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Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles vs Kentucky Wildcats Game Preview

Two programs have something to prove and both coaches know it.

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl- Washington vs Southern Mississippi
Nick Mullens threw for over 4400 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2015.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Location: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Kentucky

Date: Saturday, September 3

Time: 7:30pm EDT

TV: ESPNU

Last Season: USM 9-5 Kentucky 5-7

Betting Line: Kentucky -6

All-Time Series: Kentucky 2-0 (1949 and 1986)

All-time Point Differential: Kentucky 103-7

Last Meeting: Kentucky 32, USM 0 (Oct. 4, 1986)

Southern Mississippi was 9-5 last season after posting a record of 4-32 in the previous three years. The Golden Eagles and new head coach Jay Hopson are determined to prove that last year was not a fluke and that the winning USM tradition has returned.

Kentucky spent $165 million to upgrade its facilities to match other SEC teams. In the words of head coach Mark Stoops, who is 12-24 in his three years in Lexington, “It’s time for us to be successful.”

We have input from our associate writer Will Marshall who covers Kentucky football for SB Nation at aseaofblue.com.

Southern Miss outlook

The Golden Eagles rose from a winless season in 2012 to play for the Conference USA championship in 2015. Now, with new coach Jay Hopson, the Golden Eagles are looking to exceed their 9-5 record as well as a flashy offense that ranked 12th in the nation.

Nick Mullens returns as the FBS' top PFF-rated quarterback and he has proven receivers to go with running back Ito Smith who rushed for over 1000 yards while averaging 9.3 yards on 171 carries.

A strong interior line hinged on the broad shoulders of three-time All CUSA center Cameron Tom returns but both starting tackles have departed. It remains to be seen if freshman (rs) Ty Pollard and converted defensive tackle Will Freeman can protect the edges. They’ll find out this weekend because, as Will Marshall pointed out in our recent Q&A, “UK does return some edge rushers like Denzil Ware and Josh Allen.”

Southern Mississippi's defense returns a solid front and one of its best and deepest secondaries in years. It boasts freakish athlete N’Derius Antoine who plays safety and linebacker and brings 215 pounds of athleticism and aggression.

Two of USM's top linebackers return led by Elijah Parker who came up with 47 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles, and that leaves only the middle linebacker position open to question. C.J. Perry has taken that position but he didn’t play much in 2015.

That middle linebacker position is one that Kentucky might exploit and certainly seems destined to try. According to Marshall, “UK will have success running the ball early which should limit Mullens’ touches.”

Kentucky outlook

After spending so much money on facilities, UK fans want a bowl game—-finally!

Stanley “Boom” Williams will again be the spark plug for an offense that otherwise sputtered in 2015. Williams seems certain to post a 1000 yard season and that might be necessary since the passing attack was weak last year and has an unproven quarterback this season.

SB Nation correspondent Marshall sees Dorian Baker as another running back who will excel. Baker started every game as a freshman and rushed for 608 yards while demonstrating sure hands as a receiver out of the backfield.

UK finished 89th in total offense and then lost quarterback Patrick Towles when he transferred to Boston College. His replacement is sophomore Drew Barker who has little experience but was one of the most prolific passing quarterbacks in the history of Kentucky high school football three years ago.

After finishing ranked 95th in offense, head coach Mark Stoops brought in a new offensive coordinator. Eddie Gran came to Lexington from Cincinnati where he was an advocate of the Pistol and an NFL-like passing scheme. But Marshall tells us that the UK offense won’t appear much different than before. “It will still be a lot of 3-wide and 4-wide sets, some shotgun, and one-back looks.”

Coach Gran has been generally pleased with Fall camp except for his tight ends who will be essential if Kentucky is to have any chance to turn around a 101st ranking in third down success.

Defensively, the Wildcats must be better than last year when they finished 12th in the league overall, 96th nationally against the rush, and 106th for sacking opposing quarterbacks. With Nick Mullens coming to town, that last number needs to begin to change right away.

The defensive front is thin and suffered another blow when star defensive tackle Regie Meant left the team for personal reasons. "We're not overly deep at certain positions," head Coach Mark Stoops said, "and that looks ugly at times."

Despite some inconsistencies, the defense has shown some wonderful flashes. If those become routine, UK fans will delight in seeing the Wildcats getting closer to that bowl game.

Summary and Key Questions:

Southern Mississippi offense vs Kentucky defense

Southern Miss returns a record-breaking quarterback and he has a 1000 yard running back to keep defenses at bay. The line is strong except for the tackles. Can those tackles keep the Wildcats out of the backfield? Kentucky is firmly set on finding out.

Southern Mississippi defense vs Kentucky offense

Will C.J. Perry prove he has what it takes at middle linebacker or will Kentucky’s Boom Williams run wild?

Kentucky doesn’t have a five-star offensive line but it has size. Will that be enough to wear down USM’s undersized front and open big holes for Williams?

Will Kentucky prove it has a passing attack or will the experienced Golden Eagle defense be able to spend the game loading up on lowering the “Boom”?

Can Drew Barker prove an ability to pass effectively in his first start, especially against the Golden Eagles’ outstanding secondary?

Special teams:

USM couldn’t kick, couldn’t return, and couldn’t seem to care less. Coach Hopson is a former special teams player and it appears he will do the best he can with a group that was inadequate last season and has no incoming bright spots this season.

Other factors (all favoring Kentucky):

This is a road game for Southern Mississippi

Kentucky is 2-0 all-time vs USM

Kentucky’s all time margin of victory over USM is 103-7 (1949: 71-7 and 1986: 32-0)

Projected result

Will Marshall: “If Drew Barker gets settled in his first true game as the starting quarterback, and UK's defense forces turnovers, I think UK starts to pull away in the second half and wins by a 7-10 point margin.”

Me: Southern Miss has Nick Mullens. Kentucky was 106th in sacks. Southern Mississippi 36, Kentucky 27