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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 65: Southern Mississippi

Here’s the trade: you can have the most successful year in program history, but as a result must hire a brand-new coaching staff for the following season. How many programs are making this swap? More than you’d think. It’s easier to pick those who wouldn’t make this trade, and it’s a short yet distinguished list – Alabama and Virginia Tech, and not many more. Southern Mississippi knew when it hired Larry Fedora that it was entering into a sort of pact: Hattiesburg was a stepping-stone for Fedora, but the Golden Eagles were fine with him leaving for greener pastures if certain thresholds were passed before he walked out the front door. Perhaps Southern Mississippi is willing to make that trade once, but I don’t think they want to make it twice. Hence the program’s decision to hire former South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a coaching lifer hungry at a shot with an F.B.S. program after a pair of short-lived head coaching stints at Gardner-Webb and The Citadel.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Hattiesburg, Miss.

Nickname
Golden Eagles

Returning starters
10 (6 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 58

2011 record
(12-2, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 19

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Nebraska
  • Sept. 15
    East Carolina
  • Sept. 22
    at W.K.U.
  • Sept. 29
    Louisville
  • Oct. 6
    Boise St.
  • Oct. 13
    at U.C.F.
  • Oct. 20
    Marshall
  • Oct. 27
    at Rice
  • Nov. 3
    U.A.B.
  • Nov. 10
    at S.M.U.
  • Nov. 17
    UTEP
  • Nov. 24
    at Memphis

Last year’s prediction

Best team in Conference USA? One of the best non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country? A threat to go undefeated? Don’t be ridiculous. Southern Mississippi will be a 10-win contender once it stops giving up 50 points at home to some of Conference USA’s worst; until then, this is where Southern Miss is going to fall – about eight wins, with seven just as likely as nine, unbelievably potent offensively but still a threat to lose just as many games as it wins as long as the defense remains three steps behind this offense. Can the Golden Eagles get better and better defensively as the year moves along? No doubt, and that’s probably what’s going to occur. But for now, there are other conference foes with fewer questions, who seem farther along on both sides of the ball – not quite on par offensively, but far ahead defensively – as we look towards the fall.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Posting the most successful finish in school history typically earns a head coach a step up the ladder, if such a step exists. It was clear that Fedora wasn’t long for Hattiesburg after his team swamped Houston, 49-28, in the Conference USA title game. But he moved onto the national radar earlier than that, perhaps at some point in early November, when the Golden Eagles were wrapping up an eight-game winning streak. Prior to this fall, Southern Mississippi had won 10 games only twice, in 1952 and 1988, and had posted two or fewer losses only twice since 1966, in 1981 and 1988. Most of the talk centered around the offense, which scored a school-record 516 points. In all, U.S.M. has increased its scoring output in every season since 2002. But the offense had been very strong in 2009 and 2010; the difference was the improvement on defense, where the Golden Eagles allowed less than 300 points for the first time since 2006.

High point The 49-28 win over Houston to win the Conference USA championship. You could see U.S.M. winning that game, though you couldn’t really see Houston losing, if that makes sense. Again, the defense was the story. The Eagles were in the backfield throughout, doing what countless had tried and failed to do: rattle Case Keenum.

Low point Believe it or not, the Eagles actually lost to U.A.B., 34-31, in November. The same team that beat Louisiana Tech, Virginia, S.M.U., Houston and Nevada lost to U.A.B., which doesn’t quite make sense.

Tidbit This tidbit might be familiar. Southern Miss holds the fourth-longest active streak of winning seasons in the country. The program’s 18-year streak trails only Florida State (36 years), Florida (25) and Virginia Tech (20). I’m keeping Florida State on this list despite the fact that enough wins have been taken away from the 2006 and 2007 teams to have the Seminoles finish with losing records in each of those seasons. The Golden Eagles have won 10 or more games only once over these 18 years, though they won nine on four separate occasions: 1997, 1999, 2003 and 2006.

Tidbit (WAC edition) Southern Mississippi’s Hawaii Bowl win over Nevada extended the program’s run of dominance against teams from the WAC. The Golden Eagles are now 39-16 all-time against the league, with most of that damage coming against Louisiana Tech – a future Conference USA rival. U.S.M. holds a 31-13 edge over the Bulldogs, with a few of those games played when each was part of the Gulf States Conference in the 1940s but most coming during non-conference play.

