Start time: Saturday, September 2nd - 3:00 pm CT
Location: Hattiesburg, Miss.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Stream: CBS Sports
Live stats: Gametracker
Series history: Kentucky leads the series 2-1. USM won the last meeting 44-35 in 2016.
Betting line: Kentucky -10, O/U 57.5
If this year’s iteration of the USM - Kentucky series is half as wild as last year’s then viewers will be in for a treat. Kentucky raced out to a 35-10 lead in the first half before Southern Miss staged a legendary comeback, leading to a shocking 44-35 win on the road in Lexington.
While the Wildcats got out to a less-than-optimal start to their season, they managed to crawl their way to bowl eligibility after embracing their run game. Kentucky is now, believe it or not, a trendy dark horse pick to win the SEC East division in Mark Stoops’ fifth season in the Bluegrass state.
With four-year starter Nick Mullens exhausted of eligibility, the Golden Eagles will be searching for an answer at the quarterback position. USM’s offense screeched to a halt when Mullens was forced to miss time in 2016 but Head Coach Jay Hopson is hoping an extra year of development for Keon Howard and the addition of redshirted JUCO transfer Kwadra Griggs will help provide improvement under center. Neither quarterback has been named a starter yet. Both will likely play this weekend unless the starter comes out guns blazing.
Despite the uncertainty at the quarterback position the USM offense should still be able to move the ball down the field. Running back Ito Smith returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,459 yards last season. Smith is explosive when changing direction and can also make plays out of the backfield. The 13 game starter was USM’s third leading receiver after hauling in 459 yards through the air last year.
Smith will be complemented by an electric wide out in Allenzae Staggers. The All-Conference receiver totaled 1,165 yards through the air last season while averaging a sky-high 18.5 yards per catch.
If USM’s choice at quarterback pans out the offense should be able to hang with the Wildcats. The Golden Eagles’ biggest test lies in stopping the Wildcats’ rush offense.
Very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde operation in 2016, Southern Miss was extremely aggressive on defense but often paid for it as USM gave up more explosive plays than almost every defense in college football last year. Only 16 defenses gave up more plays that went for 40 yards or more.
On the flip side, Kentucky’s rushing attack was among the absolute best in the nation. The Wildcats ranked in the top 20 in Rushing S&P+, adjusted line yards, and average number of rushes of 10 yards or more per game.
Stopping this potential rushing onslaught starts up front for Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are in pretty good shape here as they return size and experience along the defensive line in their odd-man front.
The linebackers will have more to prove as Sherrod Ruff is the only proven returner after turning in 11 tackles for loss, three sacks, and three forced fumbles last season. Expect to see Kentucky target redshirt freshman Racheem Boothe who will be making his first collegiate start against the Wildcats.
The unfortunate reality is that it’s really tough for a Group of Five program to beat a Power Five team. To do it twice in a row is practically unheard of. While the Golden Eagles will enjoy home field advantage in this meeting they’re going to be really taxed to contain the Wildcats’ excellent rushing attack. Kentucky’s offensive line is huge and experienced so negative plays may be hard to come by for Southern Miss. While I don’t like USM’s chances in this game, if they come out of week one with a clear-cut starter at quarterback then it will have been a successful week.
Kentucky 35 USM 24