While everything seems to be in place for a great 2016 season, the expectations for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles in 2016 need to slow down a bit. While I am not saying that they will fall back to Ellis Johnson levels this fall, the expectations have to be a bit lower with a virtually new coaching staff than if Todd Monken were still in charge.
Southern Miss has quite a bit to replace on both sides of the football. Mike Thomas is now a Los Angeles Ram, Kalan Reed is now a Tennessee Titan, Casey Martin will end up in some training camp, and several other players are now long gone from last year's Conference USA West Division Championship team.
Thomas and Martin alone were responsible for 43.0% of all passing targets in 2015. That is one of the higher 1-2 combination numbers that must be replaced. The duo were responsible for 21 of quarterback Nick Mullens' 38 touchdown passes. And then you add Jalen Richard. The running back had 1,098 yards rushing with 14 touchdowns to go along with 31 catches and another two touchdowns. That is a total of 37 touchdowns that must be replaced from those three players.
In addition, defensive players like Reed, Michael Smith, Brian Anderson, Andrew Bolton, and others must be replaced. Seniors were responsible for 250 tackles, 28.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, four forced fumbles and five interceptions last fall.
Holding onto the football was an issue in 2015 and must be fixed if Southern Miss wants to get another shot at the C-USA crown. They turned the ball over 25 times (12 interceptions, 13 lost fumbles) last season with Mullens responsible for four lost fumbles and 16 overall turnovers.
While Jay Hopson could be the next incarnation of Vince Lombardi, the track record of FBS coaches taking over a program tends to result in a decline of some sort in that first season. It would be hard to expect Hopson to match or exceed the 2015 team in his first year of leading a FBS program. Give him time and he should do great at Southern Miss.
The best part of being in the west division of Conference USA is the lack of quality opposition. Looking at the other five teams in the division, Louisiana Tech was the only other team in the division to finish with a winning record (9-4). The rest, North Texas (1-11), UTSA (3-9), Rice (5-7), and UTEP (5-7) finished a combined 14-34 last fall.
Nick Mullens is back for his senior season. Heading into last fall, there was no guarantee that Mullens would even be the starter at quarterback. He rose up to the challenge, beating out Tyler Matthews, and had a career season of 4,476 yards passing and 38 touchdowns. He went from a question mark to the most indispensable player in the entire conference.
Ito Smith has a chance to break multiple rushing records before his career ends. The 5-9 running back was one of the most explosive players in C-USA after rushing for 1,128 yards (10 TD) and caught 49 passes for 515 yards and three touchdowns. There are multiple offensive options that can also be added to the list.
D'Nerius Antoine and an experienced secondary. Antoine was a safety last fall, but is more of a safety/linebacker that could easily start at either position. He was the team leader in tackles (103), and forced fumbles (4), while also adding 7.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions. Along with Antoine, secondary members Picasso Nelson, Cornell Armstrong, and Devonta Foster are all back in 2016.
Looking at the 2016 schedule, it is more than manageable. An opening night trip to Lexington to face Kentucky is a power five game they can win. The only out of conference game that looks like a guaranteed loss is at LSU in mid-October. Non-conference home games versus Savannah State and Troy should be wins.
The only cross division game that is a worry is a visit from Marshall. Otherwise, facing Old Dominion and Charlotte seems to be a bit of a break for the Golden Eagles this fall. They even get Louisiana Tech at home to end the season.
I said to pump the brakes on expectations, but there is very little to stop Southern Miss from repeating as C-USA West Division Champions. Even so, there will be a team in the west that defies expectations and makes a run. Whether that is UTSA with a new head coach, UTEP with a healthy Aaron Jones, or Rice recovering from a dreadful 2015 season, one team will take a step forward.