Location: M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Date: Saturday, September 10
Time: 7 pm ET
Records: USM 1-0 , SSU 0-1
Southern Miss all-time vs FCS: 22-3
Savannah State all-time vs FBS: 0-10
Last Season: USM 9-5, SSU 1-9
Southern Miss 44, Kentucky 35
Savannah St. 0, Georgia Southern 54
Southern Mississippi fans spent the first 15 minutes of last week’s game against Kentucky speculating that perhaps Jay Hopson might not be the right coach to continue the momentum off of last year's 9-5 bowl season.
The Golden Eagles had fallen behind Kentucky 35-10 in the first half and it was Drew of the Blue, as in Drew Barker of UK, who had become the game's early hero and not the Golden Eagles’ Nick Mullens, who had already thrown three interceptions in the first half despite being named to three prestigious preseason award watch lists.
Those same fans spent the next 15 minutes nodding their heads because it all came together right from the beginning of the second half as the Golden Eagles ran off 34 straight points. Ito Smith rushed for 173 yards for a 44-35 Southern Miss win and a final spread that matched our nine point pregame prediction.
This week is an entirely different challenge because Savannah State comes to Hattiesburg on Saturday ranked 126th among FCS teams in our in-house system. Southern Miss is 32nd in our weekly FBS rankings.
Everyone would understand the temptation for Southern Mississippi to take it easy and bask in the afterglow of a big win. After all, Savannah State has only averaged 1.5 wins per season for the past 23 years and not once have the Tigers come close to an FBS team. And just last week, Georgia Southern ravaged them for 420 yards and that was just from running the football.
So yes, it is easy to understand the potential for a Southern Miss let down.
But, you can’t hang with Southern Miss folks if you take days off. You also can’t hang with energizing coach Jay Hopson who made it very clear that USM will take no opponent lightly. “One thing that football has taught me,” he said, “is you better be ready every week. As a coaching staff we were up here late (Sunday). We spent just as much time, if not more, preparing for Savannah State. We just have to be ready.”
Southern Miss Outlook
There is every reason to believe that four-year starter and All CUSA quarterback Nick Mullens will return from a dismal first half to also be ready. He started the Kentucky game with frustration and finished only a little above “okay”. Mullens has worked hard for three years to raise himself from a two-star high school prospect to a two time all conference quarterback. For him, “good enough” has never been good enough and he is preparing to prove that this Saturday.
Despite the slow start against Kentucky, Mullens wasn’t shaken. “My mindset didn’t really change,” said Mullens, who was 18/28 with 258 passing yards and added two rushing touchdowns. “I just had to relax, focus and make the next play.”
Is the same thing true for the offensive line? Last week, it was clear that Kentucky's plan to test USM's inexperienced offensive tackles was a winner, at least in the first half. The 'Cats repeatedly beat those tackles and got to Mullens often, nailed down some sacks, and reduced his time to throw.
Savannah State has proven, at times, that it can beat an offensive line, so any lack of line play by Southern Mississippi could prove painful for Mullens and the Golden Eagles.
Last week Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson was effective in challenging his offensive line and, with some changes in scheme, the line held up in the second half. The challenge that Dawson gave didn’t end with that game. It is clear that coach Dawson is also not taking anything for granted against Savannah State. Earlier this week he said, “We don’t care if we play Kentucky or Savannah State, we’re going to prepare hard, we will give every team respect.”
If all of that respect, determination, and challenge translates into better line play, Mullens will have a brilliant day right from the beginning.
Improved line play will also help running back Ito Smith. Last Saturday, Smith had 173 yards against an SEC team and he is now the 6th-ranked ball carrier in the nation. This week he is going against a Tiger run defense that gave up over 400 rushing yards last week. The only way Smith won’t surpass 200 yards is if he doesn’t carry the ball 36 times again.
Special teams was expected to be an area of shortcomings this season but Parker Shaunfield vanquished those assertions. The redshirt sophomore connected for 5-for-5 on extra points and added three field goals, one of of them from 49 yards out. Now the only assertions he might need to vanquish are Golden Eagles fans expecting the same every week.
Savannah State Outlook
Trying to compare and speculate strategies for two teams with such diverse levels of talent seems to me very much like a task in search of a fool.
Instead, let’s start off by looking at the Tigers’ opening game last week. Against Georgia Southern, the Tigers allowed 14 points in just three plays that lasted less than one minute. By the end of the first quarter, Savannah State was already down 21-0.
The Tigers were down, but they weren’t resigned .
Instead, they not only brought pressure against Georgia Southern, but they posted a sack which also forced a fumble. Defensive lineman Quaron Howard pounced on it to give SSU a shot of momentum.
Southern Miss was vulnerable to pressure last week and if that carries over this Saturday and is accompanied by turnovers, then the euphoria in Hattiesburg might come to a sobering halt.
New Savannah State head coach Erik Raeburn brings a successful history from Division 3 and he is convinced that, with time and opportunity, he can make SSU competitive. “Our location from the standpoint of recruiting ... there are so many good high school football players in this area. If you drew a 2.5-hour radius around our campus, there are a million guys that are excellent football players. And we can give in-state tuition to students from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina because they border us.”
Raeburn was neither surprised nor discouraged by his team’s slow start against Georgia Southern. He anticipated a difficult start in 2016 because NCAA sanctions prevented him from conducting spring practices. It was only last month that he could begin working with his players and that put him months behind his opponents and explains why the Tigers allowed 21 points in the first quarter before improving to an average of 11.3 points-per-quarter thereafter.
The Tigers are under no illusions about the improbability of winning on the field against Southern Miss. But, that isn’t where the Tigers plan to win. Instead, SSU will win at the bank where they will store the bounty from playing an FBS team. And keep in mind that Savannah State doesn’t schedule just one FBS. Instead, SSU doubles its income by playing two FBS programs each year. That plan has worked so well that the bank in Savannah now has a pretty nice balance that will help construct Savannah State’s future.
Despite reluctant odds-makers, we have combined our system of determining point spreads with Savannah State's average spread in its previous three FBS games.
Southern Miss 59, Savannah State 7