NFL.
UCF - The Knights open a new on-campus after using the Florida Citrus Bowl as their home field for 28 seasons. The lineup is not new, however. Senior QB Kyle Israel is expected to lead the offense after making four starts last season. Also returning is RB Kevin Smith, who's gained 2,112 yards rushing through his first two seasons.
MARSHALL - Coach Mark Snyder's squad won four of its last five games in 2006 to finish 5-7 and hopes that momentum will carry over. The offense returns eight starters, including QB Bernard Morris and veteran WRs Shawn Lauzon, Marcus Fitzgerald and Emmanuel Spann.
MEMPHIS - Coach Tommy West has six new assistants on his staff, while holdover Clay Helton has been promoted to offensive coordinator. QB Martin Hankins, who set passing records at I-AA Southeastern Louisiana, is back for a second and final season with the Tigers after throwing for 2,550 yards and 18 touchdowns in '06.
UAB - New coach Neil Callaway starts the process of improving a squad the went 3-9 last season and numerous starting jobs are up for grabs, including at quarterback. Senior Sam Hunt and sophomore Joseph Webb are the contenders. Running back is thin. Only one was on scholarship during spring practice.
HOUSTON - Three quarterbacks are competing to replace Kolb - sophomore Blake Joseph, redshirt freshman Case Keenum and senior transfer Al Pena. ``These guys make it real tough on us. They are doing a great job,'' Briles said. ``It's a great position for us to be in, but it is a tough situation. We have three guys that could go out and win us football games.'' ... Houston's last back-to-back championships came in 1978-79 in the old Southwest Conference.
TULSA - Two-year starting QB Paul Smith returns, along with half of the 2006 starters, providing experienced leadership for first-year coach Todd Graham. ... Smith has 5,871 yards passing in his career, second in school history, to go with 36 touchdown passes, which is the third best career mark at Tulsa.
SMU - Mustangs have increased their win total in consecutive seasons and now seem to be within reach of their first bowl invitation in 23 years. ... QB Justin Willis threw for 2,047 yards with 26 TDs and six INTs last season.
UTEP - It's the 90th year of football for the Miners. Jordan Palmer joined his older brother in the NFL after setting school records for passing yardage (11,084) and touchdowns (88). Also gone are 26 other seniors from last year's squad, and most of the starting defense.
RICE - All-American receiver Jarett Dillard, who last year helped Rice to its first bowl game since 1961, returns for his junior season as new coach David Bailiff attempts to keep up with crosstown rivalry Houston. Also returning is QB Chase Clement, who tied a school record with 21 touchdown passes and rushed for 481 yards and four TDs.
TULANE - Former UCLA coach Bob Toledo takes over at Tulane, which now has practice facilities and a home stadium (the Louisiana Superdome) that have been rebuilt and even upgraded since Hurricane Katrina struck two years ago. Toledo can only hope to rebuild Tulane into a winner as quickly in the school's 113th season of football. One of Toledo's first tasks will be to choose a new starting quarterback among junior Scott Elliot, sophomore Anthony Scelfo and redshirt freshman Kevin Moore.

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