The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 115 Southern Miss.
Previewing Southern Miss’ Offense for 2014:
Nick Mullens moved into a starting role midway through his freshman season last fall and appears to be coach Todd Monken’s quarterback of the present. Mullens ended the season by leading the Golden Eagles to a lopsided victory over UAB that snapped a 23-game losing streak. Mullens should prosper under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chip Lindsey, who came from the Auburn staff and is Mullens’ former high school coach. While not blessed with the greatest mobility, Mullens is a heady player with an accurate arm.
The reuniting of Mullens and Lindsey could aid the entire offense. Owners of an anemic running game in 2013 — the Golden Eagles didn’t score a rushing touchdown until the seventh game of the season — USM returns running backs Jalen Richard and George Payne. Richard rushed for 324 yards last season after gaining 426 and scoring four touchdowns as a freshman. At 5'8" and 208 pounds, Richard doesn’t possess a punishing-type running style, but he’s not afraid to carry between the tackles. Payne, 6'0" and 200 pounds, is a bigger, downhill runner.
Sophomore Tyre’oune Holmes averaged only 7.7 yards per reception, but he led the team with 53 catches, 20 more than Markese Triplett. Both Holmes and Triplett should thrive with Mullens entrenched at quarterback. The Golden Eagles also are expecting more from Marquise Ricard, who improved as the season progressed and finished with three TD catches.
Previewing Southern Miss’ Defense for 2014:
Seven starters return from a unit that struggled mightily in 2013. But there is reason for Southern Miss to be encouraged.
An experienced secondary will be led by safety Jacorius Cotton, a punishing tackler who missed last season because of academic issues. He has 20 career starts. Senior Emmanuel Johnson, the other safety, has started 15 games and was the team’s fourth-leading tackler a year ago. At cornerback, Kalan Reed and Ed Wilkins are returning starters.
The defense also missed the presence of linebacker Alan Howze most of last season after he sustained a season-ending injury in the team’s fourth game. Howze was granted a medical redshirt for a second senior season. Justin Penn, a hard-hitting special teams player last year, may push for a starting role at Spur, the hybrid safety/linebacker position.
Up front, yet another key player who missed most of the season returns as Rakeem Nunez-Roches, the team’s best defensive tackle, is back from a foot injury he suffered in the team’s early-season loss at Nebraska.
Previewing Southern Miss’ Specialists for 2014:
The kicking game appears set behind Corey Acosta and Tyler Sarrazin. Acosta, a senior, overcame a difficult midseason stretch in which he missed six straight field goals to connect on six of his final eight, including a 50-yarder. Sarrazin averaged nearly 40 yards per punt. Johnson averaged 25.5 yards per kickoff return and, along with Evan Osborne, should give the Golden Eagles a solid duo. Southern Miss returned only 12 punts a year ago but averaged 13.4 yards on those limited opportunities.
Perhaps the nightmare is over for Southern Miss. After setting a standard for success in Conference USA, the Golden Eagles went winless in 2012 and lost their first 11 games in 2013. The Mullens-Lindsey combination seems destined to improve the offense, and the return of several key players from injury should bolster the defense. There’s a rough non-conference slate, but Monken should have a competitive and relatively experienced squad — as many as 14 freshmen and sophomores starting by season’s end — prepared to compete in league play.