Tidbit (new guys edition) So how have the Golden Eagles fared against the six teams joining Conference USA in 2013? They’ve owned Louisiana Tech, as you can see above. U.S.M. is also 4-3 all-time against North Texas, including a win in the pair’s last meeting – a 31-10 win in the 2004 New Orleans Bowl. But Southern Miss has never played Florida International, Old Dominion, Charlotte or Texas-San Antonio. It’s almost as if all four either christened their program within the last 12 years, or rechristened it over the last three years after a half-century break, or have yet to even play a game of collegiate football.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 LB Michael Boley (New York Giants), OT Jeremy Bridges (Arizona), OT Chris Clark (Denver), QB Austin Davis (St. Louis), OT Demar Dotson (Tampa Bay), DT John Henderson (St. Louis), OT Lamar Holmes (Atlanta), K Danny Hrapmann (Pittsburgh), DE Cordarro Law (Seattle), OT Ryan McKee (St. Louis), LB Gerald McRath (Tennessee), LB Ronnie Thornton (Chicago), OG Chris White (New York Giants).

Arbitrary top five list

Non-B.C.S. quarterbacks in the Southeast, 2011
1. Austin Davis, Southern Mississippi.
2. Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State.
3. Blaine Gautier, Louisiana-Lafayette.
4. Dominique Davis, East Carolina.
5. Corey Robinson, Troy.

Coaching

Ellis Johnson (The Citadel ’75), entering his first season. Johnson, 63, has been angling for another head coaching opportunity for years, especially one on the F.B.S. level. He’s been a head coach twice before, both times in the F.C.S., including a three-year stint at his alma mater from 2001-3. That is joined by one year at Gardner-Webb, where he went 5-6 in 1983. Johnson lost 16 games over his first two years at The Citadel before going 6-6 in 2003, giving the program its first non-losing season since 1997. In both cases, Johnson resigned his position to take on a coordinator position. Following the 1983 season – not counting Gardner-Webb, Johnson’s lone college experience to that point had come at his alma mater – he left to become Mack Brown’s defensive coordinator at Appalachian State; late in 2003, Johnson left The Citadel to be Sylvester Croom’s coordinator at Mississippi State. It’s in the SEC that Johnson has made his reputation. His time in the conference began in 1990, when he started the first of four years as Alabama’s linebacker coach; after two years at Clemson, Johnson returned to Tuscaloosa as the Tide’s defensive coordinator (1997-2000). He’s been part of the SEC since joining Croom in 2004: Johnson left Mississippi State in 2008 to join Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, replacing, somewhat ironically, former U.S.M. coordinator Tyrone Nix. The defining characteristic to Johnson’s career has been his steady push to this point: he’s seemingly made moves catered to making him a legitimate candidate for a position like the one at U.S.M., which doesn’t necessarily make him any different than every assistant coach in college football. The difference is in how long it took Johnson to get here, though he did have two chances to build a head coaching reputation for himself on the F.C.S. level. One good thing: Johnson is done playing hopscotch. Unlike Fedora, he is not looking at this program as a stepping-stone.

Tidbit (coaching edition) There are no holdovers from the previous staff. One assistant, secondary coach Jeep Hunter, came with Johnson from South Carolina, where he spent the 2011 season as the Gamecocks’ safeties coach. More than a few come from unexpected places – though everyone needs to start somewhere, and I don’t buy into the idea that a coach can’t come up from the F.C.S., for example, and make a significant impact. Offensive line coach Tucker Peavy, who graduated from U.S.M., was a very successful high school coach in Brookhaven, Miss. Wide receivers coach Broderick Fobbs comes over from McNeese State. Co-secondary coach Maurice Drayton spent the last three years at Coastal Carolina. Then again, tight ends coach Garret Chachere comes over from Arizona, where he coached the inside receivers for Mike Stoops. Defensive line coach Lorenzo Constantini was at U.A.B. from 2007-11 and Tulane from 2004-6.

Johnson’s defensive coordinator is former Clemson and Memphis head coach Tommy West, a seasoned coaching veteran who spent last season as the defensive coordinator at U.A.B. Initially, Johnson hired former Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Rickey Bustle to be his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach; unfortunately, due to health issues, Bustle was forced to step down from those duties. He’ll now coach only the running backs, with Steve Buckley taking on Bustle’s former titles. Where was Buckley last fall? At Petal High School in Petal, Miss.

