Southern Miss was expected to contend for a Conference USA championship last season, but instead had to win its last two games to finish above .500. This season will be one of transition for head coach Jay Hopson, who will be breaking in a new quarterback and returns only four starters to a defense that was the conference’s best and ranked 15th nationally in yards allowed per game. There’s still plenty of talent remaining, including one of the top offensive weapons in the FBS, so don’t be surprised if the Golden Eagles are in the hunt in the C-USA West Division once again.
Previewing Southern Miss Football’s Offense
Southern Miss’ scoring average dropped by a full touchdown per game from 2015 to ’16, and the departure of the most prolific passer in school history, Nick Mullens, doesn’t bode well for reversing the trend. Last year’s top backup, Keon Howard, started two games in place of an injured Mullens as a true freshman but struggled mightily, completing just 44 percent of his passes with four interceptions in losses to Old Dominion and North Texas. Howard split first-team reps in the spring with Kwadra Griggs, a junior college transfer who sat out 2016 due to academics.
If either quarterback takes hold of the job, the outlook at the other skill positions is more encouraging: Virtually everyone else who touched the ball last year is back, most notably All-Conference USA running back Ito Smith — the only active FBS player with 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in his career — and deep threat Allenzae Staggers, another junior college talent who averaged 18.5 yards per catch in his first season on campus.
The offensive line is less settled and may rely on some combination of redshirt freshmen and incoming transfers to fill three vacancies in the starting five.
Previewing Southern Miss Football’s Defense for 2017
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This unit was solid on paper in 2016, finishing first in C-USA in total defense and fourth in scoring. Occasionally it was even dominant, at one point holding Louisiana Tech’s gonzo attack to its worst output of the season en route a bowl-clinching, season-saving upset.
But it was also prone to random lapses against some of the league’s most pedestrian offenses, giving up 55 points to UTSA, 38 to Charlotte and 51 to Old Dominion in games the Golden Eagles were favored to win; instead they lost all three by double digits.
The good news this fall is that the lineup should be about as mature as can be: Every projected starter is a junior or senior, led by an all-senior secondary that led C-USA in passing yards and touchdowns allowed. The bad news: That lineup no longer includes last year’s leading tackler, safety D’Nerius Antoine, or the top pass rusher, Dylan Bradley, both of whom were voted first-team all-conference by league coaches.
Ideally, their respective torches will be picked up by Tarvarius Moore, a new starter at safety whom coach Jay Hopson has praised as a next-level prospect, and Xavier “PawPaw” Thigpen, who has 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
Previewing Southern Miss Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kicker Parker Shaunfield was a revelation as a sophomore, connecting on 12-of-14 field goal attempts — half of them coming from beyond 40 yards. Shaunfield could take on punting and/or kickoff duties this season as well, depending on the development of redshirt freshman Zac Everett and incoming freshman Briggs Bourgeois.
Southern Miss opened 2016 as a heavy favorite to win Conference USA, and in that context it’s hard to spin the 7-6 finish in Hopson’s first season as anything but a wasted opportunity. Prior to last year, USM looked like a program on the rise, climbing from the depths of a 23-game losing streak in 2012-13 to mount a surprise run to the C-USA title game in 2015. But the promised breakthrough in Mullens’ senior year never materialized (in part due to his health), which makes a serious run in his absence that much more unlikely.
Still, year in and year out the talent level in Hattiesburg is arguably the best in the conference, and this year’s lineup just so happens to be dominated by upperclassmen. With even a modicum of consistency behind center, the Eagles could be favored in every C-USA game. The real question, again, is which team will show up from one week to the next.
National Ranking: 93
C-USA West Prediction: 2
(Ito Smith photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)