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1. Rebound vs. dead cat bounce
The consistency was admirable, but there was never any major breakthrough. Or at least, there hadn't since 1999, when USM finished 9-3 and 14th in the AP Poll.
In 2011, Southern Miss got its breakthrough, finishing 12-2 and winning Conference USA.
In 2012-13, Southern Miss went 1-23.
Fedora left for North Carolina after 2011, but while USM had a heavy senior class, it still seemed as if there were a few pieces left over for new head coach Ellis Johnson. Regardless, the Golden Eagles' 18-year win streak ended with a zero-win season.
And in 2013, the team got even worse.
It almost feels like cruelty to bring it up every year, but it still blows my mind that the steadiest mid-major program for almost two decades could fall apart overnight. Southern Miss was over .500 every year from 1994 to 2011, never finishing with fewer than six or more than nine wins, then went full-on Achilles, killing itself to finally break through and collapsing after crossing the finish line.
Adding 2014, the Golden Eagles are now 4-32 since the end of the Larry Fedora era. That would be awful for any team, much less one so solid for so long.
But there might be a silver lining: after a stunning two-year collapse, Southern Miss actually improved. It wasn't by much -- a 3-9 record with a No. 110 F/+ ranking isn't a surge -- but it was a bounce. And now we get to see if it was the result of some "they were almost impossibly bad in 2013" regression to the mean, or some actual program progression that will continue.
Southern Miss will have all the offensive experience you could possibly want and depth of options at positions that were still lagging last fall. The defense will be starting over, and because of that, it's hard to imagine any significant breakthrough in Todd Monken's third year, but another step forward is a possibility. When you fall through a trap door, there's no quick way out, but improvement can still feel like improvement.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 110|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|30-Aug||at Mississippi State||13||0-49||L||5%||-38.2||0%|
|4-Oct||at Middle Tennessee||87||31-37||L||34%||-9.5||13%|
|18-Oct||at North Texas||125||30-20||W||55%||2.9||62%|
|Points Per Game||19.0||117||35.4||111|
2. Schedule-dependent growth
If you squint, you can see a little bit of in-season growth from Southern Miss in the above percentile chart. The Golden Eagles' average percentile performance was 25 percent through the first five games, then 41 percent in the next four before a late fade.
That growth (if it actually existed) seemed dependent on the quality of the opponent. Southern Miss played its best games against its worst opponents, and more of those came in the middle of the year.
- Average percentile performance (vs. F/+ top 40): 17% (average score: Opponent 49, USM 12)
- Average percentile performance (vs. No. 41-100): 25% (average score: Opponent 40, USM 23)
- Average percentile performance (vs. No. 101+): 51% (average score: USM 22, Opponent 18)
(Here's where I remind you that these percentile performances are opponent-adjusted numbers, so while it seems like a no-brainer to say a team fared better against bad opponents, that's not necessarily true.)
The offense, lacking entirely in big-play capability, had a low ceiling no matter the opponent. But the Southern Miss defense seemed capable of dominating less athletic offenses.
What that might mean for 2015 is hard to say since the offense returns just about everybody and the defense does not. But it does hint at a D that is reliant on aggressiveness but didn't have enough.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.4%||109||Succ. Rt. +||96.8||79|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||32.3||111||Def. FP+||98.0||92|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.4||121||Redzone S&P+||80.9||122|
|Q1 Rk||89||1st Down Rk||94|
|Q2 Rk||123||2nd Down Rk||93|
|Q3 Rk||103||3rd Down Rk||122|
3. Big plays nowhere to be found
First, the encouraging part: Southern Miss' offense was woefully inefficient in 2013 (Success Rate+ rank: 121st) and improved dramatically last fall (79th).
Second-year starting quarterback Nick Mullens was asked to do less because the run game was slightly more reliable (from "maybe the worst in the country" in 2013 to merely bad), and he responded by raising his completion rate from 49 percent to 60, lowering his sack rate from 8.3 to 5.4 percent, and cutting his interception rate from 5.1 to 2.5 percent.
