HONOLULU - As if being 5,500 miles from Hattiesburg and having Waikiki as a backyard wasn't enough, Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi is dealing with even more distractions.
The 22nd-ranked Golden Eagles (11-2) face Western Athletic Conference runner-up Nevada (7-5) in the Hawaii Bowl today at Aloha Stadium 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."
Larry Fedora, who has coached Southern Miss to a school-record 11 victories and the Conference USA championship this season, will take over at North Carolina after leading the Golden Eagles in the Hawaii Bowl today against Nevada.
Southern Miss set a school record for wins this season, and captured its fifth C-USA title by upsetting Houston 49-28 in the conference championship game behind Austin Davis' four touchdown passes. The Golden Eagles hadn't reached double digits in wins since 1988.
Southern Miss is making 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 number 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 August 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."
Southern Miss last played in the islands in 1977, defeating Hawaii.
Nevada is making its seventh straight postseason appearance and 12th overall. The Wolf Pack 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 45-10 to Southern Methodist in 2009.
"We've been here. It's great and beautiful and we love it here, but for us, it's a business trip," said Wolf Pack defensive tackle Brett Roy. "We know what we're here to do."
Featuring a high-powered offense that ranks fifth in the nation in total yards (522.8 per game) and eighth in rushing (251.8), Nevada has had a roller-coaster season in which it started 1-3, then won five straight games before squandering a chance 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 1/2). "In order to do that, we have to go through Southern Miss, which is a high-caliber team."
Cody Fajardo, who didn't start until the fifth game, runs Nevada's potent pistol offense. He has passed for 1,647 yards and six scores while rushing for 680 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rishard Matthews has caught 91 passes for 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns.
"They gain a lot of yards on the ground and through the air," said Southern Miss linebacker Ronnie Thornton, who has a team-high 104 tackles. "They have a very mobile quarterback that can make plays on his own, even when things may seem like they break down."
All times HST
Hawaii Bowl At Honolulu
Nevada (7-5) vs. S. Mississippi (11-2), 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Independence Bowl At Shreveport, La.
North Carolina (7-5) vs. Missouri (7-5), noon (ESPN2)
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl At Detroit
Purdue (6-6) vs. W. Michigan (7-5), 11:30 a.m. (ESPN2)
Belk Bowl At Charlotte, N.C.
N.C. State (7-5) vs. Louisville (7-5), 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Military Bowl At Washington
Air Force (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4), 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Holiday Bowl At San Diego
Texas (7-5) vs. California (7-5), 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Champs Sports Bowl At Orlando, Fla.
Florida St. (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4), 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Alamo Bowl At San Antonio
Baylor (9-3) vs. Washington (7-5), 4 p.m. (ESPN)