Jay Hopson may have indeed been the first every white head coach at an HBCU, and he had some good success within the conference. But there’s a big jump from the SWAC to the top of FCS, let alone into the ranks of FBS, and it just might have been a little too much for Hopson.
It’s perhaps an example of the Peter principle; everyone who stays in the same career eventually gets promoted to a job that is beyond their skill set, because you can’t know that it’s too much for them until they get there and fail.
Sure, Hopson was a winning coach on paper, but his teams were all over the place and the results started to fade over time.
2016 – The team got out with a bang by defeating Kentucky on the road, though that was in no small part because of Nick Mullens and Ito Smith (recruits that weren’t his) and an offensive coordinator that had just come over from Kentucky. The team wound up finishing 7-6 (4-4) including a loss to Troy at home and getting dominated at home by a two-years-in-FBS Charlotte team.
2017 – The team once again opened with a close home loss to Kentucky and they managed to finish with eight wins. That was hollow in some ways, because they missed out on a shot at a conference title by blowing a two-touchdown home lead to North Texas and then getting dominated at home by the “just-back-from-the-dead” UAB. They then rounded it out by getting dominated by FSU in a bowl.
2018 – They once again played an SEC team well on the road, keeping it close against #10 Auburn. Unfortunately, they managed a truly uninspired and inexplicable home opener loss to ULM, one of three one-possession losses on the season. Those three also included blowing a two-touchdown lead at UAB, at whick point they needed back-to-back wins just to finish 6-5.
2019 – The team posted a a rather predictable 2-2 record in non-conference games, losing to two SEC teams, and raced out to a 7-3 (5-1) record before ending the season losing three in a row, including a come-from-ahead loss to Tulane in their bowl game.
Hopson ends his time at USM with an overall 24-23 record against FBS teams, but he only managed to go 8-19 against teams that finished 6-6 or better, including 1-6 last year.
His teams also tended to fade as the season went along. The Golden Eagles won at least four of their first six games three times in four seasons, but also won more than seven regular season games only once. Given Hopson’s penchant for long and grueling practices during the season, this can’t be surprising.
Last season Southern Miss had a couple of weeks with a top-65 S&P+ offense, and it was the first time that had happened since Mullens left (a Monken recruit). 2018 was the first season without Mullens or Ito Smith (another Monken recruit), and the offense was never top-100.
They improved last season, namely passing the ball with Jack Abraham, but still couldn’t run it. The offense was notoriously predictable, especially under Faulkner. Hopson was a defensive coach but was alleged to be a bit too hands-on and controlling with the offensive game plan, which again makes sense when you consider that the 2018 home opener was a game where half the press box was predicting the play calls.
True to his calling card, the defense did improve overall during Hopson’s tenure, but it cratered last season and then he lost the best players from their best unit (DBs). He was going to need improvement running the ball on offense and improvement in the pass defense despite losing starters in order to improve on 7-6, and that was before the transfers.
Hopson was always going to have to maximize limited resources to even sniff the air that Larry Fedora touched (that’s a separate discussion), and the fact that the best players he had in his four years were ones that Todd Monken had already coached up meant that he was probably just a good defensive coordinator and a good recruiter who was up to his neck as an FBS head coach.
That would make him reminiscent of Dave Wannstedt, but without the mustache, or the accent, or the catchphrases. He’s a great guy and we wish him luck, but Southern Miss was a challenging job that he found ways to make harder.