I got to talk with Cyrus Smith, managing editor over at Underdog Dynasty for this one. They do a lot of work over there not just on Southern Miss, but most any smaller school that doesn’t have a dedicated SBN site. For those of us who know little about USM’s current state of affairs, this is a pretty in-depth piece for you.
1) Most Alabama fans have little to no knowledge of Southern Miss’s program at the moment. Where do they fit in the C-USA right now? Are they fighting around the top of the conference, a middling team, or closer to the bottom?
Southern Miss has a proud fan base and is up there next to Marshall as the most recognizable football program in C-USA. Southern Miss is one of the original founding members of C-USA in 1996 so this makes sense. Unfortunately for the folks in Hattiesburg, conference realignment has been unkind to them. They have seen former rivals East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Tulane, etc. move on to greener pastures in the AAC and have been stuck with relatively FBS-newbies in C-USA through reasons not related to fielding a superior football program. Instead the reasons for being left behind have been more or less, out of their control (cable market, rural location, money problems, etc.). Due to their superior football history when compared to their conference mates, the fan base expects to compete for conference titles on a regular basis and sees themselves as relative equals to Boise State or UCF. That of course, has not been the case since Southern Miss’ legendary head coach Jeff Bower retired. After Larry Fedora (Good), Jay Ellis (Bad), and Todd Monken (Good), USM has settled into mediocrity with head coach Jay Hopson. Now into his fourth season, Jay Hopson has a 23-17 record with two bowl trips on his resume (1-1). More importantly he is 15-9 in conference play and has finished no higher than tied for 2nd in C-USA West. Aside from consistently beating rival Louisiana Tech, his tenure has been marked by inconsistency. This year Southern Miss has the talent to win the conference for the first time since 2011 but those who follow C-USA remain skeptical that Hopson can get the job done.
2) What can you tell us about the offensive philosophy? QB Jack Abraham has nearly 1000 yards of passing, but no Golden Eagle rusher has more than 100 yards. So that it’s a pass heavy system is a given, but is this a more vertical scheme, or one that tends to throw a lot of short passes?
First-year offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner was a bit of a mixed-bag before last week’s game against Troy in which Southern Miss had their best offensive output of the season. Due to the speed of Jaylond Adams and Quez Watkins, USM primarily relies on the big play. Adams and Watkins are two of the fastest players in college football and can hurt a defense with YAC. Fulkner’s system is pass heavy because the RB situation has been a state of flux for USM since Ito Smith moved on to the NFL. The talent just isn’t there this year. As a result, Adams and Watkins are featured heavily.
3) What offensive players should Alabama look out for to bust a big play?
Against Troy, Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams combined for 18 catches for 389 yards. Watkins averaged 29.9 yards per catch while Adams averaged 16.4 yards per catch. Jordan Mitchell is a receiver to watch for too, as he is averaging 18.4 yards per catch and leads the team with 295 receiving yards.
4) What is the strength of the USM defense, and what is its weakest link?
What’s been so frustrating about the Hopson era is that their defense has been consistently one of the better units in C-USA. The #NastyBunch as USM fans call them, is a group that thrives on havoc plays. They have an attacking 3-3-5/4-2-5 defense and love to blitz their defensive backs. D.Q. Thomas and Ky’el Hemby are the players to watch for in the secondary while Racheem Boothe is a LB in the front seven who can make plays.
5) Are there any freshmen who have broken onto the scene for Southern Miss three games into the season, and might they become star players in the future?
Not really. This is a veteran laden team. If I had to mention someone it would be freshman RB Dee Baker. He’s someone that may be the lead back by season’s end.
6) What is your game prediction?
Alabama big. Southern Miss a little. In all seriousness this is a game where Hopson can earn a lot of goodwill with the fan base if USM has a solid showing and don’t get completely blown out of the water. As I’m sure the Bama fan base knows all too well, the Golden Eagles had a penchant for pulling off upsets back in the day under Bower. That’s not going to happen Saturday. But for a Southern Miss fan base itching for relevance, Hopson throwing a scare into Saban’s slew of five-stars could go a long way. I’m more interested in the matchup between USM’s receivers versus Bama’s secondary. Adams is from Alabama and really felt like he should have been recruited by the Tide and Auburn but his lack of size kept the P5 schools away from recruiting him. I’m sure he’d like to have a big day.
7) What is your season prediction for Southern Miss?
I originally picked Southern Miss to finish 3rd in C-USA West behind North Texas and Louisiana Tech and I’m still sticking with that prediction. I will say though that USM’s offense looks potent enough where they may prove me wrong. USM is good enough to beat Tech or UNT any given Saturday, but I still don’t trust Hopson and co. to put together a string of successful games in conference play. They’ve lost to teams far less talented than them before and with C-USA looking extremely even, my hunch is on them falling short yet again.
Thanks again to Cyrus Smith from Underdog Dynasty for taking the time out answer some questions. Austin, Josh, and I always do our best to research upcoming opponents for our previews here, but there’s nothing like the thoughts of those actually involved in covering these teams... Particularly out-of-conference match-ups.