Even with the addition of a highly regarded offensive coordinator, coach Rick Stockstill wouldn't make any predictions leading into his fourth season at Middle Tennessee.
It may be safe to say, though, Stockstill's Blue Raiders team exceeded any expectations he may have had.
Middle Tennessee will try to conclude its best campaign since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision with a seventh straight win Sunday night against Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl.
Despite hiring offensive guru Tony Franklin, the Blue Raiders' hopes for a second bowl game since moving to FBS in 1999 seemed to be slipping away after a 3-3 start. Middle Tennessee, however, reeled off six straight victories to earn its first postseason berth since the 2006 Motor City Bowl, which ended with a 31-14 loss to Central Michigan.
"We continued to work and got better each week," Stockstill said before a 38-19 victory at Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 28. "I told our players that it is hard for teams to match our intensity. They may stay close, but they cannot stay with us. Teams think they are close, but we keep pounding and pounding and break their will."
Much of the credit for the team's finish could go to Franklin, who joined Stockstill's staff after being fired at Auburn midway through last season.
With his fast-paced spread offense, the Blue Raiders steadily grew comfortable and averaged 41.2 points and 466.8 yards during their current win streak. In last season's 5-7 finish, they averaged 22.8 points and 348.6 yards.
While Franklin made the plans, quarterback Dwight Dasher executed them.
After splitting time in his previous two seasons, Dasher registered nearly 300 total yards per game ninth-best in FBS.
Dasher spread the ball around while racking up 2,627 yards and 21 touchdowns -- 10 different players caught a TD pass and nine receivers reached at least 100 yards. He also ran for a team-best 953 yards and 11 TDs, and D.D. Kyles added 822 yards and three touchdowns while replacing Phillip Tanner, who was lost to a knee injury in the season's second game.
The Blue Raiders -- seeking their first 10-win season since 1992 -- could have to outduel another high-powered offense in their next game.
Southern Miss (7-5) began its turnaround with a new hire last season, coach Larry Fedora. The Golden Eagles broke or tied 41 school records during a 7-6 campaign in 2008.
They seemed to pick up where they left off with three straight home wins to open this season, including a 37-34 victory over Virginia on Sept. 19. However, two-year starting quarterback Austin Davis suffered a season-ending foot injury during a three-game road losing streak that dropped Southern Miss to 3-3.
Martevious Young took over for Davis and finished with 13 touchdowns and one interception.
"We had a lot of individuals that really stepped up, starting with Young," Fedora said. "He did an exceptional job at taking care of the football."
Young's performance, which includes 1,590 yards, helped Southern Miss recover to win four of its final six and earn its eighth straight bowl bid. His top target, DeAndre Brown, rebounded from a broken left leg suffered in last season's New Orleans Bowl to total 43 receptions, 720 yards and seven TDs.
Despite a hamstring injury, senior running back Damion Fletcher needs 63 yards to become the ninth player to reach 1,000 in all four seasons. Fletcher, who has 5,224 career yards, has a good chance to surpass Herschel Walker (5,259) and LaDainian Tomlinson (5,263) for eighth on the NCAA's all-time list.
Tory Harrison has contributed 626 yards and a team-best nine rushing TDs.
The Golden Eagles, however, finished just short of reaching the Conference USA championship game this season, losing 25-20 at East Carolina in the season finale.
Their 33-point scoring average ranked 19th in FBS -- 10 spots higher than the Blue Raiders (31.2 ppg), while Middle Tennessee's 419.3-yard average placed it 30th, just ahead of Southern Miss (418.3).
The difference could come down to defense, and Middle Tennessee might have the edge after ranking first nationally in tackles for loss per game (8.83) and fourth in sacks (3.17). Sun Belt Conference co-defensive player of the year Chris McCoy, a senior defensive end, accounted for 22 tackles for losses and seven sacks.
Cornerback Marcus Udell was also among the nation's leaders with seven interceptions.
The Golden Eagles, who are making their 12th bowl appearance in 13 seasons, are 3-0 all-time in the New Orleans Bowl.
This is the first meeting between the teams.