Players to watch

There will be a learning curve in this offense, and yes, you’ll see more than a few bumps along the road. Not only is Southern Miss transitioning to a new cast at quarterback and receiver, but this offense – as you know – is moving into a new scheme. It won’t be drastically different: Buckley, though inexperienced, is not so foolish as to alter how the previous offense approached the process of getting its skill players in space. What will change is how Buckley and U.S.M. gets the ball in the hands of its athletes; you’ll see more play-action, a changed running scheme and more multiple blocking looks.

More than anything, it’s very clear that this offense is not going to be as explosive as it was a year ago. Yes, some of that has to do with the new quarterback and fairly rebuilt receiver corps. But it also has much to do with the fact that despite being a well-regarded figure on the high school ranks, Buckley is new to this – he’s going to hit a learning curve as well.

What is really going to help U.S.M. is Conference USA’s best offensive line. The Eagles return four starters from a year ago, losing only left tackle Lamar Holmes, a first-team all-conference pick. While losing Holmes does hurt, it could have been worse: U.S.M. could have also lost Jason Weaver, who was able to land an additional year of eligibility after missing all of the 2010 season due to injury. Weaver, who is now two full years removed from that injury, will move over from right to left tackle in his final season. The likely favorite in Weaver’s old spot is junior Vincent Brown, a former JUCO transfer.

Brown’s the only weak link on an otherwise stalwart front five. And he could develop into a nice player, due to a strong foundation, and should benefit greatly from being surrounded by four experienced co-starters. The left side of the line is superb, with Weaver joined by senior Joe Duhon, who I think could end up being the best lineman in Conference USA. More seniors: Austin Quattrochi at center – a second-team all-conference pick last fall – and Darius Barnes at right guard. It doesn’t get much better than this on the non-B.C.S. conference level.

And they’ll be blocking for a very deep stable of running backs. This is the case even without would-be sophomore Jamal Woodyard, last year’s leading rusher, who will miss this season with a knee injury. No big loss –and not just because Woodyard was a little too loose with the football, but because U.S.M. has more than enough depth to overcome his absence. The top three at the position is set in stone: senior Desmond Johnson (424 yards), junior Jeremy Hester (291 yards) and senior Kendrick Hardy (426 yards).

Johnson’s the most well-rounded of the bunch; Hester is small but explosive, best used in certain packages; and Hardy is the toughest runner, though he strikes me as a back who needs 15 or more carries to be truly effective. Look for Johnson to lead the way when the year begins, but Hester and Hardy will get their touches. Southern Miss also added two true freshmen, but I doubt that either sees the field.

Senior Tracey Lampley (47 catches for 574 yards, 463 yards rushing) is also going to see time in the backfield, though perhaps to a lesser degree than we’ve seen in the past. He’s needed more at receiver in 2012, as U.S.M. looks to replace both of last season’s leading targets, Kelvin Bolden and Ryan Balentine. To this point, Lampley has been a secondary target in the passing game – albeit a dangerous target, and a very valuable weapon overall. The key for Lampley heading into his senior season will be taking on a more substantial role, not merely giving U.S.M. a dose of the big play but also lending the receiver corps a degree of much-needed consistency.

Lampley, junior Dominique Sullivan (32 for 461) and senior Quentin Pierce (17 for 166) are the team’s most experienced receivers, and as such should be the Eagles’ top three at the position come September. But U.S.M. does need to find quality depth from a group of fairly untested alternatives, a group that includes sophomore Chris Briggs (11 for 153), junior Francisco Llanos – a potential starter, though I’d give Sullivan the edge – junior Markese Triplett, the biggest receiver on the roster, and a few true and redshirt freshmen. Southern Miss will also use a tight end more in this offense, though it’s hard to see senior Ryan Hanks doing more than chipping in 12-18 receptions.

Southern Mississippi’s offense improved in each of Fedora’s four years with the program. What allowed the Eagles to take the next step forward – that huge leap last fall – was the defense’s return to past glory: the Eagles allowed less than 300 points in a season for the first time since 2006, dominating opponents at the point of attack and, with the win over Houston as our evidence, harassing opposing quarterbacks to the point of exhaustion. With the projected decline on offense, U.S.M. could use a similarly tenacious defensive effort in 2012. Unfortunately, while the defense is going to remain stout there are more than enough holes to fill at each level to expect at least some regression under the new coaching staff – though West is retaining the 4-2-5 look, which was very smart.

