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Southern Miss will be athletic, exciting, and volatile in 2018. Who could ask for anything more?

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Jay Hopson’s Golden Eagles will careen all over the road but probably finish with the same win total as always.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Marshall Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

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 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.

It’s up to Jay Hopson, then, to bring the salt back.

Southern Miss is the poster child for both inspiring “doing more with less” tales and all the problems that come with so many programs having to do more with less. The Golden Eagles have punched above their weight for much of the last 60-plus years.

Finances are not good. When a USM assistant proves himself, you can all but guarantee that schools will swoop in. (The latest example: FAU stole Hopson’s defensive coordinator on the precipice of spring ball.) But onward the Golden Eagles go, figuring out ways to scrape forward and win between seven and nine wins each year.

The one recent time USM strayed, things got weird. The Eagles finally broke through and won 12 games and a Conference USA title in 2011, then lost both head coach Larry Fedora and 32 of the next 36 games. But Todd Monken got the ship steadied in 2015 with a nine-win season, and Hopson has captained 15 wins in two years. The recipe is volatile, the result is again steady.

Things were especially volatile in 2017, even as the results were as steady as ever.

Using postgame win expectancy — a tool designed to say “based on the key stats you produced in this game, you could have expected to win X percent of the time” — Southern Miss had barely any in-between. The Golden Eagles had a postgame win expectancy of 90 percent or higher in seven games (including an unlucky season-opening loss to Kentucky) and an eighth game at 78 percent. They were also at 25 percent or lower five times (including a lucky win over Marshall).

Either they had all the answers, or they had almost none. They took down UTSA when the Roadrunners were looking like the best team in the conference, handled Louisiana Tech on the road with a backup QB*, and needed bad breaks to miss out on a second win over Kentucky in as many years. They also lost to North Texas and UAB by a combined 33 and blew a ton of opportunities in falling to the worst Tennessee team in ages.

Based on what returns and what doesn’t, this year could be equally volatile. Southern Miss returns starting quarterback Kwadra Griggs, three-fifths of his offensive line, and basically every linebacker. The Eagles must also replace leading rusher (and No. 3 receiver) Ito Smith and each of Griggs’ top four targets, plus four of their top six linemen and six of seven in the secondary.

Hopson loaded up on JUCO transfers — three defensive linemen, two defensive backs, two receivers, plus a linebacker, an offensive lineman, and a quarterback — which isn’t uncommon in Hattiesburg. But that makes an unstable mix even more so, and it makes Southern Miss harder than normal to predict.

Oh, who am I kidding? The Eagles are going to win at least seven games, pull a nice upset, and suffer a couple of incomprehensible losses. The mix is always crazy, and the win total usually stays about the same.

* If we’re talking about instability, then we need to spend a moment on the Louisiana Tech game. Backup Keon Howard threw a pick six at the end of the first half, and Tech held a 27-16 lead with less than 90 seconds remaining. But a field goal, an onside kick, a 22-yard touchdown pass, and a two-point conversion sent the game to OT. Tech threw an INT, then Howard did the same. On Howard’s next pass, however, he threw a 25-yard touchdown. USM somehow survived one of the best and worst games of the year.

Offense

2017 Southern Miss offensive radar

Both Griggs and backup Keon Howard contributed to Southern Miss’ ups and downs. Griggs outlasted Howard in fall camp and opened up with three straight good to great performances. He carried a 154.7 passer rating (which would have ranked 11th nationally over an entire season) into the North Texas game, then injured his hand, went 19-for-42 in a loss to the Mean Green, and missed the next three games.

Howard came in, did great things against UTSA (213.5 passer rating) and great-and-terrible things against UTEP and Louisiana Tech (four TDs, four picks). But the offense stagnated against UAB and Tennessee, and Hopson and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson brought a less-than-100-percent Griggs in in each game, hoping for a spark. Didn’t happen.

After the Tennessee disappointment, Griggs re-established himself, throwing seven touchdowns to no picks with a 62 percent completion rating in the final three games of the regular season, all wins.

In games in which Griggs was at least mostly healthy, USM was 5-2, with losses only to power conference Kentucky (unlucky) and Florida State (drastically outmanned). That might be a sign, but Griggs has to again win the job. He’ll face a challenge from both Howard and incoming three-star JUCO Jack Abraham.

One assumes Griggs is the favorite, but his supporting cast will change.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Southern Mississippi vs Florida State
Kwadra Griggs
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

For starters, the security blankets are gone.

  • Ito Smith rushed for at least 90 yards in six of Griggs’ eight starts, and he caught at least two passes in 12 of 13 games. He was a rock for each of the last three seasons and finished his career with 4,536 rushing yards, 1,446 receiving yards, and 49 total touchdowns.
  • Wideout Korey Robertson exploded in 2017. While Allenzae Staggers had a bit of a disappointing senior season (he went from 1,157 receiving yards in 2016 to 471), Robertson erupted for 76 catches, 1,106 yards, and 12 scores. Only 19 players were targeted at least 120 times in 2017 like Robertson, and only two of those combined a marginal efficiency of at least plus-13 percent and a marginal explosiveness of at least 0.30 points per play: Robertson and Texas Tech’s Keke Coutee.

With Robertson and Coutee gone, the receiving corps has turned over to sophomores. Quez Watkins, Jaylond Adams, and Tim Jones all flashed massive upside but produced all the inconsistency you’d expect from freshmen. They combined for just a 50 percent catch rate but 18.8 yards per catch.

