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1. A correction:
The hire of Ellis Johnson over some young, hungry, offense-heavy assistant may have been confusing, but even if it were a terrible hire, we might not know for a while. The program would remain in pretty good shape for a while even if they had hired me.
It appears I may have been mistaken. It appears that if you reverse course following the success of an offense-friendly up-and-comer by replacing him with an aging career defensive assistant (albeit a damn strong one), it is possible to not only end an 18-year streak of winning seasons, but completely fall off the face of the earth in the process.
From 2005-11, Southern Miss ranked between 27th and 69th in the F/+ rankings every single year. The Golden Eagles were coming off of one of their best seasons ever in 2011; they had gone 12-2, whipped undefeated Houston to win Conference USA, and finished 20th in the AP poll, their third-highest finish ever. But when head coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina (and a good majority of their impact players graduated), they replaced him with South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who is by all accounts a good assistant and a good man. And in 2012, it got so, so much worse than one could have imagined.
Southern Miss went 0-12 and fell to 117th in the F/+ rankings, behind, among other teams, two FBS newcomers (No. 116 UTSA and No. 99 Texas State) and questionable Conference USA newcomer Florida Atlantic (No. 115). They pulled off an incredibly difficult feat: a 10-game turnaround from one year to another. In one direction, that is an amazing accomplishment. In Southern Miss' direction, that is a baffling, unforgivable collapse. And because of the magnitude of the fall, Johnson's tenure ended 12 months after it began.
Southern Miss hadn't suffered a losing season since 1993, but when streaks end, they sometimes end as harshly as possible. And now the Golden Eagles pick up the pieces, hand the reins to a young, hungry, offense-heavy assistant (former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken), and go about pretending 2012 was one giant mulligan.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 0-12 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 117|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||at Nebraska||20-49||L||22.5 - 44.3||L|
|15-Sep||East Carolina||14-24||L||16.1 - 14.4||W|
|22-Sep||at Western Kentucky||17-42||L||27.5 - 39.3||L|
|29-Sep||Louisville||17-21||L||20.8 - 19.3||W|
|6-Oct||Boise State||14-40||L||31.5 - 23.9||W|
|13-Oct||at Central Florida||31-38||L||35.1 - 25.8||W|
|20-Oct||Marshall||24-59||L||17.5 - 38.5||L|
|27-Oct||at Rice||17-44||L||15.2 - 35.8||L|
|3-Nov||UAB||19-27||L||15.9 - 28.1||L|
|10-Nov||at SMU||6-34||L||10.3 - 36.8||L|
|17-Nov||UTEP||33-34||L||38.6 - 30.6||W|
|24-Nov||at Memphis||24-42||L||23.3 - 52.1||L|
|Points Per Game||19.7||112||37.8||116|
|Adj. Points Per Game||22.9||108||32.4||98|
2. When do you think they knew?
For the first half of the 2012 season, Southern Miss honestly wasn't that bad. The Golden Eagles fell victim to both missed opportunities and a tough schedule; even if Fedora had returned, the turnover on the field would have probably resulted in losses to F/+ No. 19 Nebraska, No. 21 Boise State, and No. 28 Louisville. Southern Miss almost beat Louisville in a monsoon, took its lumps against Nebraska and Boise State, and nearly beat UCF. This wasn't a good team at any point, mind you, but the Golden Eagles were thoroughly mediocre over the first half of the season.
A 35-point home loss to Marshall on October 20, however, signaled the beginning of the end. That game was most likely the Saturday in which Southern Miss players, coaches, and fans began to realize that 0-12 was in play.
Adj. Points per Game (first 6 games): Opponent 27.8, Southern Miss 25.6 (minus-2.2)
Adj. Points per Game (last 6 games): Opponent 37.0, Southern Miss 20.1 (minus-16.9)
The Southern Miss of the second half of the season was two touchdowns worse than the Southern Miss of the first half. A semi-competitive team battling through youth and a coaching change became an utterly hopeless, demoralized squad, one that got whipped in each of its final three road games and couldn't even salvage a home win over UAB or UTEP.
In all, Southern Miss probably wasn't truly an 0-12 team -- an 0-4 record in one-possession games, along with some general competitiveness early on, suggests that 2-10 or 3-9 would have been a fairer, more equitable record. But that still would have been Southern Miss' worst record in two decades, and it still might have gotten Ellis Johnson dumped.
