Bulldogs, Golden Eagles renew rivalry in Conference USA opener in Hattiesburg on Saturday night
After a 10-3 (6-2 C-USA) season a year ago that included a share of the West Division and a program-building Independence Bowl win over Miami (14-0), Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz begins a rebuilding process in Ruston. The Bulldogs had the conference's second-best offense (436.8 ypg) and a reliable defense holding teams to 378 yards per game during the 2019 campaign. Part of the rebuild in 2020 includes replacing all-conference quarterback J'Mar Smith and his 2,777 passing yards along with 18 touchdown tosses. On defense, Tech has a senior-laden unit that lacks experience with just two starters returning.
In what looked promising on paper before the 2020 season began, life in Hattiesburg became disruptive in a hurry after an opening 32-21 home loss to South Alabama. A team that went 7-6 (5-3 CUSA) last season and was set to return 15 starters (eight on offense, seven on defense) saw its ranks depleted with five players opting out, including starting wide receiver Jaylond Adams, linebacker Racheem Boothe, and defensive end Jacques Turner. Following the disappointing loss to the Jaguars, tensions ran high behind closed doors leading to head coach Jay Hopson resigning and co-offensive coordinator Scotty Walden taking over.
Southern Miss holds a commanding 35-16 edge in the head-to-head series but Louisiana Tech won the most recent meeting, 45-30 in Ruston last October.
Louisiana Tech at Southern Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Southern Miss -5.5
When Louisiana Tech Has the Ball
Bulldogs offensive coordinator Joe Sloan has pieces to work with as he tries to reconstruct his unit with the most promising prospect at the tailback position. Senior running back Justin Henderson will see extra defenders in the box this season after finishing fourth in Conference USA in rushing yards (1,062) and leading the way with 15 touchdowns on the ground in 2019. Blocking for Henderson are preseason all-conference candidates Kody Russey (center) and Willie Allen (LT).
Sophomore Aaron Allen is tasked with leading the offense from the pocket this season. A year ago, Allen got snaps in five games with two starts against Marshall and UAB, both resulting in losses. In Allen's second start, he showed signs of improvement throwing for a season-high 173 yards and two touchdowns without tossing a pick. Helping Allen mature in a hurry is perhaps the deepest position on the roster, the receiving corps. Three of the team's top five targets return, including Griffin Hebert and his team-leading six touchdowns.
Southern Miss' defense mirrored the offensive output last year. If the offense was up to the task, the defense would respond, if not, this group would give up points in a hurry. The loss of Jacques Turner along the defensive line cannot be understated. His ability to get into the backfield on running plays while putting pressure on the quarterback will be missed all season. Same goes for linebacker Racheem Boothe's presence in the middle. Case in point: South Alabama totaled 526 yards against the Golden Eagles in the opener.
When Southern Miss Has the Ball
Although left off many preseason all-conference teams, quarterback Jack Abraham can sling it. The grizzled senior completed 67.9 percent of his passes last season throwing for 3,496 yards (second in C-USA) and 19 touchdowns. Abraham will miss leading receiver Quez Watkins, but he has dynamic playmaker Tim Jones back. Jones secured 73 receptions for 902 yards with three scores in 2019. What is missing on the roster is an end zone magnet for the passing game. Abraham threw for 314 yards on 22-of-32 passing against South Alabama, but none of his receivers could turn the opportunities into touchdowns.
Only needing to find a starter on the line at right tackle, one would think the Golden Eagles would be a road-grading unit, but they are not. With everything kept within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, the Jaguars were able to pin their ears back against the run and put pressure on Abraham. The result was 95 rushing yards on 37 carries and Abraham getting sacked twice. The backfield did turn two short-yardage chances into scores against South Alabama.
If Louisiana Tech comes close to replicating its defense from last season, this game should be a feast for Abraham. The Bulldogs were one of the worst in the nation against the pass, yielding 240.5 yards per game, to rank 90th out of 130 FBS programs. As size goes, Louisiana Tech will not overpower teams but will have to use speed to create mismatches and cause chaos. The only hope is to prey on Abraham's ability to become careless with his passes, as evidenced by his 15 interceptions last season.
Rarely do college football fans get to see the self-destruction of a team in Week 1 with a head coach so fed up he quits on the spot. But that is what we get to witness on Saturday. How tightly the team responded to now-former head coach Jay Hopson is the unknown. If they are happy that he is gone, this could be a runaway win for the Eagles. If not, Louisiana Tech took the Rivalry in Dixie by a score of 45-30 last year and could be on the path for a second consecutive win in the series.
Prediction: Southern Miss 35, Louisiana Tech 24
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo courtesy of Louisiana Tech Athletics)