Meanwhile, the big plays disappeared. Mullens averaged 11.3 yards per completion, and the run game produced 42 rushes of 10-plus yards (119th in the country) and just one of 40-plus. Southern Miss had a much better relationship with the chains, but when you aren't breaking off big gains, you eventually stall. This struggle had a role in USM averaging a woeful 3.4 points per scoring opportunity.
There is hope. Michael Thomas became a reliable passing downs target, averaging 14.4 yards per catch, and two freshmen (Marquise Ricard and former star recruit James Cox) averaged at least 13.9. Plus, backs Ito Smith, Jalen Richard, and Tez Parks (two of whom were freshmen) showed potential in the open field -- they just didn't get into the open field enough. Perhaps as the experience levels improve, explosive players will get more opportunities to explode.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Nick Mullens||6'1, 196||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7817||218||365||2470||12||9||59.7%||21||5.4%||6.1|
|6'4, 215||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8957|
|Parker Adamson||6'4, 214||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593|
|Gunner Roach||6'1, 176||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8004|
|Gabe Green||6'1, 210||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8074|
4. Incumbent faces a tough reelection battle
Mullens improved in just about every way a quarterback can.
A second-year starting sophomore, he wasn't ready to torch good defenses yet -- against Mississippi State and Alabama, he was 39-for-77 for 419 yards, two interceptions, and four sacks (yards per attempt, including sacks: 4.9) -- but when punching in the right weight class, he showed quite a bit of potential. In a four-game span against Appalachian State, Rice, MTSU, and North Texas, he completed 109 of 175 passes (62 percent) for 1,282 yards, eight touchdowns, six interceptions (a bit high), and eight sacks. Yards per attempt: 6.7. His passer rating was at least 125.2 in three of the four games, as well.
Mullens made mistakes, but he was a sophomore with a young receiving corps and a shaky line. He was only going to be able to do so well.
When you start as a freshman and sophomore, you assume you will start as a junior and senior. But Mullens has a battle on his hands. TCU transfer and former four-star recruit Tyler Matthews is now in Hattiesburg, and Monken has said each (not to mention sophomore Parker Adamson and redshirt freshman Gunner Roach) will get a shot at the starting job. Roach was a three-star recruit according to the 247Sports Composite, as was incoming freshman Gabe Green. I assume that Mullens keeps the job, but he'll have to continue improving.
|Ito Smith||RB||5'9, 182||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8354||136||536||2||3.9||4.9||29.4%||3||1|
|George Payne||RB||6'0, 207||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||86||271||6||3.2||2.6||25.6%||0||0|
|Jalen Richard||RB||5'8, 207||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8054||42||236||1||5.6||7.3||35.7%||2||0|
|Nick Mullens||QB||6'1, 196||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7817||28||173||0||6.2||5.1||50.0%||6||2|
|Tez Parks||RB||6'1, 193||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8432||28||156||0||5.6||8.7||35.7%||1||0|
|Patrick Brooks||RB||5'10, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7993|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Tyre'oune Holmes (2013)||WR-H||5'11, 170||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7993||81||53||410||65.4%||18.9%||52.5%||5.1||-227||4.6||51.0|
|Casey Martin||WR-H||5'10, 175||Sr.||NR||N/A||74||55||531||74.3%||16.3%||52.7%||7.2||-117||7.3||58.3|
|Michael Thomas||WR-X||6'1, 186||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7783||68||41||592||60.3%||15.0%||52.9%||8.7||90||8.7||65.0|
|Marquise Ricard||WR-Z||6'2, 192||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||61||30||417||49.2%||13.5%||55.7%||6.8||33||6.9||45.8|
|Jalen Richard||RB||5'8, 207||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8054||38||24||184||63.2%||8.4%||55.3%||4.8||-107||4.8||20.2|
|D.J. Thompson||WR-Z||6'3, 198||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8569||36||22||231||61.1%||7.9%||44.4%||6.4||-38||6.5||25.4|