3. So now it's Monken
On the "Pretend 2012 Never Happened" checklist, hiring the type of guy you probably should have hired a year earlier is right at the top. Todd Monken has put together a lovely, creative resume through the years; he was Eastern Michigan's offensive coordinator for seven years in the 1990s, encompassing the "Charlie Batch passes for a million yards" era, he was a Les Miles assistant for five years at both Oklahoma State and LSU, he was an NFL position coach (well, sort of -- it was for the Jacksonville Jaguars) for five years, and he spent the last two seasons at the helm of Oklahoma State's plug-and-play point machine. His bona fides are strong and well-grounded in what some may call "traditional" football, but in his second stint in Stillwater he mastered the art of high pace and packaging concepts. At 47, he is both thoroughly experienced and young enough to still have flexibility in his ways. It really seems like this is the perfect time for him to take a head coaching job.
|Q1 Rk||94||1st Down Rk||111|
|Q2 Rk||116||2nd Down Rk||91|
|Q3 Rk||113||3rd Down Rk||110|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Chris Campbell||6'3, 200||Sr.||** (5.3)||27||55||322||49.1%||3||2||3||5.2%||5.1|
|Ricky Lloyd||6'2, 200||So.||*** (5.5)||22||44||277||50.0%||1||3||4||8.3%||5.0|
|Cole Weeks||6'0, 199||Jr.||NR||8||19||106||42.1%||0||1||1||5.0%||5.0|
|Kyle Sloter||6'4, 213||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Parker Adamson||6'4, 200||Fr.||** (5.4)|
4. Of course, Monken will need a quarterback
Mike Gundy has built quite a machine as head coach at Oklahoma State. In 2009, he lost what was supposed to be a "once every couple of decades" quality trio in Zac Robinson, Kendall Hunter, and Dez Bryant. (It was probably the best skill position trio at OSU since Gundy, Barry Sanders, and Hart Lee Dykes.) Instead, he replaced that trio with Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle, and Justin Blackmon, and OSU improved. In 2010, he lost one of the nation's most innovative, electrifying coordinators in Dana Holgorsen. He replaced him with Monken, and OSU improved. In 2012, he lost Weeden and Blackmon, encountered some serious injury issues at quarterback, and struggled without a big-time No. 1 receiver. OSU plummeted from third in total offense and second in scoring offense to ... fourth and third, respectively.
This fall, we'll find out how much of those easy transitions were due to Gundy and how much were due to Monken. Either way, however, we know this: At OSU, Monken's and Gundy's offense put a lot of responsibility onto the shoulders of the quarterback. And at Southern Miss, quarterback was a bit of an issue in 2012.
Southern Miss enters 2013 with plenty of options despite the fact that last year's top two quarterbacks (in terms of the number of attempts, anyway) have transferred. Redshirt freshman Kyle Sloter has seen plenty of time with the No. 1s this spring as both Chris Campbell and Ricky Lloyd work to come back from injury, but one has to assume that the mental aspects of the Monken system might take a while to grasp. (Then again, OSU named a true freshman as its starter last spring.) Regardless, there are a lot of candidates here, and almost none of them have proven anything worthwhile.
|Jalen Richard||RB||5'8, 205||So.||** (5.4)||87||426||4.9||4.6||4||-1.7|
|Jeremy Hester||RB||5'6, 177||Sr.||*** (5.5)||46||196||4.3||4.2||1||-5.6|
|Kendrick Hardy||RB||6'0, 223||Sr.||**** (5.8)||30||151||5.0||4.2||0||-0.5|
|Ricky Lloyd||QB||6'2, 200||So.||*** (5.5)||29||91||3.1||3.8||0||-5.1|
|Tyre Bracken||RB||5'8, 186||So.||** (5.4)||13||60||4.6||3.3||0||-0.1|
|Chris Campbell||QB||6'3, 200||Sr.||** (5.3)||9||29||3.2||2.3||0||-2.0|
|George Payne||RB||6'0, 197||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Justin Sims||IR||5'7, 165||Sr.||NR||43||20||294||46.5%||6.8||14.7%||39.5%||6.7||31.1|
|Francisco Llanos||IR||5'8, 169||Sr.||NR||36||20||226||55.6%||6.3||12.3%||44.4%||6.6||23.9|
|Dominique Sullivan||WR||6'3, 201||Sr.||*** (5.6)||35||19||331||54.3%||9.5||12.0%||60.0%||9.4||35.0|
|Chris Briggs||WR||6'5, 214||Jr.||*** (5.6)||27||11||144||40.7%||5.3||9.2%||37.0%||5.4||15.2|
|D.J. Thompson||WR||6'3, 186||So.||*** (5.5)||16||7||108||43.8%||6.8||5.5%||62.5%||6.8||11.4|
|Markese Triplett||WR||6'4, 216||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||5||75||38.5%||5.8||4.5%||38.5%||4.4||7.9|
|Jeremy Hester||RB||5'6, 177||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||7||40||58.3%||3.3||4.1%||41.7%||3.1||4.2|
|Jalen Richard||RB||5'8, 205||So.||** (5.4)||11||8||39||72.7%||3.5||3.8%||45.5%||2.8||4.1|
|Cooper Harrington||WR||6'0, 188||So.||*** (5.5)||3||1||9||33.3%||3.0||1.0%||66.7%||2.7||1.0|
|James Cox||WR||6'0, 190||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Branton Lee||WR||5'8, 163||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Draper Riley||TE||6'4, 245||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jamarcus Revies||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||** (5.4)|
5. Of course, Monken will need some receivers
The Southern Miss offense wasn't really good at anything in 2012, but it managed some decent run efficiency numbers. Depending on what it gets from its line, that could be expected again in 2013 with an interesting stable of backs (most notably 2010 star Kendrick Hardy, who struggled mightily last year) returning. But at OSU, Monken's offense relied heavily on balance, on utilizing the threat of both the run and pass at all times. And while the candidates at running back are interesting and obvious, both quarterback and receiver are unknowns.
