This preview originally published on March 10 and has since been updated.
On a soupy Friday night in Montgomery's Cramton Bowl, Alabama opened its 1954 season exactly as it had opened 1953: with a loss to Mississippi Southern. Alabama's Bobby Luna dropped a punt snap, setting the Southerners up inside the Tide 30. Four plays later, Brooks Tisdale ran 18 yards around left end for the game's only touchdown.
Bama’s Doug Potts blocked a punt late, but the Tide couldn’t fall on it. It bounced through the end zone for a mere safety in a 7-2 loss.
This game wasn't without its local significance. For starters, it was the last game Alabama would play in Montgomery. Auburn had beaten Stetson there the year before but would also never go back. The two losses to Southern Miss were among only three the Tide would suffer in 20 contests at Cramton.
The loss was also a sign that Red Drew wasn't going to turn things around in Tuscaloosa. Drew succeeded legendary Frank Thomas in 1947 and led the Tide to a top-10 finish and Orange Bowl win in 1952. But they would finish 4-5-2 in what would be his last season that fall.
Mississippi Southern owned college football's local headlines for a weekend. Meanwhile, about six blocks away from Cramton, Martin Luther King, Jr., was preparing for his third Sunday as pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The city’s life as a football hub was ending; its life as the first capital of the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning.
Reality and sport intersect in odd ways. But your reputation at one point in sports history sometimes remains, even as reality changes around you.
Mississippi Southern would later move the words in its name around, move to Division I, integrate, change its nickname a couple of times, and become one of the nation’s steadiest mid-major powers. But even then, the school was showing giant-killer potential.
The reputation strengthened through the decades as Southern Miss’ victims list grew. Archie Manning and No. 4 Ole Miss in 1970. No. 6 Florida State in 1989. No. 13 Alabama in 1990. Mississippi State many, many times. Et cetera.
Southern Miss at its best is a terrifying mix of speed and salt and chips on shoulders. It is a team that won’t win all its games — even in 1954, the team that beat Bama lost to North Texas, Dayton, and Southeastern Louisiana — but can win against any opponent.
As such a foe, the Golden Eagles are graded on curves. We judge them against Conference USA peers, obviously. And they are given an S&P+ rating just like everybody else. But we also grade them on the SASM scale: Salty-Ass Southern Miss.
The salt had been missing for a little while. Between the 1997 Liberty Bowl win over Pitt and the end of 2015, USM still collected power conference pelts — Alabama in 2000, Oklahoma State a couple of times, Nebraska, NC State, etc. — but none were particularly good. Only one (8-5 Virginia in 2011) finished with a winning record.
Southern Miss began to turn into a typical mid-major, beating lesser teams, losing to better ones, and providing minimal chaos. And following the 2011 C-USA championship season, the Golden Eagles collapsed, going 4-32 between 2012-14. Todd Monken led a nine-win turnaround and a C-USA title game appearance in 2015, but he left for an NFL assistant job.
It's up to Jay Hopson, then, to bring the salt back. And if 2016 is any indication, this could be pretty fun. The former Ole Miss defensive back, Southern Miss defensive coordinator, and Alcorn State head coach knows the territory, and in his first year, the Golden Eagles beat an SEC bowl team (Kentucky) and lost to Charlotte and North Texas.
Yeah. That's more like it.
2016 in review
Hopson inherited a team that actually had expectations again. The nine-win 2015 had enlivened the fan base, and heading into 2016 I saw a schedule that featured only one sure loss.
USM is projected 72nd in S&P+ and plays only one team projected higher. The trip to LSU is a likely loss, games against Kentucky, Marshall and perhaps Louisiana Tech are tossups (with a coin slightly weighted in USM's favor), and the other eight are likely wins. But those are based on Monken's work. A coaching change always threatens progress.
A brief step backward is on the table if the offense isn't quite as good on third-and-long and the defense isn't as good at forcing third-and-long.
The Golden Eagles went 3-0 in those three “tossup” games (though Marshall’s collapse made that anything but a tossup) and lost to LSU. If you had told me that 12 months ago, I’d have assumed they finished about 10-2. Instead, they fell to 7-6 with losses to Troy, UTSA, Charlotte, ODU, and North Texas.
Almost every game on the schedule seemed to come down to “Does Southern Miss have it today?” The wins were mostly definitive; the losses were, too.
