#94 Southern Miss Football 2017 Preview

Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Overall Rank: #94
#6 Conference USA
Southern Miss had pretty high expectations during Coach Jay Hopson’s first season. Inconsistent play was a big problem though. While there were some nice wins, there were more bad losses and the Golden Eagles finish at 7-6 with a win over Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl.
2016 Record: 7-6, 4-4
2016 Bowl: New Orleans Bowl vs. Louisiana (W 28-21)
Coach: Jay Hopson (7-6 at Southern Miss, 39-23 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Shannon Dawson
Defensive Coordinator: Tony Pecoraro
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Ito Smith, RB, 1,459 yards
Passing: Keon Howard, QB, 365 yards
Receiving: Allenzae Staggers, WR, 1,165 yards
Tackles: Picasso Nelson Jr., DB, 48
Sacks: Xavier Thigpen, DL, 5.0
Interceptions: Picasso Nelson Jr, DB, 2; Curtis Mikell, DB, 2; Tarvarius Moore, DB, 2
Other Key Returnees: RB George Payne, WR Korey Robertson, TE Julian Allen, K Parker Shaunfield
Key Losses: QB Nick Mullens, WR D.J. Thompson, OL Cameron Tom, DB D’Nerius Antoine, DL Dylan Bradley, DL Ja’Boree Poole, DB Devonta Foster, LB Elijah Parker, P Tyler Sarrazin
The offense must replace quarterback Nick Mullens, who had a fantastic career at Southern Miss. Last season he missed a couple games but still threw for 3,272 yards and 24 touchdowns. Keon Howard stepped in for Mullens and had a tough time being thrust into that role. On the year he completed just 44.0 percent of his passes and threw one touchdown and four interceptions. With a year to prepare though, Howard should be more efficient. He is also a very good rusher. Kwadra Griggs, a junior college transfer who sat out last season, will provide plenty of tough competition for Howard. While this is a team that wants to throw the ball and should be effective doing so with Allenzae Staggers and Korey Robertson back at wide receiver, the running game could play a bigger role this season. Ito Smith is a solid all-around rusher who tallied 1,459 yards and 17 scores last season and George Payne is a bigger back who can pick up the tough yards. The potential problem is on the offensive line where there is quite a bit of turnover. That may not bode well for the running game or for the new quarterback.
Southern Miss has a very aggressive defense. That can win them some games, but it lost them plenty last year too. Xavier Thigpen will spend a lot of time in the backfield and recorded 5.0 sacks last season. He should emerge as the team’s top pass rusher on a team full of pass rushing threats in 2017. There are losses at linebacker, but Sherrod Ruff is a great piece to build around. He recorded 3.0 sacks and 11.0 tackles-for-loss last season. If the front seven continues to get consistent pressure without too many heavy blitzing packages, the Southern Miss secondary should again be very good. There is a ton of experience at cornerback with Cornell Armstrong, Trae Collins and Curtis Mikell and safety Picasso Nelson is a very talented player too. 
The Bottom Line:
Once again this season will come down to making big plays against preventing big plays. Big plays come in a variety of forms, but the fact that Southern Miss ranked 125th in the country in turnover margin certainly hints that they gave up way too many big plays. Without Mullens under center, the turnover issue for the offense will be worse this year. In his brief stint last year, Howard proved to be quite turnover prone both throwing and running. If the turnovers do not improve dramatically, this is a group that will have to again battle hard to reach six wins and return to a bowl game.
Projected Bowl: Heart of Dallas Bowl
2016 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 174.5 (62nd in nation, 7th in conference)
Passing Offense: 298.2 (16, 4)
Total Offense: 472.8 (21, 4)
Scoring Offense: 32.8 (41, 5)
Rushing Defense: 149.9 (46, 4)
Pass Defense: 174.9 (10, 1)
Total Defense: 324.8 (15, 1)
Scoring Defense: 29.5 (74, 4)
Turnover Margin: -1.31 (125, 13)
Sacks: 2.62 (28, 2)
Sacks Allowed: 2.23 (78, 8)

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