Now, if you believe in recruiting rankings at least a little bit, you have to figure there is plenty of potential in the receiving corps. Converted quarterback Dominique Sullivan, a former high three-star recruit, has been a decent, if inefficient, big-play threat for a couple of years now, and in players like Chris Briggs, Markese Triplett, D.J. Thompson and Cooper Harrington, Monken inherits a series of reasonably experienced former three-star guys. The problem, of course, is that none of them have exactly shown much three-star potential. That foursome -- Briggs, Triplett, Thompson, Harrington -- combined for a horrendous 41 percent catch rate and a per-target average of 5.7 yards last year. Harrington has shown promise this spring, evidently, and more three-star freshmen are on the way, but there are no guarantees here ... or anywhere else on this offense, really.
|Austin Quattrochi||C||48 career starts|
|Darius Barnes||RT||42 career starts|
|Joe Duhon||LG||40 career starts|
|Jason Weaver||LT||29 career starts|
|Ed Preston||RG||6'3, 309||Sr.||** (5.3)||23 career starts|
|Vincent Brown||RT||6'5, 289||Sr.||*** (5.5)||19 career starts|
|Rashod Hill||LT||6'6, 285||So.||NR|
|Taylor Peterson||LG||6'4, 293||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Jordan Greene||C||6'3, 265||So.||** (5.4)|
|Cedric Chisolm||OL||6'4, 278||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Fredrick Moore||OL||6'4, 325||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
6. Of course, Monken will need a line
Losing four players who combined for 159 career starts is never particularly good, but considering how poorly this line performed last year, you can certainly make the argument that new blood isn't a bad idea. Southern Miss does have a pair of pretty experienced seniors in Ed Preston and Vincent Brown, and Monken brought in a couple of three-star JUCOs, not to mention a pretty line-friendly system in general. At worst, I see this line duplicating last year's poor numbers and not sinking any lower. At least marginal improvement is perhaps likely.
|Q1 Rk||73||1st Down Rk||86|
|Q2 Rk||89||2nd Down Rk||104|
|Q3 Rk||113||3rd Down Rk||82|
7. A familiar face on defense
The Southern Miss offense is receiving a much-needed overhaul this season. The defense, on the other hand, is simply hitting the rewind button. David Duggan, a defensive co-coordinator for Southern Miss under Fedora, returns to Hattiesburg after a year as Fedora's outside linebackers coach in Chapel Hill. With one of the better lines in the country (at any level), Duggan's 2011 Southern Miss defense was aggressive and fun; despite Ellis Johnson's defensive background, the 2012 Southern Miss defense was neither of those things. So Duggan returns to see a lot of the same faces he left in 2011; as with the offensive line, improvement is probable. We'll just have to wait and see how much improvement comes.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Khyri Thornton||DT||6'3, 308||Sr.||**** (5.8)||12||29.5||4.4%||9.5||1||1||1||1||0|
|Rakeem Nunez-Roches||DT||6'2, 290||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||29.5||4.4%||6||1||0||1||1||0|
|Michael Smith||DE||6'4, 262||So.||*** (5.5)||12||21.5||3.2%||6.5||1||0||0||0||1|
|Dasman McCullum (2011)||DE||6'4, 237||Jr.||*** (5.6)||14||16.0||1.9%||3||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|Wil Freeman||DE||6'6, 241||So.||*** (5.5)||11||11.0||1.6%||1.5||1||0||1||0||1|
|Anthony Wilson||DE||6'3, 227||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Adam Williams||DT||6'2, 282||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Rod Crayton||DT||6'1, 290||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Dylan Bradley||DT||6'1, 255||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Christopher Robinson||DT||6'2, 280||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jerry Harris||DT||6'3, 295||Fr.||** (5.4)|
8. A once-proud line
The benefit to hiring Ellis Johnson, in theory, was that it would continue Southern Miss' recent defensive improvement. The Golden Eagles had gone from 95th in Def. F/+ in 2009, to 54th in 2010, to 19th in 2011. And despite having to replace stars like end Cordarro Law, tackles Deddrick Jones and Terrance pope, and linebacker Ronnie Thornton, and cornerback Marquese Wheaton, there was enough star power returning, especially up front, to assume reasonable continuity. Not so much. Despite solid play-making from tackle Khyri Thornton, Southern Miss' line play was particularly woeful; the Golden Eagles were dead last in Power Success Rate (stopping short yardage situations) and in the bottom 10 in Opportunity Rate (preventing downfield opportunities on the ground), and despite the return of end Jamie Collins, the pass rush was thoroughly mediocre.