There are several positives, however. One is the fact that U.S.M. isn’t rocking the boat with a scheme change. Another is this defensive line, one that should continue to give the opposition fits during conference play – and this despite losing three starters off of last year’s group. In the big picture, one thing to love about this team is that it is strong where it counts: on both sides of the line. Above all else, the Eagles are going to win games by winning the battle along the line of scrimmage.

The star up front is senior Jamie Collins (98 tackles, 19.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks), who with the departure of Cordarro Law becomes the most dangerous end presence in Conference USA. He played in Law’s shadows a bit last fall – though Collins was far more consistent on a weekly basis – but should garner more recognition in and out of the league as the defense’s undisputed star. Collins is also entering his second full season at the bandit spot, a hybrid end-linebacker role, so his comfort level should be vastly improved. Quick enough to run past offensive tackles, strong enough to handle blockers and athletic enough to run in space, Collins is my pick for Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.

While Collins serves in the hybrid role, U.S.M. will audition junior Octavius Thomas and sophomore Dasman McCullum (22 tackles, 3.0 sacks) in Law’s old spot at traditional end. At the very worst, Thomas and McCullum could combine to form a competent pair at the position – though one needs to step up, particularly on passing downs; McCullum is the closer to a sure thing. The interior will be manned by junior Khyri Thornton (24 tackles, 9.0 for loss) and sophomore Rakeem Nunez-Roches, with the former entrenched as a clear all-conference contender and the latter with a more tenuous grasp on a starting role. Thornton, who started seven times last fall, has the potential to develop into a disrupting, penetrating interior lineman.

But nose tackle is a concern. Does U.S.M. want to get Thornton and Nunez-Roches on the line at the same time? If so, the sophomore will need to belly up and occupy blockers on the nose. If that’s not doable, then the Eagles will need senior Khalid Wilson (18 tackles), a former JUCO transfer, to take on a hugely increased role. That would push Nunez-Roches into a backup role, as I can’t imagine a scenario where Thornton doesn’t start tackle.

The biggest issue plaguing this defense is the dearth of experience at linebacker. While not a debilitating concern, seeing that U.S.M. does run a 4-2-5, the Eagles need to get a certain amount of production on the second level: the starters need to be able to cover on passing downs but also bring pressure, so it’s vital that West locate two serviceable starters. The new man in the middle is junior Alan Howze (22 tackles), a former running back who is still growing into the position – though he has the speed to overcome some early growing pains. In terms of replacing Ronnie Thornton on the weak side, U.S.M. could go with either redshirt freshman Terrick Wright or JUCO transfer Dylan Reda, with Reda the probable starter once he gains a stronger grasp of the defense.

The Eagles need to get more out of junior Jerrion Johnson (31 tackles), a second-year starter at the spur position – the team’s hybrid linebacker-safety. In a perfect world, the starting spur would not only be a major factor against the run, adding a seventh man in the box, but also make plays in coverage while bringing pressure in certain packages. Simply put, Johnson needs to bring more to the table or step back into a reserve role. Sophomore Justin Penn, who is a tad bigger than Johnson, would get the nod if the starter falters.

Southern Miss is going to get outstanding play on one side, thanks to junior cornerback Deron Wilson (75 tackles, 4 interceptions, 13 pass breakups), but that will be for naught if senior Marcal Robinson or junior Alexander Walters struggle stepping into a starting role. Robinson and Walters are jostling for the right to replace Marquese Wheaton; the competition won’t be decided until fall camp. One thing we know: opposing quarterbacks aren’t going to throw towards Wilson, who is rapidly developing into one of Conference USA’s best defensive backs.

The Eagles are in fine shape at safety despite the loss of one starter. Junior Jacorius Cotton (98 tackles) will earn all-conference honors as a second-year starter. While the Eagles lost Kendrick Presley, both junior Alex Smith (17 tackles, 1 interception) and senior Martez Thompson (36 tackles) have played more than enough over the last two years to slide seamlessly into a starting role. Now, can the secondary as a whole match last year’s numbers against the pass? No, if only because last year’s totals – seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense – will be nearly impossible to repeat. But if the new cornerback is ready to go by September, the Eagles should again rank among the better teams against the pass in Conference USA.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Given how Southern Miss took part in more than one lopsided win last fall, I was consistently surprised by how little action Fedora gave to his backup quarterbacks. Austin Davis was under center – or in shotgun, rather – come rain or shine, victory or defeat, 28-point advantage or otherwise; sophomore Arsenio Favor, last year’s backup, attempted only three passes on the season. After having the good fortune of playing a seasoned veteran like Davis over the last few years, U.S.M. takes a significant step back in experience heading into 2012. But there’s one non-negative to consider: the Golden Eagles are switching to a new scheme, so the lack of experience is somewhat offset by the fact that the team’s alternatives at quarterback are as new to the system as the rest of the offense.

