Dec. 19, 2008

(AP) - Even for a program that just celebrated its first outright Sun Belt Conference title, Troy's impressive season could have been even sweeter if not for a pair of heartbreaking losses in Louisiana along the way.

It's hoping its third trip to the Bayou State ends on a much brighter note.

The Trojans will try to finish with nine wins for the first time since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21, when they'll take on a Southern Miss team that turned around its season with a remarkable month of November.

Troy (8-4) won eight games for the second year in a row, but this time it didn't have to worry about sharing the Sun Belt title, which it had the last two seasons. The Trojans went 6-1 in conference, wrapping up the title with a 35-9 win over Arkansas State on Dec. 6.

Over its final four games, Southern Miss allowed only 35 points total.

"This is a family deal, something we've wanted for a long time," Troy head coach Larry Blakeney said after the win over the Red Wolves. "We want to be sure to prepare well, (Southern Miss is) a very good team. We are looking forward to being in New Orleans."

Two weeks earlier, the Trojans had cemented their status as the Sun Belt's top team with a 48-3 home thrashing of Louisiana-Lafayette, which finished second. But despite an excellent season, Troy was a few plays away from being 10-2, and both of those games took place in Louisiana.

On Nov. 1, Troy played a back-and-forth game at Louisiana-Monroe, one that ended with a 31-30 loss after kicker Sam Glusman's 56-yard field goal hit the crossbar as time expired. Two weeks later in Baton Rouge, the Trojans jumped out to a stunning 31-3 lead over then-No. 19 LSU. But the Tigers scored 37 points in the game's final 16 minutes to win 40-31.

Still, sophomore tailback DuJuan Harris felt like that performance, combined with a game in Columbus earlier in the season when the Trojans outgained Ohio State in a 28-10 loss, helped put Troy on the map.

"I think we earned a lot of respect in this game," said Harris, who averaged 123.2 yards in his last five games. "We're a really good team, but sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot, but if we would've come out with a win we would've gained even more respect."

Southern Miss (6-6) wasn't getting respect from anyone when it found itself 2-6 at the end of October. The Golden Eagles had lost five straight games, and their defense was the primary culprit, allowing 35.8 points per game during the losing streak.

Over its final four games, though, Southern Miss allowed only 35 points total. The Eagles used a 21-3 win over East Carolina on Nov. 15 - their most impressive of the season - as a springboard to become bowl eligible in their final game, a 28-12 victory at SMU.

Now, they're headed to their third New Orleans Bowl. Southern Miss beat Sun Belt opponents North Texas and Arkansas State in 2004 and 2005.

"I'm extremely proud of this football team and its coaches," first-year coach Larry Fedora said. "We were 2-6 at one time and everybody had written us off, and probably the only guys in the room that still believed it could be done were the players and the coaches. They just kept their blinders on, focused on what they needed to do."

The Eagles' best offensive player this season - just like the past two years - was junior tailback Damion Fletcher. He didn't cover as much ground as 2007, when he was 11th in the nation with 1,586 yards, but Fletcher was more efficient this season. He upped his average yards per carry from 5.4 to 6.0, second in Conference USA.

Opponents ran at the Trojans an average of 40.1 times per game but gained 3.5 yards per carry, giving them the 26th-stingiest rush defense per carry in the nation.

Both teams are led by solid quarterbacks who limit their mistakes. Southern Miss freshman Austin Davis threw for 2,852 yards with 21 touchdowns, and had only five interceptions in his last 10 games.

Junior Levin Brown didn't start the season as Troy's quarterback, but he stepped in when starter Jamie Hampton was lost for the season against Florida Atlantic on Oct. 7. Hampton had thrown eight interceptions in five games, but Brown was picked off only three times in seven starts while tossing 14 touchdown passes.

This is Troy's second trip to the New Orleans Bowl. The Trojans beat Rice 41-17 on Dec. 22, 2006.

Southern Miss owns a 5-1 series edge over Troy, but the teams haven't met since 1977.