|James Cox||WR-X||6'1, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8246||26||15||219||57.7%||5.7%||53.8%||8.4||34||8.5||24.0|
|Kyle Foster||WR-Y||6'3, 218||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7685||24||12||168||50.0%||5.3%||41.7%||7.0||15||8.0||18.4|
|Ito Smith||RB||5'9, 182||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8354||15||8||76||53.3%||3.3%||40.0%||5.1||-24||4.1||8.4|
|Daythan Davis||FB||6'1, 228||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||14||9||87||64.3%||3.1%||57.1%||6.2||-22||6.2||9.5|
|George Payne||RB||6'0, 207||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||12||8||109||66.7%||2.6%||66.7%||9.1||13||9.6||12.0|
|Curtis Mikell||WR-H||5'8, 168||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7759||6||6||48||100.0%||1.3%||50.0%||8.0||-20||7.9||5.3|
|Kyle Sloter||WR||6'4, 218||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8113||5||2||12||40.0%||1.1%||40.0%||2.4||-15||3.5||1.3|
|Jay'Shawn Washington||FB/TE||6'1, 226||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000|
|Korey Robertson||WR||6'1, 200||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8093|
|Julian Allen||TE||6'3, 234||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8056|
|Taylor Marini||TE||6'4, 237||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933|
Ito Smith, a true freshman in 2014, became USM's go-to back almost immediately, rushing 45 times in the first two games and averaging 15 carries in the final four.
He battled injury in the middle of the year, which gave then-sophomore George Payne a shot at the starting job. (He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in four games as the feature back). Jalen Richard averaged 6.7 yards per carry over the season's final four games, and Tez Parks carried 20 times in the first four games before fading into the pack.
All four are scheduled to return, as are nine of the 10 members of the offensive line's two-deep (including eight players with a combined 77 games of starting experience).
At receiver, six wideouts were targeted at least twice per game, and five return. So does bouncy possession receiver Tyre'oune Holmes, who led the Golden Eagles with 53 catches in 2013 but missed 2014 with injury. Those responsible for 86 percent of last year's targets are back, and now you add Holmes.
Depth doesn't matter if quality isn't involved, but while we wait to figure out the latter, Southern Miss has bucketloads of the former, and skillsets vary nicely. Holmes and Casey Martin are efficiency guys; they combined to catch 70 percent of their targets in their most recent seasons. Michael Thomas, Marquise Ricard, Kyle Foster, and James Cox are potential vertical threats if the horizontal game has defenses stretched out.
When you don't have a lot of proven talent, you want options. In every unit of the offense, Southern Miss will have that. And there's just enough potential to talk yourself into some pretty impressive numbers.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Rashod Hill||LT||6'6, 302||Sr.||NR||NR||23|
|Cameron Tom||C||6'4, 287||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||21|
|Brandon Farmer||LG||6'2, 308||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7578||12|
|Devin Farrior||RG||6'4, 304||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7908||7|
|Norman Price||RT||6'4, 321||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8529||6|
|Jerry Harris||RT||6'3, 302||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7993||4|
|Oliver Bates||LT||6'2, 282||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7611||2|
|Randal Agee||C||6'0, 292||Sr.||NR||NR||2|
|Thomas Collins||LG||6'3, 318||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593||0|
|Bradley Nugent||C||5'11, 270||Sr.||NR||NR||0|
|Andrew Peterson||OL||6'6, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR|
|Jacob Fleming||OL||6'4, 302||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7919|
|Tyler Stutzman||OL||6'4, 265||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7300|
|Drake Dorbeck||OL||6'6, 320||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7959|