- Southern Miss in seven wins — Avg. win expectancy: 88% | Avg. percentile performance: 64% (~top 45) | Avg. yards per play: USM 6.6, Opp 4.5 (+2.1)
- Southern Miss in six losses — Avg. win expectancy: 13% | Avg. percentile performance: 17% (~top 105) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.1, USM 5.4 (-1.7)
Aside from the strange, come-from-behind win over Kentucky in the season opener (UK went up 35-10, then the Eagles went on a 34-0 run), USM left almost no suspense in their other six victories; only the New Orleans Bowl win over UL-Lafayette came by single digits, and Southern Miss outgained the Cajuns by 229 yards. It was a fluke that the game was that close.
So how does a team produce such up-and-down results? Injuries didn’t help. Quarterback Nick Mullens missed a couple of games due to a, uh, creatively gross injury (the Eagles lost both games in his absence), the offensive line had to deal with shuffling at a couple of positions, and the depth chart shifted around at least a little bit on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Really, though, the volatility was baked in, at least a bit. Southern Miss’ defense was incredibly aggressive, willing to sacrifice big plays for big stops, and either things worked wonderfully or didn’t work at all. The defense was less volatile but still produced plenty of big plays at some points and none at others.
Hopson recruited his tail off in 2017; per 247, he signed a better class than either Frank Wilson at UTSA or Butch Davis at FIU, and he has 16 new three-star toys. He returns a pretty continuous two-deep, too, which could mean better consistency. That, or a change at quarterback will make things every bit as up-and-down.
The offense wasn’t awful in Mullens’ absence — Southern Miss averaged 29 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in the losses to ODU and North Texas — but it was definitely worse. And while the yardage wasn’t horrendous, the Eagles lost a frightening nine turnovers in Norfolk and Denton.
Shannon Dawson’s second year as coordinator, then, will be defined quite a bit by whoever ends up behind center. Mullens set all sorts of career records in Hattiesburg, and he was drastically superior to his backups last fall.
- Mullens in 2016: 63% completion rate, 3% INT rate, 5% sack rate
- Keon Howard/Parker Adamson: 46% completion rate, 4% INT rate, 10% sack rate
Efficiency isn’t possible when you’re throwing incompletions and taking sacks. Obviously.
Of course, Howard was a freshman, and he was thrust into action unexpectedly. Plenty of eventually strong quarterbacks have faltered in those situations. He was a mid-three-star recruit out of Laurel, Miss., and he has plenty of time to figure things out. If he wants to start in 2017, though, he will have to outlast Kwadra Griggs, a well-regarded JUCO transfer who missed 2016 because of academics.
Whoever wins the job will have the luxury of options. Howard is a tremendous runner (seven fumbles aside), and Southern Miss boasts a solid duo of senior backs. Ito Smith showed nice explosiveness in 2016, while the larger George Payne was a hair more efficient.
The backs will be running behind a line that does have to deal with makeover. Devin Farrior and Ty Pollard have combined for 40 career starts, but that’s it — the other five in the starting rotation last year are gone. JUCOs Jimmie Terry and Justus Satterfield [update: Satterfield is off the team] will need to make an immediate impact, though there are some upperclassmen (seniors Jerry Harris and Tyler Stutzman, junior Hayden McMahan) in the mix.
More importantly, Howard or Griggs will have Allenzae Staggers. The Last Chance U alum was maybe the most underrated receiver in the country last year. He was not only prolific (1,157 yards, seven touchdowns) but also efficient as hell. Let’s put it this way: Here’s the list of FBS receivers who had at least 85 targets, 18 yards per catch, and a 55 percent success rate in 2016:
- Louisiana Tech’s Carlos Henderson (132 targets, 82 catches, 18.7 yards per catch, 58% success rate)
- Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook (104 targets, 80 catches, 19.1 yards per catch, 64% success rate)
- Toledo’s Cody Thompson (97 targets, 64 catches, 19.8 yards per catch, 58% success rate)
- Staggers (85 targets, 62 catches, 18.7 yards per catch, 55% success rate)
If Staggers isn’t the most underrated receiver in the country, Thompson is. Regardless, Staggers is great, and almost every complementary weapon also returns. Only No. 2 target D.J. Thompson does not. Smith caught 43 balls out of the backfield, and five returning receivers had at least 286 yards last year.
Add JUCO transfer Trevor Terry and a couple of mid-three-star freshmen (Jaylond Adams, Tim Jones) to the mix, and you’ve got a hell of a receiving corps.
