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2020 Week 1 Preview: South Alabama Jaguars @ Southern Miss Golden Eagles

South Alabama and Southern Miss clash Thursday night in the first 2020 matchup between FBS teams.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Louisiana Tech at Southern Miss Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Time and Date: Thursday, September 3 at 9 p.m. ET

Network: CBS Sports Network

Location: M.M. Roberts Stadium — Hattiesburg, MS

Spread: Southern Miss (-14)

ESPN FPI: Southern Miss has 77.8% chance to win

All-time series: No previous meetings

We actually made it here.

After months of speculation whether there would even be a season, there will be an FBS college football game this Thursday. Right after UAB opens the season facing FCS foe Central Arkansas on Thursday night, the matchup between Southern Miss and South Alabama in Hattiesburg, MS will mark the first game between FBS opponents in 2020.

Up to 25% of M.M. Roberts Stadium will be occupied with attending families distanced six feet apart. It may not be the perfect start to the 2020 season we hoped for back in January, but when kickoff transpires in front of roughly 9,000 fans Thursday, it will give us the feeling that college football is finally back.


Previewing the Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Southern Miss is eight months removed from its last football game. In the early calendar year of 2020, the Golden Eagles fell to Tulane in the Armed Forces Bowl but completed their fifth consecutive winning season in the process. Southern Miss has maintained remarkable consistency in the Jay Hopson era, ranging between 6-8 wins ever since he took the head coaching job prior to the 2016 season. But even in this abbreviated season, the Golden Eagles have realistic sights set on usurping UAB and representing the West division in December for the C-USA Championship Game.

Offense

Quarterback Jack Abraham is entering his third year as the program’s starter, and he’s never faced higher expectations. The senior was selected as the conference’s top quarterback on the All-Preseason team. The ever-accurate Abraham led the FBS in completion percentage as a sophomore, connecting at 73.1 percent rate — the eighth highest mark in college football history. With an increased sample size as the team’s full-time starter, Abraham still completed 67.9 percent of his attempts on top of roughly 3,500 yards passing.

Heading into 2020, the senior’s primary goal should be cutting down on turnovers. His 19 touchdown-to-15 interception ratio last year needs to be improved upon in order for Southern Miss to bolster its offense into the conference’s elite.

Abraham no longer has his premier option in Quez Watkins, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round last April, but returning wideout Tim Jones is a contender for the best receiver in the C-USA. Also a preseason all-conference selection, Jones is fresh off a 73-reception, 902-yard season where his production amplified in late October and November. Southern Miss’ other starting receiver, Jaylond Adams, opted out of the season, which likely leaves one of two JUCO transfers — Da’Quan Bailey-Brown or Jason Brownlee — to step up and grasp the role of second fiddle to Jones.

Southern Miss utilized a running back by committee last year, dividing up the carries between De’Michael Harris, Kevin Perkins, and Steven Anderson. Like Adams, Anderson is also opting out of the season and Harris signed with the Indianapolis Colts in April. That leaves Perkins — another former community college player — as the feature back in the Golden Eagles’ offense. After a 547-yard outing in 2019, he aims to crank the production up a level and snag his first career 100-yard rushing game.

Defense

Southern Miss sustained a relatively average defense last year, ranking in the middle of the road in points allowed. But the Golden Eagles found tremendous success in limiting the run game with its 4-3 scheme under defensive coordinator Tim Billings. But in Billings’ fifth year operating defense, he will have to shuffle his cards as the Golden Eagles feature massive turnover in the front seven.

A fascinating player to watch take a leap this season is senior DE/OLB hybrid Eriq Kitchen, another former junior college standout in Southern Miss’ growing transfer system. With the team’s top pass rusher Jacques Turner on the lengthy list of players opting out of the season, Kitchen will be charged with leading the blitz.

Swayzee Bozeman is a key cog in the linebacking corps as the team’s top returner at the position. With six tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in his first year on campus, Bozeman will have an integral role in stopping South Alabama from controlling the game on the ground.

But where the Golden Eagles are most stacked on defense for 2020 is the secondary, and specifically, in the safety department. Strong safety Ky’el Hemby was the team’s only defender recognized on the C-USA All-Preseason team after finishing first on the squad in total tackles. Hemby, who intercepted six passes as a sophomore is joined alongside free safety Shannon Showers. A force in deep zone coverage, Showers brings three career interceptions to the table in C-USA’s top safety tandem.


Previewing the South Alabama Jaguars

South Alabama qualified for bowl eligibility in 2014 and 2016, but in eight years as an FBS program, the Jaguars are still in search of its first winning record. They are one of three FBS teams to never have a winning record, joining UMass (also joined in 2012) and Coastal Carolina (joined in 2017). While the Joey Jones era featured five seasons between 4-6 wins, the Steve Campbell era is off to a tumultuous start.

