Kentucky and Southern Miss met in Lexington in last year’s season opener, and the game did not disappoint. After the Wildcats were up 35-17 at halftime, the Golden Eagles scored 27 unanswered points to win the game 44-35 in a thriller. It was the first time Southern Miss had beaten a SEC opponent since 2000 and ended a 13-game losing streak against the league.
The two teams will meet again to kick off the 2017 season, but this time the game will be at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.
Despite losing to Southern Miss, Kentucky was able to finish the year with a 7-6 record, including a 4-4 mark in the SEC. The Golden Eagles also went 7-6 overall and 4-4 in Conference USA in head coach Jay Hopson’s first season. Southern Miss concluded its 2016 campaign with a victory over Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl, while the Wildcats fell to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Kentucky at Southern Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Kentucky- 10
Three Things to Watch
Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson said earlier this week that the final decision to start sophomore Keon Howard or redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs under center likely won’t be made until Friday, or it could end up being a game-day call. In Howard’s two starts last season, he threw four interceptions against one touchdown and lost five fumbles.
Stephen Johnson is listed as the starting quarterback on the Wildcats’ first depth chart of the season. Drew Barker will serve as the backup.
Last season, Johnson did not play in the opener against the Golden Eagles, as his first extensive action would come in Week 3 against New Mexico State. Johnson eventually claimed the starting job from an injured Barker, finishing the season with 2,037 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.
2. Southern Miss defense
The Golden Eagles finished last season ranked 15th in FBS and first in Conference USA in total defense at 324.8 yards per game. They also were 10th in the country against the pass (174.9 ppg) and finished fourth in the conference in scoring defense (29.5 ppg).
Even though Southern Miss has just four returning starters on defense most of the two-deep consists of juniors and seniors. This unit will miss the presence of safety D’Nerius Antoine and defensive tackle Dylan Bradley, both of whom were voted first-team all-conference by league coaches.
Senior Xavier Thigpen is back to anchor the font at one of the defensive end spots. He was second on the team with 12.5 tackles for a loss last season, and also added five sacks.
3. Running backs
Both teams will feature explosive, talented running backs that could take charge of the game at any point. Benny Snell Jr. leads the way for Kentucky after setting school records for most rushing yards (1,057) and total touchdowns (13) by a freshman last season. Snell did this even though he shared the workload with Stanley “Boom” Williams. With Williams gone, expect the Wildcats to give Snell plenty of opportunities to tote the rock.
On the other side is Southern Miss senior Ito Smith, the only active player in FBS with 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in his career. Smith racked up 1,918 all-purpose yards last season, finishing fourth in Conference USA in rushing (112.2 ypg) while scoring 19 total touchdowns.
If either Snell or Smith has a big game, that could spell trouble for the opposing team.
With two offenses like Kentucky and Southern Miss, this game could come down to who has the ball last. If the Wildcats have a clear advantage on that side of the ball, it’s at quarterback.
Stephen Johnson is established as Kentucky’s starter while the Golden Eagles are still trying to figure out their signal-caller situation. The Wildcats also have plenty of experience returning on defense, which gives them the edge against a Southern Miss offense that has a few question marks. The Golden Eagles will put up a fight in front of the home crowd, but look for Kentucky to leave Hattiesburg with a win.
Prediction: Kentucky 38, Southern Miss 31
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.