Between this trio, JUCOs Neil McLaurin and DeMichael Harris, and perhaps a tight end like Jay’Shawn Washington, some efficiency options need to be found. The explosiveness is obvious.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Marshall
Quez Watkins
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s the matter of replacing Smith. A trio of seniors will give it a shot.

  • Tez Parks has been a role player for three years, rushing for 583 yards (5.1 per carry) and catching 17 passes. He proved dynamic in the return game in 2016, but it hasn’t translated on offense just yet.
  • George Payne returns after missing 2017 with a hip injury. He has 940 career yards, but only at 4.1 per carry.
  • T’Rod Daniels is intriguing. The JUCO transfer carried only 21 times last year but gained 160 yards in the process. The 5’9, 175-pounder brings massive speed and could become a perimeter threat if either Parks or Payne can handle a decent load between the tackles.

Whoever wins the job will run behind a decent line. USM gave 35 starts to a freshman (guard Arvin Fletcher) and two sophomores (tackle Drake Dorbeck, guard Ty Pollard) last year, and two of them (Fletcher and Dorbeck) ended up honorable mention all-conference.

Defense

2017 Southern Miss defensive radar

Pecoraro’s defense was mostly awesome. The Golden Eagles couldn’t contain UNT’s spread and got outmuscled by Florida State but otherwise allowed just 21.2 points per game and 4.8 yards per play. They were 32nd in Def. S&P+, their best ranking since 2011 (28th).

In 2011, USM boasted one of the most experienced, disruptive mid-major fronts; 2017 was no different. Four different linemen recorded at least 5.5 tackles for loss, and three more recorded at least two. But four of these seven are gone, including leading end Xavier Thigpen and the top two tackles, Rod Crayton and Draper Riley.

Ends LaDarius Harris and Jacques Turner do return after combining for 13 TFLs and five sacks, so that’s something. But tackle is going to be rebuilt around some combination of upperclassmen Delmond Landry and Demarrio Smith (15 tackles, three TFLs last year), redshirt freshman Andrew Cole, and JUCOs Isaiah Johnson and Von’Darius Freeman. Johnson was one of the stars of the recruiting class, and Freeman is enormous, but that’s still a tricky position for rebuilding.

The Golden Eagles will still have one of the conference’s best linebacking corps, at least. Racheem Boothe (nine TFLs, 3.5 sacks) was one of the best freshmen in the country, Paxton Schrimsher (11 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) was great in Pecoraro’s WOLF role, senior Jeremy Sangster is solid in his QB-of-the-defense role, and Sherrod Ruff had 11 TFLs in 2016 before missing 2017 with injury. That’s a lot to choose from.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Southern Mississippi vs Florida State
Racheem Boothe
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Can a couple of those linebackers play safety? Probably not (though, hey, Boothe was only listed at 210 pounds last year...), and that’s a problem. Of the seven DBs who logged more than 10 tackles last year, only sophomore corner Rachaun Mitchell returns. The next leading tackler at CB is sophomore WyDale Flott, who had all of three stops.

The return of nickel back Picasso Nelson Jr. from injury will help, but only so much. There’s a ton of production to replace here — the departed accounted for 19 TFLs, nine INTs, and 40 breakups — and the experience is minimal. If sophomores like Mitchell, Flott, Tyler Barnes, and Kris Reed and JUCOs Ty Williams and Ky’el Hemby aren’t ready to produce at a high level (and it’s almost unfair to expect them to), the drop-off could be immense.

And that’s without mentioning the whole “spring practice is about to start, and they suddenly don’t have a coordinator” thing.

Special Teams

Southern Miss’ special teams unit was just sort of there in 2017. Not great, not terrible. Place-kicker Parker Shaunfield has a booming, if rather scattershot, leg — he missed two PATs and three field goals under 40 yards but was 4-for-4 beyond 40. Zac Everett was fine as a freshman punter, and both Quez Watkins and T’Rod Daniels were more or less fine as return men. It’s hard to know what else to say about a pretty non-descript unit, so we’ll just move on.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Jackson State NR 39.8 99%
8-Sep UL-Monroe 107 5.6 63%
15-Sep at Appalachian State 63 -10.4 27%
22-Sep Rice 128 12.7 77%
29-Sep at Auburn 5 -31.0 4%
13-Oct at North Texas 86 -4.9 39%
20-Oct UTSA 104 4.8 61%
27-Oct at Charlotte 126 6.6 65%
3-Nov Marshall 62 -5.4 38%
10-Nov at UAB 91 -3.5 42%
17-Nov Louisiana Tech 70 -3.1 43%
24-Nov at UTEP 130 11.8 75%
Projected S&P+ Rk 94
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 98 / 86
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -4.5 (92)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 74 / 82
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -1.4
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 42% (46%, 37%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.3 (-0.3)

S&P+’s returning production measure places heavy weight on continuity in the receiving corps and defensive backfield, as those two spots tend to have a higher impact on year-to-year improvement and regression. That’s an obvious problem for Southern Miss, which returns plenty of experience in some units but gets detonated in those two.

As a result, the Golden Eagles are projected to slip all the way to 94th in S&P+, with an average of 6.3 projected wins.

The schedule presents some interesting possibilities, though. Because of road games against bad teams and home games against decent ones, USM has only two games with a win probability below 30 percent, three above 65, and a full seven projected within a touchdown one way or the other.

If the Golden Eagles are a little better than projected (and I have just enough faith in their sophomores, and Hopson, to guess they will be), then eight or nine wins could be on the table. A hair worse, and they’re looking at 4-8 or 5-7.

This sounds nerve-wracking, but welcome to Southern Miss football.

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