Now we just have to find out if Southern Miss has a quarterback. And an offensive line, I guess. Minor issues, those.
Hopson and coordinator Tony Pecoraro love havoc. They produced a 23.2 percent havoc rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed divided by total plays) at Alcorn State in 2015, an average that would have ranked first in FBS. They inherited a Southern Miss unit that ranked 28th at 18.2 percent and raised those numbers to seventh and 20.9 percent, respectively.
Seven Golden Eagles had at least five tackles for loss, seven had at least two sacks, and eight defensed at least three passes. That’s some chaos right there.
Of course, there was a down side. While Southern Miss allowed just 144 gains of 10-plus yards (ninth in FBS), they allowed 21 of 40-plus (112th). They were not interested in giving up medium-sized gains — it was all or nothing. That gets you graded pretty highly on the SASM scale.
A reasonable number of these chaos guys are back, and they’ll have company in the form of newcomers.
- Defensive end Xavier Thigpen and DE/OLB Darian Yancey combined for 17.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles, and while senior Derrick Dixon played in only five games and made just 5.5 tackles, 2.5 were behind the line. Three-star redshirt freshman Jacques Turner could break into the rotation.
- Tackles LaDarius Harris and Draper Riley combined for 8.5 TFLs, and sophomore backup Demarrio Smith had 1.5 in minimal opportunities. They are joined by three-star, 308-pound JUCO Delmond Landry.
- Two of the top three linebackers are gone, but the returnee, Sherrod Ruff, is a keeper. He recorded 11 TFLs, three sacks, and three forced fumbles from the strong side. Reserves Jeremy Sangster and Paxton Schrimsher were active in limited chances, and mid-three-star redshirt freshmen JaCorey Morris and Racheem Boothe could make a quick impact.
- Every cornerback returns, including a trio of seniors. Cornell Armstrong, Curtis Mikell, and Trae Collins combined for four INTs, 14 breakups, and 6.5 TFLs.
- Safety suffers some turnover — three of last year’s top four are gone. Considering the high-risk nature of this defense, you want as much steadiness as possible at the back, and it’s unclear that Southern Miss will have it. But seniors Picasso Nelson Jr. and Tarvarius Moore are keepers, and Hopson attempted to address this need in recruiting, bringing in a pair of JUCOs (Xavier Marion, Tyler Jack [update: Jack is no longer listed on the roster]) and a couple of mid-three-star freshmen (Emanuel Dabney [update: Dabney is headed to a JUCO instead], WyDale Flott).
Attacking experience and a green set of safeties? Is it possible to be even more all-or-nothing than Southern Miss was? The Golden Eagles ranked ninth in success rate and 127th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays), so the bar is both high and low.
Special teams was a weapon. Hopson tried three different guys on kickoffs and never found a particularly good one, but Parker Shaunfield is an excellent place-kicker (6-for-7 on field goals longer than 40 yards), and Staggers is a terrifying, if inconsistent, punt returner. On kick returns, Tez Parks and Isaiah Jones are consistent, if not explosive. Southern Miss’ special teams unit was top-30-caliber and might be again.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|21-Oct||at Louisiana Tech||82||-2.8||44%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||84|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||80 / 87|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-3.5 (78)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||82 / 83|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-17 / -11.3|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-2.2|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||61% (61%, 60%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||6.9 (0.1)|
Let’s see ... experienced, explosive running backs and receivers ... high-havoc defensive front seven ... inexperience at quarterback, safety, and maybe offensive line ... that’s a recipe for volatility if I’ve ever heard of one.
This could be an extremely Southern Miss Southern Miss. The Eagles get shots at SEC wins against Kentucky (Sept. 2 in Hattiesburg) and Tennessee (Nov. 4 in Knoxville), and S&P+ projects three relative tossups on the road (Oct. 7 at UTSA, Oct. 21 at Louisiana Tech, Nov. 25 at Marshall). The SASM scale says they beat Tennessee and lose to Marshall. We’ll see.
Leaving volatility out of the equation, this could be a solid team. The question marks are obvious — quarterback turnover alone is why Southern Miss is projected to fall from 78th to 84th in S&P+ — but the athleticism is, too.
But you can’t really leave the volatility out of the discussion, not after what we saw last year and not with what we see as red flags this year.
This could be a wild season in Hattiesburg. All is right in the universe.