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America is watching: Southern Mississippi vs Troy preview

Southern Miss came back from 25 to beat an SEC team. Troy nearly knocked off Clemson last week. Now they collide in Hattiesburg. Which one will emerge as America’s must-watch team?

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Kentucky
There’s been a lot to cheer for at Southern Mississippi this season. But with Troy coming to town, there’s a lot of reason for concern.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Location: M.M. Roberts Stadium (“The Rock”), Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Date: Saturday, September 17

Time: 6 p.m. CDT

TV: beIN Sports USA

Streaming: beIN Sports Connect

Records: Southern Mississippi 2-0, Troy 1-1

Betting Line: USM -10.5, O/U 64.5

All-Time Series: USM leads 7-1

Largest margins of victory: USM 53, Troy 1

Last Meeting: New Orleans Bowl 2008, USM 30, Troy 27 (ot)

There are reasons why Saturday's clash in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, between Southern Mississippi's Golden Eagles and the Trojans of Troy has become one of the hottest tickets in the country.

It was just last Saturday that unranked and lightly regarded Troy nearly knocked off second-ranked Clemson, last year's championship finalist, before losing 30-24 and it was the week before that Southern Miss rebounded from a 35-10 first half deficit to subdue SEC opponent Kentucky, 44-35.

Troy coach Neal Brown was very pleased with the recognition his Trojans received during last week’s game. "I thought we put Troy on the national map in college football. Number one trending for most of the afternoon on Saturday." For a rising program in a small Alabama setting, it was a welcomed shot of validation.

Both teams enter the game with healthy rosters and focused determination which suggests there may be more dynamism on the field this Saturday than the thunder and lightning of Hattiesburg's skies during week.

Southern Mississippi Outlook

USM coach Jay Hopson is well aware of what Troy brings to Saturday's game. “They have an excellent football program,” he said. “Extremely talented and well coached.”

And, the Golden Eagles bring some excellence to the game as well.

Southern Miss is ranked 14th in the nation for total offense with an average of 554 yards per game and running back Ito Smith remains the nation’s sixth-ranked rusher despite not playing much of the second half against Savannah State.

Smith views the Troy defense as the toughest he has faced this season. "We’ve just got to be on our A game this week.”

Of course, the defensive side of the ball will be important if Southern Miss intends to remain undefeated. USM has shown excellent pressure in both games.

That is a good thing because without it, Troy quarterback and three-year starter Brandon Silvers, will continue his career-long completion ratio of 65% to go along with 35 career touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. If he does those things, life will be miserable for the beloved of the Gold-and-Black.

Bringing pressure might prove difficult for USM’s defense because in two games this season, Silvers has only been sacked once. If Clemson’s pageant of elite sinew only got to Silvers once, how does Tony Pecoraro of Southern Miss expect his front seven to do any better?

In the pre-season, we mentioned that Pecoraro’s nature is to bring pressure, pressure, pressure and so far, that is what we have seen. In two games, the Golden Eagles have posted nine sacks. With that battle contemplated, it is easy to come to the notion that the friction from Troy’s offensive line and USM’s defensive charge should as electrifying as it is worth watching..

From the first snap, Southern Mississippi is going to give the ball to Smith and co-star running back George Payne and challenge Troy to prove it can defend the run, something the Trojans didn’t do well against Clemson.

And why not? Both running backs have had great success this season. Smith had 173 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago and Payne had 116 (7.2 ypc) against Savannah State last week after Smith was mercy-benched (49-0 at the half).

Last week, the Troy offense nearly matched second-ranked Clemson for yardage (386-414) and first downs (21-24) and controlled the ball seven minutes longer. But, none of those was the scariest part of Troy’s offensive success against Clemson.

Troy coach Neal Brown said it this way: “Every time we got in the red zone we scored points!”

Golden Eagle fans, Brown didn’t make that up. EVERY time Troy hit the red zone, it came away with points—against last year’s national championship finalist!

Everyone who follows the national scene knew that Troy would be better this year. What we won’t know until Saturday is just how much better and for that, Southern Miss fans are entitled to worrisome days, at least until the heat and friction of Saturday’s clash subsides.

Troy outlook

Despite a 4-8 record in 2015, Coach Neal Brown came up with the second best recruiting class in the conference. He teaches a tough and physical style and his scheme of fast-paced offense and gritty defense is exactly what USM fans can expect to see on Saturday.

Not only did they come within one possession of knocking off Clemson last week, but they stymied Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson with a combination of hard-nosed front line play and tight coverage in the short and mid-range secondary to force repeated incompletions.

Missing, however, were two key elements that now concern Coach Brown.

  1. Despite all of the pressure and some hurried throws by Watson, Troy was not able to get the talented quarterback sacked even once.
  2. Clemson’s long-ball receivers were repeatedly open and only because of dropped passes did the Tigers not score more touchdowns.

Those problems create opportunities for USM’s quarterback Nick Mullens to post some impressive numbers and for fleet receiver Isaiah Jones to get some replays on ESPN.

Despite those shortcomings, Brown was pleased with his team’s performance against Clemson. "I'm proud of our coaches and how they prepare. Proud of our guys, how they competed on Saturday. It (game against USM) needs to be a game we gain confidence on, without question, and build on."

Brown expressed concern about how Troy will move the ball against the Golden Eagle defensive pressure. "They've got an edge about them defensively and you see that a lot from defensive minded head coaches."

He’s also expressed concern about stopping Southern MIssissippi’s diverse offense. While that offense is politely termed “balanced spread”, opponents see it as a three-headed beast with Mullens throwing the long ball, Smith grinding tacklers, and Jones racing for the flags.

"We've got to figure out a way to get pressure on the quarterback," Brown said on Monday. "And, we've got to stop their running back. I think everything starts on their offense with Ito Smith at running back."

That is a correct conclusion by Coach Brown and expresses exactly what Southern Mississippi coaches have in mind.

Turning points . . .

1) Can Southern Mississippi play at Troy's pace without wilting in the fourth quarter?

Last week in sweltering conditions, Troy and Clemson ran 163 plays. The forecast for Hattiesburg this Saturday is 91 degrees.

2) Can Troy's leaky defensive front from last week stop Ito Smith this week?

3) Will the Trojans find a harness for a racehorse named Isaiah?

4) Can Southern Miss continue it's pace of 4.5 sacks-per-game against Troy’s stout front which even Clemson couldn’t penetrate more than one time?

The Projection

Nick Mullens said it best over the weekend. "Anybody can beat anybody else on game day. Troy is always good; always physical. It will definitely be a good contest for us."

A week of freaky lightning is crowned with a Friday night full lunar eclipse. Does that mean another freaky eclipse will happen on Saturday? The Trojans are as capable as they are determined.

I project that Southern Mississippi is effective with the ground game; Jones gets loose to the flags at least one time, and our AC Index ( prediction guide has it figured out.

Southern Mississippi 35, Troy 17