Before we can look to the future let’s take a quick look back. Way back. The year is 1982 and the Southern Miss Football team is fresh off a victory over the Bear Bryant led Alabama Crimson Tide. Famous sports journalist Mickey Spagnola would go on to describe Southern Miss in the best way I have ever heard a school described. He wrote, “Don’t fight Southern Mississippi. No matter how hard you fight, those folks will fight harder. They are that way, as if this Hattiesburg, this school of 11,800, is some sort of transplanted inner-city core in the state of Mississippi. Blue collar types, you know. Hard hats, tattoos. Cigarettes in the shirt-sleeve. Beer. These people know sweat. They know work. They know nothing ever came easy, nor will it ever come easy.” It is that exact attitude that the Southern Miss football team looks to bring back heading into 2017.
The 2016 season had its share of ups and downs. While the season started off with a bang with a win on the road at Kentucky, the second half of the schedule seemed to be daunting for the Golden Eagles. After starting the season 4-1, the team would go on to finish the regular season going just 2-5. The last game of the regular season was a must-win for the Eagles if they wanted to play in a bowl game. They were able to beat Louisiana Tech at home and was chosen to play in the New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana-Lafayette. In front of a crowd of 35,061 at the Mercedes Benz Super Dome the Golden Eagles would defeat the Ragin Cajuns 28-21, building momentum for the next season.
Let’s take a look at the team, starting with head coach Jay Hopson. The 2017 season will be Jay Hopson’s second year in Hattiesburg as the Head Coach. He coached at Southern Miss previously as the DB coach from 2001-2003, the DC/DB coach in 2005, and the DC/MLB coach from 2006-2007. Before Southern Miss, Hopson was the head coach at Alcorn State. One of the most interesting things about Coach Hopson is looking at his record his first year at Alcorn State as the head coach in 2012. That year he led the team to a 4-7 record. But it was in his next year that he was able to go 9-3. In fact, over the next couple seasons with him in charge, they never lost more than 9 games in a season. Well this is year number 2 in Hattiesburg for Hopson, and with winning 7 games last year the pressure is on to win even more in 2017.
The biggest question on the offensive side of the ball is who will be starting under center. Nick Mullens left after being the 4-year starter at quarterback and is now trying to make his way onto an NFL roster. There is a quarterback battle going on now in camp between Keon Howard and Kwadra Griggs. Howard was supposed to redshirt last year but had to play once Mullens got injured. Griggs did not play at all last year after sitting the season out due to academic issues. The man that wins the job will be the one who commits the least amount of errors. With the skill players that Southern Miss has returning, the quarterback doesn’t have to do too much. Southern Miss features a stable of running backs led by CUSA All-Conference selection Ito Smith. Smith has found his way onto many preseason watch-lists and is legitimately one of the best running backs in all of college football. Behind Smith is George Payne and T-Rod Daniels. Payne is a physical back who will run through a wall. Daniels is a new edition to the team this year and is believed to be one of the fastest men in the state. He has shown flashes of this elite speed in a few intrasquad scrimmages, but I can’t wait to see him show it off during a game this year. Southern Miss is also deep at the receiver position. Allenzae Staggers, who was on the first season of Last Chance U, returns as the top target. Behind him are 6-7 receivers who all have experience in this offense. Devin Farrior will step into play center after Cameron Tom graduated last year. He will be one of the only offensive lineman with experience. Southern Miss will rely on new players Paul Gainer, Bryce Foxworth, Woodylson Alcius, and Travion Clayton to fill some of the holes in the line. If the line can give the quarterback, whoever it may be, decent protection, then this offense has a chance to put a lot of points on the scoreboard.
The strength of the Nasty Bunch (the Southern Miss defense) is definitely in the secondary. Cornell Armstrong, Curtis Mikell, and Picaso Nelson Jr. are all veteran players who have spent a lot of time on the field in their career. They are fast and can take an interception back for a touchdown in a hurry if an opposing quarterback makes a mistake. The big question with the Southern Miss defense will be the line and the linebackers. Xavier Thigpen and Draper Riley both return with experience and will be counted on heavily. Thigpen will be counted on as the primary pass rusher this season. One thing Coach Hopson has talked about recently is how his defensive line this upcoming year will weigh more as a unit than last year’s squad. Hopson has also talked about how much faster his team will be this year on both sides of the ball. If the line can keep the quarterback under pressure, then this defense has a chance to be real nasty.
