Rice football came close to upsetting Southern Miss last season but couldn’t hang on. What will the Golden Eagles bring to the table in 2018?
Southern Miss worked through some quarterback turmoil a year ago on their way to an 8-5 finish, including six wins in conference play. Third-year head coach Jay Hopson improved on a seven-win campaign the year before but continue that trend in 2018 might prove more difficult.
The Golden Eagles are going to be much younger this season and lose several key pieces from last year’s squad that needed a late fourth quarter rally to beat the Owls. The nine-point victory won by the Golden Eagles on their home field last season brought the all-time series to an even four-game split.
Southern Miss has won three straight in the series and opens conference play against the Owls this year. What can the Owls expect to see from the Golden Eagles?
Ineffectiveness and injuries created a messy situation for Southern Miss at quarterback last season. Although it wasn’t how Hopson drew it up, both Kwandra Griggs and Keon Howard gained valuable starting experience, each contributing to the Golden Eagles’ offensive success last season.
Griggs (1,879 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions) projected to be the starter before he was suspended indefinitely during fall camp. That openee the door for Howard (1,199 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions), but he has since transferred to Tulane. That leaves Jack Abraham as the front runner in Hattiesburg.
Whoever lines up in the backfield will be handing the ball to a new primary tailback. Ito South was named to the All-CUSA first team after churning out 1,483 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Tasked to recreate his production in aggregate will be returning senior Tez Parks (290 rushing yards, two touchdowns) as well as speedster George Payne and converted quarterback Steven Anderson.
In addition to replacing Smith the offensive line that blocked for him saw several meaningful departures. Gone are center Devin Farrior and tackle Jerry Harris, making for a lot of change for the Southern Miss rushing attack.
The receiving corps isn’t much better off. The Golden Eagles three leading receivers from a year ago are gone, leaving Quez Watkins (23 receptions, 337 yards and two touchdowns) as the most experienced pass catcher on this team. For as much as this team likes to throw the football (fifth in CUSA with 439 attempts in 2017) it’s hard to believe they won’t suffer a setback in the receiving department this season.
If the offense was green, the defense is greener. South Miss allowed 24.5 points per game in 2017, their best mark since they allowed 20.8 in 2011. That figure will be hard pressed to improve this year with just four of their top 11 leading tackles returning to Hattiesburg.
The production they do get back largely consists of members of the front seven. Linebackers Racheem Boothe (79, 3.5 sacks, five tackles for a loss) and Picasso Nelson (missed 2017 season due to injury) have to be the glue that holds this team together. The ability of that duo to get to the quarterback and force hurried plays will go a long way to determining whether or not the Southern Miss defense will be able to stay afloat in 2018.
Beyond those two the defensive line and secondary both contain more question marks than answers. The team tallied 24 sacks a year ago but only 6.5 of those are out the door.
Big plays in the secondary is another matter entirely. Southern Miss tallied nine interceptions by five different players and none of them will be on the field this season. Both of their starting safeties, Jomez Applewhite and Tarvarius Moore, as well as leading corners Curtis Mickell and Cornell Armstrong are gone as are three other rotation players. This has the potential to be the least experienced defensive back unit in the nation.