By The Associated Press
GREENVILLE, N.C. — First place in Conference USA’s East Division is once again on the line when East Carolina and Southern Mississippi play.
For the Golden Eagles, there’s even more at stake — their spot in the BCS standings.
The winner of Saturday’s matchup between Southern Miss (7-1, 3-1) and Pirates (4-4, 3-1) will have the top spot in the division all to itself and will have the inside track to a spot in next month’s league championship game.
“I think, in life as a whole, if you’re able to control your own situation, you’re OK,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We just have to stay focused and stay within the moment. We have to enjoy the journey and understand that we’re making progress. We’re not there yet, though. … We know what’s at stake.”
Southern Miss has made itself quite comfortable at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium over the years, winning 15 of 18 matchups there. But the Golden Eagles’ last visit was one to forget, with the Pirates claiming a 25-20 win two years ago that gave them the East Division title and its second straight berth in the title game.
What coach Larry Fedora doesn’t want is for his team to get caught up in its No. 25 BCS ranking — especially since Southern Miss has never played in the C-USA title game since the league went to a divisional format in 2005.
“I don’t know if you can guard against it. You continue to do things the same way,” he said. “You continue to coach the same way. And, it has to be important enough to the players, that that goal they have set in their minds that they can see. It gets bigger and bigger as the year goes on that it has to be worth everything that you’re doing.
“It takes tremendous commitment and discipline to be able to stay focused on the goal and not all the obstacles that are all around it. All the people patting you on the back, the people telling you (that) there is going to be a letdown. All the things that are going to come up. It’s tough to stay focused on that goal. That’s our job as coaches to keep them focused on that goal.”
The Pirates are chasing both their first three-game winning streak against Southern Miss, and their 12th consecutive win at home against an East Division opponent. East Carolina has won 12 of its last 13 home games against C-USA teams and is looking for its first four-game regular-season winning streak since 2006.
“It has been a tough series, year in and year out,” said McNeill, who as an East Carolina player matched up with Southern Miss greats Sammy Winder and Reggie Collier during his playing career.
“Last year was a head-banging game down there,” he added. “We know we’ll have another one of those this season here. It’ll be a very physical football game. We know we have a lot of things at stake in this game, just like they do.”