When: Saturday, October 15, 6:30pm CDT
Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, LA
Records: Southern Miss 4-2 (2-1), LSU 3-2 (2-1)
Spread: LSU -25.5
TV Broadcast: SEC Network
Stream: Watch ESPN
Radio: WDGL-FM, 98.1; WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3; KLWB-FM, 103.7
Series: Series tied at 1
Last meeting: Southern Miss 20, LSU 18 (Nov. 12, 1994 in Tiger Stadium)
“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.”
Those were the words of Southern Mississippi football coach Jay Hopson early last week. Five days later, his Golden Eagles were upset by UTSA, 55-32, so it appears there is plenty of work to be done.
As we noted before that game, USM had been slow coming out of the gate all season and we viewed UTSA as a team that was opportunistic enough to capitalize.
Now, Hopson not only faces the problem of fixing the Golden Eagles’ slow starts, but he has a few added worries to deal with as well. Among those are:
1. His next opponent is Louisiana State
Many ranking outlets had LSU in the top-3 of their preseason lists while some said the Tigers were the best team in the land. I didn’t buy all of that because Les Miles had never solved LSU’s passing issues last year and that he might not last the season if things didn’t change. The passing attack didn’t change, but his role as head coach did.
Despite that, LSU is a team loaded with SEC-caliber talent and a tradition of winning.
Now under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Tigers are 3-2 and believe that with Coach O’s leadership, they can make it to top-10 even if the playoffs might be a bit of a stretch.
2. Uncertainty of a new coach
When there are coaching changes mid-season, it is natural for opposing programs to wonder what to expect. It doesn’t seem that Orgeron will immediately alter LSU’s schemes, other than receiver rotations and patterns, but the uncertainty of it all means USM, must be ready for the unexpected more than usual.
3. Nick Mullens’ thumb
Reports are clear that Mullens is ready to start at quarterback for Southern Miss on Saturday, but how much will this painful thumb injury affect his ability to throw? Mullens must be able to pass effectively because the Golden Eagles are not likely to get far on the ground.
The Saturday game between these two successful teams should be one of excitement and excellent play because between them, there are 16 categories that rank in the nation’s top-25.
Louisiana State outlook
The Tigers are always strong on defense and this year is no exception. LSU yields just 326 yards of total offense per game and only 14.8 points.
In just five games, the Tigers have four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and 16 sacks with seven of those by sophomore defensive end Arden Key.
While passing against LSU is risky because of its number of interceptions, running the football is just down-right frightening. The Tigers allow only 108 ypg rushing and already have 45 tackles from 247-pound senior linebacker Kendell Beckwith.
Yet, the Tiger defense is not all perfect. LSU is ranked just a little better than average in defending the pass and that might just be a window-ajar for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles if Mullens’ thumb holds up.
By changing passing routes, coach Orgeron hopes to help quarterback Danny Etling shorten the yardage needed to convert third downs. Southern Mississippi has been excellent in stopping teams on third down so the timing couldn’t be better for the Tigers. Etling has had difficulty completing long passes and that is not likely to change before Saturday.
What is a not-so-nice change is that Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette is not expected to play.
Despite Fournette’s absence, the Death Valley folk seem untroubled. Perhaps that is because they have offensive linemen who average more than 320 pounds and a stable of thoroughbred running backs who are as plug-and-play as any team in the land.
If a 42-7 win over Missouri in Orgeron’s first LSU lead is evidence, then perhaps they are right. And with five-star recruit Derrius Guice getting loose for 163 yards on just 17 carries last week, maybe it’s time to agree.
However, there is a problem that has arisen that does trouble the Tiger faithful. Two starting offensive linemen are out with injuries. At first, that might not seem a destitute matter because LSU has a few grass-knuckled mammoths on the bench, but we’re talking the loss of over 13 feet and 1200 pounds of humanity.
Last year, LSU gave up over 1,100 yards in kick-off returns. That was the worst statistic of any Power Five team and a concern entering the 2016 season.
Now that we’re five games into a new season, that problem has more than reversed. The Tigers are now ranked seventh in the nation and at their current rate will allow fewer than 200 kick-off yards all year.
In his weekly press conference, Coach O observed that Southern Mississippi is minus-8 in turnovers. “We’re plus-1 in our new season,” which started when he took over one game ago.
When asked if the disappointment of last week's game cancellation made players eager to get back at it, Orgeron explained, “No question! And, you know, the momentum, I think, is going to come from a rested football team; from a hungry football team. Everybody was a little ornery wanting to play.”