Players to keep an eye on:
Offense: RB Ito Smith – The only active FBS player with over 3,000 rushing yards and over 1,000 receiving yards.
Offense: Allenzae Staggers – In 2016 he had 63 receptions for 1165 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Offense: T-Rod Daniels – First year on the team. Will see some time at running back behind Smith and has elite level speed.
Offense: Jaylond Adams – First year on the team. Was the Gatorade Alabama High School Player of the year in 2016. I expect big things out of him at the receiver position.
Defense: The entire secondary – Look for a lot of interceptions this year.
Defense: Xavier Thigpen -He may not be the biggest pass rusher but he plays with all heart and always finds a way to get the job done.
Defense: Wydale Flott – Has a chance to see significant playing time as a freshmen in the secondary that is led by all senior players.
Saturday September 2, 2017 – Kentucky @ Southern Miss 3 p.m. This game should let everyone know just how good Southern Miss is right out of the gate. Although Southern Miss won the match up last year, there is no telling which way this game goes.
Saturday September 9, 2017 – Southern University @ Southern Miss 6 p.m. Coach Jay Hopson should know Southern University well as he spent a few years as a head coach in the SWAC. I hope he is able to let the team know that this is not a game to overlook and count as a win before the game is even played.
Saturday September 16, 2017 – Southern Miss @ Louisiana-Monroe 6 p.m. This game could give Southern Miss the chance be to be 3-0 heading into their bye week before conference play starts. It is never easy to win on the road but I think Southern Miss can pull this one out.
Saturday September 23, 2017 – Bye Week
Saturday September 30, 2017 – North Texas @ Southern Miss 6 p.m. North Texas is a team in the West division that is definitely on the come up. They have struggled in recent years but with a new coach have started building the program back. This game is no easy win and will be a dogfight in Hattiesburg.
Saturday October 7, 2017 – Southern Miss @ UTSA 6 p.m. UTSA is picked by many to finish 2nd in CUSA West. If Southern Miss wants to win the west and play in the conference title game they have to march into San Antonio and escape with a win. That is easier said than done.
Saturday October 14, 2017 – UTEP @ Southern Miss 6 p.m. Games against UTEP in the past have always been tough and high scoring. I hope the Southern Miss defense is as good as advertised and can hold the Miners. Always a tough game when these two play.
Saturday October 21, 2017 – Southern Miss @ La Tech 6 p.m. The Rivalry In Dixie. Southern Miss has won the last two meetings even though they were the underdog in both. La Tech has not forgotten that. They want to win this game bad and show that the last two years were a fluke. This could be the game of the year in CUSA West and determine who wins the division.
Saturday October 28, 2017 – UAB @ Southern Miss 6 p.m. The only two of the original founding members of CUSA. UAB returns to football this season and they have always been a rival to Southern Miss. I am glad they are back and can’t wait to watch them come back to Hattiesburg this year like they have so many times in the past.
Saturday November 4, 2017 – Southern Miss @ Tennessee TBA This is the second SEC game on the schedule. Southern Miss has a history of being the giant killers. Southern Miss could prove to be very dangerous for Tennessee. At least by now Southern Miss should have a quarterback in place. Sneaking out of Knoxville with a win is not impossible.
Saturday November 11, 2017 – Southern Miss @ Rice 2:30 p.m. After winning CUSA just a few years ago, Rice has really fallen off. The last two meetings between these teams have been lopsided and looks like it might be that way for a third straight season.
Saturday November 18, 2017 – Charlotte @ Southern Miss 2 p.m. Charlotte has been getting better and better each year they have been in the conference. This will be a tough game against an eastern opponent but I feel a little better that the game will be played in Hattiesburg.
Saturday November 25, 2017 – Southern Miss @ Marshall 1:30 p.m. Marshall had the rare disappointing season last year. Look for that to change this year. If this game ends up determining who goes to a bowl or who plays in the conference championship game it could be one of the most entertaining games of the entire year.