Southern Miss will play its first of two SEC opponents when it travels to Lexington to take on Kentucky Saturday. It will mark the third all-time meeting between the schools, with the 'Cats having won the first two contests — 71-7 in 1949 under then-coach "Bear" Bryant and 32-0 in 1986.
The Golden Eagles are coming off of a solid 2015 campaign, in which they scored 50-plus points on five separate occasions. Southern Miss played tough with Power Five opponents Mississippi State and Nebraska in the regular season, then fell 44-31 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against an up-and-coming Washington team.
Kentucky finished 5-7 last year after starting the season 4-1. It was the second time in as many years that the Wildcats stumbled down the stretch. Now, the heat is on for head coach Mark Stoops in his fourth year. His current record is 12-24 and anything short of a bowl game this year could be the last straw.
Both teams will be reliant on potentially high-powered offenses in this one. Southern Miss first-year head coach Jay Hopson has the luxury of inheriting an offense that returns its top rusher and top passer from a year ago. Meanwhile, Kentucky looks to be in top form when it comes to the running game.
Southern Miss at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Kentucky -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Kentucky's Running Game
For the Wildcats, it all starts with the running game. Kentucky returns both Stanley "Boom" Williams and Jojo Kemp, who each reached 1,000 career rushing yards last season. Williams has big-play ability and can take it to the house at any moment, while Kemp can be a reliable down-to-down back. Perhaps more importantly, Kentucky returns the bulk of its offensive line from a year ago. The 'Cats offensive line gained a ton of experience last season and has practiced well as a unit. They have some guys up front who are preferred run blockers, and have shown an ability to pave the way for Williams and Kemp. Southern Miss may not have the horses up front to slow down the Kentucky ground attack.
2. Nick Mullens and Ito Smith
This game has potential to be a shootout — especially if Kentucky's defense plays like it did late last season, but we'll get to that. The Golden Eagles' offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson, who held the same role at Kentucky last year, will rely on Nick Mullens, who threw for more than 4,400 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. He's proven to be one of the nation's truly elite passers. But he did it under former head coach Todd Monken's offense. It will be interesting to see if he can continue that production in a new system. At running back, Ito Smith rushed for more than 1,100 yards last season and provided a nice complement to the offense. In all, last year's offense averaged nearly 40 points per game.
3. Can Either Defense Force Turnovers?
Now, for the big question. Can either defense make a stand in this game? Southern Miss loses a key presence in Brian Anderson, who was all over the backfield last season and finished the year with 13.5 tackles for a loss. The Golden Eagles weren't anything special on defense last season, but return their leading tackler, D'Nerius Antoine. Stoops' Kentucky teams have unfortunately been known for giving up a lot of yards and a lot of points. The 'Cats improved on defense last year, but they'll need to be even better this time around to stop Mullens.
This should be a serious test for Kentucky in week one. Southern Miss has shown that it has no problem hanging with the big boys, and that offense is for real. In a similar regard t, Kentucky will probably be close to unstoppable on the ground. The key for Kentucky will be to keep Mullens off the field as much as possible andry to control the clock with its running game. The 'Cats are favored, and have a better roster top to bottom, but I'm not sure they'll be ready to stop this passing attack in week one. Golden Eagles pull the upset.