Hope, optimism, and energy were words that came easily to mind when I watched Coach O as the interim coach at USC. Those traits were still on display in Monday’s press conference when the coach said, “I love being around you all (reporters). I love being around people. I love being around young men. I love recruiting and how could you not have a great day when you’re the coach of the LSU Tigers?”
Note: Mikey passed away
Yes, LSU’s mascot is no longer with us. Mikey VI died at the age of eleven and was buried after a memorial service that had some crying and others already out recruiting Mikey VII.
Southern Mississippi outlook
Despite an injured thumb, Nick Mullens is expected to start and that is good news for the Gold-and-Black. Mullens has settled down a lot after an alarming start against Kentucky in the season opener. How much last week's injury will hamper his ability to throw the ball is yet to be known, but what is certain is that USM will need to pass the football if it expects to compete.
Ito Smith may be one of the top-10 running backs in the FBS, but he is facing a defensive front that simply will not budge. Southern Miss has an experienced and capable interior line but LSU opponents have only managed to score two total touchdowns on the ground.
Plan on seeing a lot of Mullens-to-D.J. Thomspon and Mullens-to-Allenzae Staggers with more than a customary amount Smith and George Payne out of the backfield because it only takes one peep into the neighbor's backyard to notice that LSU's pass defense is only fair-to-middlin'.
Southern Miss has given up 73 points in the first quarters of its games while yielding only 89 in all of the other quarters combined. That shines the light on USM’s problem of not being ready at the opening kickoff, especially on defense.
Defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro knows how to prepare players for battle and he did it well at Alcorn State. But with a defensive scheme filled with pressure and players not ready to go in the first quarter, mistakes turn into big gains for opponents.
Last Saturday is a good example. UTSA (a one-win team at the time) got behind a tight secondary to score a 73-yard passing touchdown followed by an 81-yard run that led immediately to another score to put Southern Mississippi down 21-0. All of that before the game was five minutes old.
By the final gun, the Golden Eagles had given up 339 yards on the ground and over nine yards per carry.
You can bet that LSU running backs are savoring the expected banquet.
That’s not to say that USM doesn’t have a good defense because once they get going, the Golden Eagles can be pretty stingy. For example: Southern Miss has only allowed opponents to convert third downs 19.4% of the time and that is good enough for a top-5 national ranking. With LSU’s third down issues on offense, USM might just find a path to victory.
The Golden Eagles have already posted an impressive 19 sacks led by Dylan Bradley with five. Bradley and D’Nerius Antoine each have over 35 tackles while no other player has reached 25 and those statistics suggest that USM has some playmakers but perhaps not enough of them.
The problems continue for Southern Mississippi. In only six games, the Golden Eagles have lost seven fumbles, eight interceptions, and now rank 122nd in the FBS.
When asked about special teams in the preseason, coach Hopson pretty much responded with a shrug of the shoulders. The unit was disappointing in 2015 and not much was expected in 2016.
One bright spot is that Parker Shaunfield has caught fire as a placekicker and is now ranked number one in the nation for field goal percentage (100%) with 10-for-10 accuracy, a personal best of 49 yards, and four others over 40 yards. He is also 29-for-29 on extra points.
Coach Hopson expressed his respect for coach Orgeron and he believes that coach O’s personality and approach are certain to “spice things up” in Baton Rouge.
When asked if he planned any special coaching to help players deal with the raucous crowds of Tiger Stadium, Hopson said, “The bottom line is that it’s still a 100-yard field. What counts is what goes on between the lines and not what goes on outside the lines.”
Note: Cameron Tom
All conference center Cameron Tom is heading home on Saturday. The Louisiana native grew up in the shadows of Tiger Stadium and wanted to play for LSU.
He is finally going to live his dream of playing in the stadium that he loved in his youth. Even though he won’t be wearing the colors he expected, he said, “It should be pretty cool coming from the other side.”
And, that black-and-gold uniform will be a matter of some good-natured family contention since his father is still a mathematics instructor at LSU.
LSU players are fired up and excited by Coach O. He brings a breath of fresh air to a program that had grown stale and that is likely to make the Tigers even more dangerous than before.
I think too many LSU supporters are taking USM lightly, but until the Golden Eagles take care of the ball and show up more prepared to play, there is little reason to think USM will overcome disadvantages in depth, defensive size, and overall athleticism.
It seems to me that AC Index (aciventura.com) is a little conservative on the final spread, but I'm going to go with it anyway:
LSU 40, Southern Mississippi 24