|Ty Pollard||OL||6'6, 302||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||N/A|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.5%||97||Succ. Rt. +||93.6||95|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||26.8||124||Off. FP+||94.0||123|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||91||Redzone S&P+||98.9||66|
|Q1 Rk||64||1st Down Rk||97|
|Q2 Rk||111||2nd Down Rk||116|
|Q3 Rk||71||3rd Down Rk||83|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Michael Smith||DE||6'4, 277||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||10||23.5||3.5%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dylan Bradley||BANDIT||6'1, 265||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8237||8||20.5||3.1%||5.0||3.0||0||0||1||0|
|Wil Freeman||DT||6'6, 261||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8133||11||10.5||1.6%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Draper Riley||NT||6'4, 289||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933||9||10.0||1.5%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ja'Boree Poole||BANDIT||6'2, 241||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7685||12||8.0||1.2%||1.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Rod Crayton||DL||6'1, 287||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8484||5||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jerry McCorvey||DL||6'3, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7944||12||2.5||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jon Michael Edwards||DE||6'4, 230||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8352|
|Ricky Parks||DE||6'3, 280||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8411|
|Derrick Dixon||DE||6'3, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7956|
|LaDarius Harris||DT||6'1, 280||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7991|
|Jauan Collins||DT||6'0, 295||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893|
6. The strongest unit rebuilds
In 2014, Southern Miss' front began to look like the line you remember from the 2011 Conference USA championship squad. The Golden Eagles were great in short-yardage situations and inevaded the backfield against the run. The duo of Dasman McCullum and Rakeem Nunez-Roches combined for 19.5 non-sack tackles for loss, and nose tackle Adam Williams pitched in another four.
The run defense was only decent because of what tended to happen when a runner got past the line, and these players weren't as effective at rushing the passer as they were at stuffing running backs, but defensive coordinator David Duggan had something to work with. Past tense. McCullum, Nunez-Roches, and Williams are gone.
Hope is not lost: five players who were at least minor role-players last year return, including pass rush specialist Dylan Bradley. Tackles like Wil Freeman and Draper Riley had decent pedigrees when they showed up in Hattiesburg. If one of two JUCO linemen (either Ricky Parks or Derrick Dixon) shows up ready, and if former star recruit Jon Michael Edwards can live up to his three-star billing, maybe the line will be fine. Treading water is the goal.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brian Anderson||MLB||5'10, 248||Sr.||NR||NR||8||51.5||7.7%||3.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Elijah Parker||LB||6'2, 208||Jr.||NR||NR||10||30.5||4.6%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Terrick Wright||WLB||6'2, 228||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7000||12||17.0||2.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|David Bertucci||SPUR||5'11, 198||Sr.||NR||NR||9||6.5||1.0%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|C.J. Perry||MLB||6'0, 233||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||12||6.5||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Darian Yancey||LB||6'1, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8106|
|Paxton Schrimsher||LB||6'3, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8215|
7. Creating pressure
Even with the trio of star linemen, the pass rush really did lack. McCullum, Nunez-Roches, and Bradley combined for a decent 10.5 sacks; the rest of the team had 3.5, and the linebackers had none. None!
Injuries and shuffling were issues -- of the five linebackers to average at least one tackle, three missed time. And healthy or not, there was almost no disruptive play. If the line didn't make a play, the secondary was going to have to.
