By Acid Reign
|Fedora takes over.|
Southern Mississippi made a controversial move at the end of last season, firing long-time head coach Jeff Bower, after 17 seasons in Hattiesburg. Bower took USM to 10 bowls in the past 11 years, but the administration decided to go in a different direction.
Larry Fedora takes over as the Golden Eagle Head Coach. Fedora was previously the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, developing high-powered offenses for the Cowboys, and before that, at Middle Tennessee State. Fedora brings a new staff to Hattiesburg, including one of Tommy Tuberville's former assistants, Art Kaufman. Kaufman was Tuberville's defensive coordinator at Ole Miss. Now, he coaches the defensive line for USM.
Any time a new coach comes in, there's a learning curve. Fedora's offense is complicated, and players have thus far struggled with the complex hand signals used to send in plays. Southern Mississippi has plenty of talent returning, but how well the talent adapts will be key.
Todd Bradford takes over as defensive coordinator, after previously serving as linebackers coach at Oklahoma State. Bradford has a tough job ahead, trying to maintain the ferocious defensive reputation of the Golden Eagles.
Spearheading the revamped offense will be returning running back, junior Damion Fletcher. Fletcher rushed for an eye-popping 1586 yards, last season, and 15 touchdowns; averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Behind Fletcher is another junior, a lightning-quick scat-back named Tory Harrison.
Quarterback has been a battle this spring, and at this time, it would seem that redshirt freshman Austin Davis has won the starting job. Davis hit 17 out of 23 passes for 207 yards in the USM spring game, and rushed 7 times for 52 yards. 5th year senior Jeremy Young has both experience and athleticism, should Austin falter. As a part-time starter last season, Young hit 120 of 224, for 1464 yards with 11 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. More impressively, Young rushed for 349 yards, as well. Sophomore Torris Magee is the most dangerous of the returning receivers. Magee caught 44 balls last fall, for a 14.4 yard average.
On defense, the Eagles are anchored by junior Gerald McRath, at middle linebacker. McRath is the reigning Conference USA defensive player of the year. He's a 212 pound speedster that loves to hit, and reminds me a lot of Tray Blackmon. Junior Eddie Hicks is a dangerous, veteran safety for USM. 311-pound behemoth Anthony Gray, a sophomore, anchors the middle.
Auburn defensive line vs. USM offensive line: USM returns a veteran unit that paved the way for a rushing attack that produced over 200 yards per game. With a new scheme, and Fedora's tendency to use wider splits, the USM front may have trouble with Auburn's speed up front. Advantage: Auburn, and they need to dominate, for Auburn to keep USM under wraps, offensively.
Auburn linebackers vs. USM backs: USM has a great starter, and Auburn is deep in talented linebackers. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. USM receivers: USM has experience returning, from a run-first attack. They put up respectable numbers in the spring game, but Auburn has the speed to match up well. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. USM secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn is green at safety, but very talented. They'll be going against unproven receivers, and possibly a freshman quarterback. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn returns a solid trio of punters, and had good coverage. Senior Britt Barefoot (I did not make this name up!)returns for the Eagles, averaging 42.5 yards per punt, with 14 kicks downed inside the 20 vs. only 4 touchbacks. USM's coverage averaged 7.1 yards a return, to Auburn's 6.5. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn averaged only 57 yards per kickoff (caught at an average of the 13-yard line), and had poor coverage at times, allowing 21.2 yards per return overall. USM held opponents to 19.9. Advantage: USM.
Kick Returns: With Tristan Davis our numbers here should go up, although USM has traditionally covered kicks well. Last season, Auburn averaged a paltry 19.2 yards per return; USM averaged 21.8. Tory Harrison returns on one side for USM, but Antwain Easterling was recently dismissed from the team. Advantage: Even.
Place Kicking: Wes Byrum was 17 of 23 on field goals, including 9-10 from 30-39 yards, and was money in the bank, on clutch kicks, for Auburn. USM's Justin Estes was 15-22, and only 6-10 in that key 30-39 yard range. Advantage: Auburn
Auburn offensive line vs. USM defensive line: USM loses quite a bit of beef, aside from Anthony Gray, in the middle. Auburn has a deep, talented line. Big advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. USM linebackers: Auburn has several good choices at running back, but they'll be running at a very good linebacker corps. Given that Auburn's scheme now does not include a lot of lead blockers, the backs should struggle, unless the Tiger attack is diversified. This won't be a defense we can pound inside. Advantage: USM.
Auburn receivers vs. USM corners: USM is fairly green here, and Auburn has a number of talented wide receivers. Assuming that we can throw accurately downfield, USM will have a lot of trouble staying with Auburn's guys. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. USM safeties: USM has a good one in Eddie Hicks, but unless the USM line can get pressure without blitzing, Kodi Burns and Chris Todd will have too many options, with players like Robert Dunn, Tommy Trott, and Terrell Zachary. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn has more positives than USM, especially on the lines of scrimmage. It's likely that USM will hang tough on defense, and keep the game closer than we would like, but Auburn should prevail at home, particularly if USM brings a freshman quarterback into Jordan Hare for his first road start. The real key for Auburn is to shut down Dameon Fletcher, and keep the USM offense from getting any consistency.
Prediction: Auburn pulls away in the second half: 23-10.