Our opponent preview continues today with the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Settle in and enjoy!
The Golden Eagles were an enigma in 2017. While they were pretty much right on their win projections, there was no way of knowing what team you were going to see each week. Despite losing by 7 while hosting Kentucky in their opener, they looked far superior to the Wildcats. Over their next 6 games, they went 5-1 in pretty dominating fashion, except for losing to North Texas by 15 at home while putting up a 21st percentile performance (according to Bill C.). Sitting pretty at 5-2 in late October, HC Jay Hopson’s squad laid eggs hosting UAB and at Tennessee, who was actually as bad as you think last year. Southern Miss ended up 8-5 after an Independence Bowl loss to Florida State in which they were just outmanned, but after an up and down season, they were right where most people projected them to be.
The Golden Eagles are led by Jay Hopson, who took over in 2016 just days before National Signing Day. In his two years in Hattiesburg, he has gone 15-11. While Southern Miss fans might tell you their program should be at the forefront of the G5, for all of their funding issues and the fact that they won 4 games over a three year span from 2012-2014, Hopson has the program in a good place right now.
At quarterback, Southern Miss has a battle. Last season, both Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard were good-not-great over the course of the season. Griggs won the job out of camp, and played three pretty good games to open the season before injuring his hand early in the North Texas game. Griggs would go an abbysmal 19-42 in that blowout loss and miss the next three games. While Howard played okay in those three games, the the staff tried to play both quarterbacks against UAB and Tennessee, and the results got ugly. Griggs, though, finished the year on a strong note in the last three games, and ended the year with 1879 yards and a 16:2 TD:Int ratio, while also adding 268 yards and 3 more touchdowns on the ground. Added to the mix this season is JUCO transfer Jack Abraham, and it seemed to be an open competition throughout the spring. The job has not been awarded yet, but my money would be on Griggs being the quarterback this fall.
Elsewhere on the offense, things get ugly quick. Griggs loses his top rusher (Ito Smith, 4th round pick to the Falcons) and his top 3 receivers (Korey Robertson, Allen Staggers, and Ito Smith), good for 61% of the team’s rushing yards and 71% of the teams receiving yards. In fact, after Smith, the next top two rushers were Griggs and Howard, the two quarterbacks, with only a combined 440 yards. The backfield this year will be manned by two seniors, Tez Parks and T’Rod Daniels, who combined for only 74 carries, 432 yards, and 3 touchdowns last season. They did manage 5.1 and 7.6 ypc, respectively, so it’s possible they have some home run ability in them.
As for the receivers, with Robertson and Staggers gone, there is not much experience to turn to. Sophomore Quez Watkins caught 23 balls for 337 yards last season, but the only other player to have had more than 10 receptions last season was RB Tez Parks, who caught 11. It’s not that there isn’t talent here, it’s just that there is isn’t exactly a ton of experience.
Fortunately, there IS some experience returning on the line. Sophomore Arvin Fletcher and Juniors Drake Dorbeck and Ty Pollard combined for 35 starts last season, so whoever ends up playing quarterback and running back will at least have an experienced line to work behind.
Funnily enough, Southern Miss will end up having a similar issue on defense as Auburn this year. While they lose arguable their best defensive end in Xavier Thigpen (11 TFLs, 4.5 sacks), they are in a good spot up front with three seniors and four juniors in their two deep on the line. Their best true pass rusher, Paxton Schrimsher, is back as a hybrid LB/DE, as well.
Just like Auburn, linebacker might be the best unit on the entire team, as Southern Miss returns essentially all of their contributors at the position. Racheem Boothe, who had 79 tackles/9 TFL/3 sacks last season led the way as a redshirt freshman last season, and he could become one of top G5 linebackers in the country if he can build upon last season. He’s a bit undersized at 6’0” 210 lbs, but he flys to ball really well and should be someone the Auburn offense has to focus on when running the ball. Again, Schrimser had a great year in the WOLF role of previous DC Tony Pecoraro’s defense, with 50 tackles/11 TFL/5.5 sacks. i’m not entirely sure how new DC Tim Billings plans to use him, but you can bet he will try to use Schrimser as much as possible to test a new Auburn offensive line.
While the Golden Eagles front seven will likely be one of the top ones in the C-USA, the secondary has some significant question marks. They lose effectively all of their contributors from last season including all of their 13 interceptions, highlighted by safety Tarvarius Moore, who went in the 3rd round of the draft to the 49ers. The only solace for Billings’s secondary is that they get back nickel Picasso Nelson Jr., who missed all of 2017 due to a spring injury. The unit’s top returning player from last year is sophomore Rachuan Mitchell, who had 20 tackles last year, and there’s not much of anything in the way of returning production behind him.
MATCHUP WITH AUBURN
Back in the Pat Dye era, Southern Miss was a fixture on the Auburn schedule (they played 13 times over 17 years from 1977-1993). That being said, it is nice to see the Golden Eagles back on the schedule for this year and 2019. The way this game lines up, though, I don’t think this game will be all that competitive. Southern Miss is going to be relying heavily on a lot of newcomers at running back, at wide receiver, and in the secondary. With Auburn’s ridiculously loaded front seven, the Tigers should be able to smother the inexperienced Southern Miss offense. If the Golden Eagles want to put up any sort of a fight, they will have to rely on their quarterback, likely Kwadra Griggs, to make some plays moving outside of the pocket. On the other side of the ball, Auburn will hopefully have figured out its running back situation by this point in the season, although with a relatively stout front seven to go against, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Auburn lean on Jarrett Stidham’s arm in this game. I have a hard time believing any of the Southern Miss secondary will be ready to keep up with Ryan Davis or be physical enough to stay on Nate Craig-Myers, and this may be a game where Auburn elects to get some of the younger receivers involved after a physical first month of the season.