South Alabama is 5-19 over the past two seasons. A solid victory over FCS foe Jackson State and a stunning upset over perennial Sun Belt contender Arkansas State in the finale marked the Jaguars’ lone two triumphs of the 2019 season. Two of the team’s losses were within three points last season while the other eight came by double digits.

Offense

Desmond Trotter took over as the starting quarterback midseason after Cephus Johnson began under center early in the fall. Trotter’s eye-opening performance in the finale secured the long-term starting quarterback gig for him, while Johnson transferred this offseason. In the massive upset over Arkansas State, Trotter threw for career-highs in yards (279) and touchdowns (4). Most importantly, he provides a glimmer of hope for a program in need of one. The Jaguars have waited over nine months to see the Irondale, AL native return to action after everything he left on the field last November.

Running back Tra Minter was the cornerstone of the offense in each of the last two Jaguars seasons, but the expiration of his eligibility forces Coach Campbell to turn to either Carlos Davis or Jared Wilson — or a mixture between the two — for the starting running back. The backs will operate behind the roster’s best run blocker, senior right guard Jacob Shoemaker, who was responsible for paving the path for Minter over the last few seasons. Also, the addition of 6’6”, 325-pound JUCO standout Hayden Burton at left tackle could be the refreshing change South Alabama needs with pass blocking after allowing 2.33 sacks per game a year ago.

The Jaguars’ receiving tandem of Kawaan Baker and Jalen Tolbert returns for more action this fall. Baker led the unit in receiving yards and receptions, and those efforts were rewarded with an Honorable Mention on the All-Sun Belt team. Meanwhile, Tolbert corralled a team-high six touchdown receptions. Four of those scores occurred in Trotter’s phenomenal Arkansas State showing, a game which featured a 144-yard performance from Tolbert.

Defense

Considering the team compiled a 2-10 record last season, South Alabama’s defense had a solid year. The Jaguars rarely lost due to opposing quarterbacks lighting up the stat sheet, and they only allowed 1.4 rushing touchdowns per game. Atypical of 2-win programs, they only allowed 40 points once all season long, and that was against New Year’s Six bowl participant Memphis.

Starting SAM linebacker Riley Cole is the most experienced leader on the defense with 20 career starts. After missing nearly the entire 2018 season with a knee injury, Cole bounced back with personal-bests in tackles (59), tackles for loss (9), and sacks (3.0). He’ll start alongside two of the most talented returnees on the defense, WILL linebacker Nick Mobley and outside linebacker A.J. DeShazor. Mobley and DeShazor are the two returning leading tacklers for the defense, wrapping up for a combined 152 in the prior campaign.

Devin Rockette should assume the No. 1 corner spot for the Jaguars this season, which means he’ll have the task of matching up against Southern Miss’ Tim Jones in the first week of the season. Rockette notched eight starts a year ago and recorded 15 unassisted tackles and six pass breakups. Wrapping up in open field is at utmost importance against Jones and the Golden Eagles receiving corps, who have been known to be dangerous after the catch. Facing the C-USA’s top quarterback, the performance of the Jaguars secondary will be vital if they hope to build on the Arkansas State game from last November and win two consecutive contests for the first time since October 2017.


Prediction

Expect a rough first half to this game. Spring football opportunities were lost, makeshift schedules are still being implemented, and the players have dealt with a lot of external pressure all offseason. Factor in a venue with 75% of the bleachers empty, and it creates a unique circumstance which players haven’t experienced at the FBS levels.

Once the opening game jitters subside, expect Southern Miss to pull ahead. The Jack Abraham-to-Tim Jones connection might be the best in the C-USA and that should be the primary viewing focus for this game. The South Alabama secondary is tasked with forcing interceptions to remove Abraham from his comfort zone. Southern Miss is 0-6 when Abraham throws multiple interceptions, so it’s up to the Jaguars defense to vacuum all momentum out of the Golden Eagles’ sharp aerial attack.

Last November, Desmond Trotter showed how much potential he has in store, and South Alabama’s offense has been searching for an All-Sun Belt quarterback since joining the FBS. A breakthrough performance by the Jaguar offense is necessary to compete with Hopson’s consistently solid Southern Miss program, so he’ll have to establish the same chemistry he had with his receiving unit against Arkansas State.

Still, Southern Miss will be too much for South Alabama on both sides of the ball, and the Golden Eagles cruise in the second half to victory in Hattiesburg.

Prediction: Southern Miss 37, South Alabama 13