Duggan inherits some nice athleticism here, and he certainly knows most of these players already, but a return to quality up front will mean a lot for a defense that returns most of its two-deep in the back (every linebacker of consequence returns, as do most defensive backs, including potential star corner Deron Wilson) but needed a little more help from the line than it received in 2012.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Alan Howze||LB||6'3, 227||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||48.5||7.2%||5||2.5||0||1||1||2|
|Dylan Reda||LB||6'1, 230||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||41.5||6.1%||2.5||0||1||0||2||0|
|Terrick Wright||LB||6'2, 211||So.||*** (5.6)||12||23.0||3.4%||3||2||0||1||0||0|
|Justin Penn||LB||6'1, 212||Jr.||*** (5.5)||10||16.5||2.4%||3||0||0||1||0||0|
|Jamil Murray||LB||6'0, 203||So.||NR||4||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Leiland Ducksworth||LB||6'1, 207||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Deron Wilson||CB||5'10, 181||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||51.0||7.6%||0||0||1||9||0||1|
|Emmanuel Johnson||S||5'11, 181||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||39.0||5.8%||2||0||0||2||0||0|
|Jacorius Cotton||S||5'11, 195||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9||34.5||5.1%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jerrion Johnson||S||6'0, 205||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||31.5||4.7%||3.5||0||0||5||0||0|
|Alex Smith||S||5'10, 194||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||21.0||3.1%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|DeBarrius Miller||S||5'10, 183||So.||** (5.2)||10||19.5||2.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kalan Reed||CB||5'11, 198||So.||*** (5.5)||12||17.0||2.5%||1||0||1||2||0||1|
|Ed Wilkins||CB||5'10, 166||So.||** (5.4)||10||13.5||2.0%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Alexander Walters||CB||5'10, 174||Sr.||** (5.4)||8||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Antonio Thomas, Jr.||DB||5'10, 194||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Kelsey Douglas||DB||5'11, 175||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Trae Collins||DB||5'11, 181||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Jalen Square||DB||5'10, 180||Fr.||** (5.4)|
9. Senior leaders abound
If there's one thing Southern Miss has going for it beyond recruiting rankings, it's experience. Four of the top five returning defensive backs are seniors, as are the top two linebackers and Thornton up front. When you are undergoing your second coaching change in two years, any continuity you can find is a good thing. This defense has plenty of players who remember what winning is like despite the fact that Southern Miss hasn't actually won a game in going on 16 months now.
|Corey Acosta||6'0, 185||Jr.||47||57.3||8||17.0%|
|Corey Acosta||6'0, 185||Jr.||27-28||5-8||62.5%||6-9||66.7%|
|Justin Sims||KR||5'7, 165||Sr.||19||22.6||0|
|Jalen Richard||KR||5'8, 205||So.||10||25.9||0|
|Special Teams F/+||100|
|Field Goal Pct||86|
|Kick Returns Avg||68|
|Punt Returns Avg||86|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|28-Sep||at Boise State||12|
|19-Oct||at East Carolina||81|
|9-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||89|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||62|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||66|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-16 / -5.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (5, 8)|
10. Survive September
If Southern Miss rebounds just to the point of being a Top 80 team this fall, there are wins on the schedule. Considering their toughest home game is against Middle Tennessee, the Golden Eagles should be expected to go undefeated (or at least 4-1) in Hattiesburg, and road trips to UAB and Louisiana Tech, at the very least, are winnable. But threatening to return to bowl eligibility will depend, in part, on the impact of the pummeling they might be expected to take in a rough three-week stretch in September. Southern Miss is likely to be 1-3 following trips to Nebraska, Arkansas, and Boise State (and that's assuming it can get past a salty Texas State squad); that would mean that, overall, the Golden Eagles will have lost 15 of their last 16 games. Bounce back starting with the FIU game on October 5, and you can find quite a few wins the rest of the way. I really like the hire of Monken overall, but his immediate success could be as dependent on confidence as scheme or talent.
In some ways, 2012 didn't happen. At least, the year didn't unfold the way that some people interpreted it would from the Mayan calendar. For Southern Miss, it would indeed be best to simply forget that the doomsday effect of the 2012 season ever happened and move on. That's easier said than done, but with a potentially strong hire (one the school perhaps should have made 12 months earlier) and a solid reservoir of experience from which to draw, it isn't impossible.