College football’s 2020 season officially gets underway on Thursday night, as Southern Miss hosts South Alabama in the first meeting between these two programs. Less than 100 miles separate these two teams, and with many logistical and health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, a regional matchup is a good way for both programs to kick off the ’20 season.
Southern Miss is 28-22 over the last four years under coach Jay Hopson and enters 2020 looking to catch UAB in the race to win Conference USA’s West Division. The Golden Eagles are led by one of the conference’s top quarterbacks in Jack Abraham, but the offense has room to improve after averaging 26.6 points a contest in 2019. The defense was expected to be a strength in 2020, but a couple of key players – end Jacques Turner, linebacker Racheem Boothe and safety Shannon Showers – opted to transfer. Hopson brought in 13 junior college transfers for help on both sides of the ball. After Thursday night’s opener, Southern Miss will have just over two weeks to prepare for Louisiana Tech on Sept. 19, followed by another home date against Tulane on Sept. 26.
The 2020 season marks the third year in Mobile for South Alabama coach Steve Campbell. The Jaguars are trying to find their footing under Campbell, as the program is just 5-19 over the last two seasons. With 11 returning starters, optimism is high for some improvement in the win column. Additionally, the program is set to open a new stadium (Hancock Whitney Stadium) on Sept. 12 against Tulane. Both sides of the ball have concerns in 2020, but the offense could show marked improvement if quarterback Desmond Trotter builds off late-season progress from 2019.
This is the first meeting between South Alabama and Southern Miss. This game also marks the first time two FBS teams will meet in the 2020 season.
South Alabama at Southern Miss
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Southern Miss -15
When Southern Miss Has the Ball
As mentioned above, quarterback Jack Abraham is the catalyst for the Southern Miss offense. The Golden Eagles averaged a healthy 6.1 yards per play in 2019 but recorded 26.6 points a game. Thanks to a minus-11 turnover margin and an iffy performance in the red zone last fall, Southern Miss had some missed opportunities to bump that scoring average up a bit. Abraham has been lethal with his accuracy the last two seasons (70 percent) but also has 25 picks in that span. He also threw for 3,496 yards last season and led all Conference USA quarterbacks with 15 connections of 40 or more yards. Taking better care of the ball is essential for Southern Miss to push UAB in the West, and that starts with Abraham lowering his interception total this fall.
Abraham’s supporting cast features four returning starters up front but needs some new faces to emerge at the skill positions. Last year’s top receiver Quez Watkins departed for the NFL, and Jaylond Adams (48 catches) opted out of the 2020 season. Tim Jones (73 catches) is the go-to receiver, with junior college recruit Jason Brownlee winning a starting role on the team’s first depth chart. Fellow JUCO recruit Da’Quan Bailey-Brown could factor into the mix at receiver this fall, while transfer Grayson Gunter is another weapon at tight end. The ground game returns Kevin Perkins (547 yards), but junior college recruit Don Ragsdale tops the first depth chart and freshman Frank Gore could also push for carries.
South Alabama hopes to counter the Southern Miss offense with a much-improved defense. The Jaguars cut their yards per play allowed from 6.7 in 2018 to 5.8 in ’19. Additionally, this unit allowed 30.7 points a contest last fall – down from 38.8 in 2018. The strength of the 2020 group rests at linebacker with the return of Riley Cole and Nick Mobley, while A.J. DeShazor anchors the rover position. The secondary allowed just eight plays of 40 yards or more, and this group should continue to hold its own in the Sun Belt for 2020. However, the outlook isn’t as rosy up front. South Alabama must replace all three starters from last season and will need to build depth as the season progresses. Stopping Abraham and the Southern Miss passing game is a tough assignment, and the Jaguars have to find a way to generate pressure and create a couple of takeaways.
When South Alabama Has the Ball
South Alabama’s offense averaged only 18.4 points a game and 5.01 yards a play in 2019. Despite the paltry production, it’s easy to see why Campbell and coordinator Kenny Edenfield have optimism about this group for 2020. Quarterback Desmond Trotter started the final four games and led the offense to at least 27 or more points in three of those contests. The Alabama native connected on 57.7 percent of his throws from last fall, averaged 8.5 yards per attempt and ended with 56 completions for 820 yards and eight touchdowns. Assuming Trotter takes a step forward, South Alabama’s offense seems primed for a big jump on the stat sheet.
Trotter’s emergence is certainly helped by a strong one-two punch at receiver. Kawaan Baker is one of the Sun Belt’s top all-purpose threats and averaged 16.4 yards per catch on 35 receptions last fall. Junior Jalen Tolbert is a rising star to watch after catching 27 passes for 521 yards (19.3 yards per catch) in 2019. Fellow junior Jalen Wayne is expected to grab the No. 3 spot in the pecking order at receiver. South Alabama’s offensive line had its share of ups and downs last season but brings back four starters this year. Trotter’s mobility (197 yards on 61 carries) could alleviate some of the pressure on a group that surrendered 28 sacks in 2019. In addition to getting better play up front, South Alabama needs to find a go-to back to replace Tra Minter (1,057 yards). Sophomore Carlos Davis (261 yards) is expected to get the first opportunity, but junior Terrion Avery, redshirt freshman AJ Phillips and sophomore Jared Wilson are also in the mix for carries.
With Turner, Boothe and Stowers transferring, Southern Miss is down to four returning starters from last year’s group. The Golden Eagles had the makings of a good defense after holding teams to 26.2 points a game and 5.7 yards a snap (5.2 in league-only games). However, the late departure of three potential starters, along with the arrival of a JUCO-heavy class, this group heads into the opener with some uncertainty. And as if the personnel turnover wasn’t enough, this unit is under the direction of a new play-caller (Tony Pecoraro). The Golden Eagles led C-USA in rush defense last season, but the secondary was vulnerable to big plays (28 of 30-plus yards). Hopson and Pecoraro are counting on JUCO recruits Eric Scott and Cameron Harrell to provide some instant help, especially against a South Alabama passing attack that could take off under Trotter.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the offseason routine for both teams has been unusual. It’s hard to know what to expect on Thursday night, as the offenses could be a little sluggish in the early going, or the defenses could struggle to contain two groups that have potential to put up points. The guess here is both teams start out slow but find their rhythm in the second half. Both Abraham and Trotter land a few big plays through the air, but Southern Miss – despite the losses on defense – holds an edge on that side of the ball. The Golden Eagles make a couple of stops late to hold on for a win on Thursday night.
Prediction: Southern Miss 31, South Alabama 20
(Top photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)