Middle linbacker Brian Anderson missed one-third of the season and still nearly led the team in tackles, which suggests he is a steady tackler if nothing else, but this unit will need to produce more ... which is to say is needs to produce something at all.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kalan Reed||CB||5'11, 191||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7600||12||32.0||4.8%||1||0||2||9||0||0|
|Picasso Nelson Jr.||CB||5'10, 187||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||12||28.5||4.3%||0||0||2||7||0||0|
|Jomez Applewhite||CB||6'1, 177||So.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||12||26.5||4.0%||2.5||0||2||1||1||0|
|Cornell Armstrong||DB||5'11, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8159||12||26.0||3.9%||3||0||0||4||0||0|
|Trae Collins||CB||5'11, 183||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7600||10||12.0||1.8%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Troy Jeter||BS||5'11, 180||Jr.||NR||NR||10||4.5||0.7%||0||0||0||1||1||0|
|Kevin Williams Jr.||FS||5'11, 194||So.||NR||NR||6||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kelsey Douglas||DB||5'11, 192||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7959||5||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Evan Osborne||DB||6'3, 198||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7752|
|Xavier Marion||DB||6'0, 195||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7693|
|Walden Davis||DB||5'10, 192||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8500|
|DeShadrick Truly||DB||6'0, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8100|
|Devonta Foster||DB||6'0, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8000|
|D'Nerius Antoine||DB||6'0, 231||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR|
8. Now the strongest defensive unit
If the front seven holds, I'm not worried about the secondary. Aggressive safeties Jacorius Cotton and Emmanuel Johnson are gone, but senior corner Kalan Reed returns, as does a foursome of exciting sophomores.
Picasso Nelson Jr., Jomez Applewhite, and Cornell Armstrong combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and 16 passes defensed, and Trae Collins saw decent playing time as well. Plus, redshirt freshman Walden Davis (a 247 three-star) and a trio of JUCO transfers could fill in an exciting two-deep. There could still be some youth-related issues, but with minimal help from the front seven, this unit should be decent. And it should be downright awesome in 2016-17.
|Tyler Sarrazin||6'3, 204||Jr.||66||39.5||4||19||17||54.5%|
|Matthew Moseley||5'10, 163||Sr.||1||36.0||0||1||0||100.0%|
|Michael Thomas||KR||6'1, 186||Sr.||26||24.0||1|
|Ito Smith||KR||5'9, 182||So.||10||22.3||0|
|Casey Martin||PR||5'10, 175||Sr.||15||8.9||0|
|Jalen Richard||PR||5'8, 207||Sr.||2||9.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||108|
|Field Goal Efficiency||34|
|Punt Return Efficiency||42|
|Kick Return Efficiency||46|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||2|
9. Cover the kicks
Michael Thomas and Casey Martin combined to give USM a nice return unit, and Corey Acosta was perfectly fine as a place-kicker. Southern Miss blocked three kicks, and opponents strangely missed field goals at a high rate. In all, special teams tended to result in a net win for the Golden Eagles ... at least, until the Southern Miss coverage unit got involved.
One-third of Acosta's kickoffs were touchbacks, but USM still ranked 127th in Brian Fremeau's kickoff efficiency ratings; meanwhile, half of Tyler Sarrazin's punts were either fair caught or pinned inside the 20, and Southern Miss still ranked 99th in punt efficiency. If you got a return opportunity against the Golden Eagles, you were making the most of it.
And now Acosta's gone, and opponents might not be as charitable on three-point attempts.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|19-Sep||at Texas State||95|
|28-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||35|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-17.9% (96)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||98 / 84|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-10 / -12.7|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+1.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (10, 5)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||2.7 (0.3)|
10. The slow climb continues
The offense seems to have potential, and if experience leads to efficiency, there is enough big-play potential to think the yardage and point totals could improve by quite a bit. That alone makes Southern Miss a nice bet to improve -- the offense should gain more ground than the defense loses.
Southern Miss was 110th in the F/+ ratings last year, and if the Golden Eagles can work their way into the No. 95-100 range this year, that could mean great things. Five of six home opponents ranked 90th or worse in 2014, and Southern Miss draws FBS newcomer Charlotte on the road. With seven or eight decent opportunities for wins, it wouldn't take many breaks for the Golden Eagles to improve to 4-8 or 5-7, maybe 6-6 with a good amount of luck.
There's no quick way back when you fall this far, but I don't think Southern Miss' improvement was a mirage. The Golden Eagles should take another net step forward and are still young enough that they should return 13-14 starters again next year. A year ago, there was nowhere to look for hope. This year, there's a path. That's good enough for now.