That’s a non-negative, mind you, and not a positive. The Golden Eagles have six quarterbacks on the roster, including two true freshmen, but the competition is centered around a quartet of options: Favor, junior Chris Campbell, redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd and true freshman Anthony Alford. While Favor might have the most optimal blend of experience and athleticism – at 6’3 and 240 pounds, he could be a menace as a runner – a springtime knee injury had him running third as the Golden Eagles left for the summer. If the year started today, Campbell would be the starter with Lloyd the primary backup. Campbell outplayed Lloyd in April, putting together a few solid weeks of drills before hitting on 12 of 18 attempts for 167 yards during the spring game.

I would be surprised if Campbell didn’t start the season opener. I’d also be surprised if he’s still starting by the time the Eagles head into bowl play. At some point in the near future, the program is going to hand the keys over to Alford, a wonderfully skilled athlete – a major baseball prospect who will play in the minors while at U.S.M. – whose high school coach, coincidentally enough, was Buckley. Isn’t it funny how that worked out? So he has a greater familiarity with the system than most, even if Alford is only a true freshman. While he’ll need some time, Alford is the future.

Game(s) to watch

Southern Mississippi’s four non-conference opponents: at Nebraska, at Western Kentucky, Louisville and Boise State – a combined 35 wins in 2011. The Eagles also get their two toughest Conference USA opponents, U.C.F. and S.M.U., away from home. From top to bottom, it’s a more difficult schedule than a year ago. But there are periods that play in the Eagles’ favor, such as a three-game midseason stretch of Marshall, Rice and U.A.B., and the team does close with UTEP and Memphis. In all, there are probably as many clear wins as clear losses; as elsewhere, the Eagles’ season will come down to how they are during the swing games. For now, getting U.C.F. on the road is not good for Southern Mississippi’s chances in the East division.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The question isn’t whether Southern Mississippi is going to take a step back – that’s obvious. This is a team that won 12 games a year ago, after all, and in addition to losing several key figures behind last year’s leap is transitioning to a brand-new coaching staff. While there are some scheme changes currently underway, the alterations aren’t as wide-ranging as some might think: the Eagles will do things differently on offense, yes, but the defense will remain in the 4-2-5, which helps. Overall, however, you see a less-talented team led by a rookie staff – not entirely a combination conducive to success. So why aren’t the Eagles going to fall entirely off the map? For a few reasons. One is this offensive line, which has the potential to be so good as to offset the early scuffles anticipated at quarterback; in addition, this is a great line to put in front of a raw freshman like Alford, should U.S.M. opt to go in his direction at some point this season. The line will also lead the way for what should be a very strong running game. Being able to run the ball with consistency will help the Eagles overcome a decline in the passing game. In addition, the defense as a whole should come close to matching last year’s production; while not the best in the league, this defense’s top-to-bottom talent matches up well with Tulsa and Houston, for example.

Whether U.S.M. can return to the Conference USA title game hinges on several factors: quarterback play, consistency at receiver, the pass rush, and solid play at linebacker and the second cornerback spot. Entirely doable, but not probable. I do think that U.S.M. gets back into bowl play with seven wins in the regular season, but this team will take a significant step back from last season. Remember that once-in-a-generation seasons are just that: they happen rarely, and rarer still in back-to-back years when breaking in a completely new coaching staff. What this program should look for is just another bowl season while Johnson brings in enough talent to bridge the gap to 2013 and beyond.

Dream season Losses to Nebraska and Boise State sandwich wins over Western Kentucky and Louisville. Southern Miss rides a good amount of confidence into Conference USA play, actually besting last year’s mark with a perfect run through the conference season. The Eagles head into the conference title game at 10-2.

Nightmare season The Eagles stumble out of the gate at 0-4, leaving them needing a 6-2 conference season just to reach bowl eligibility. Not even close: U.S.M. goes 3-5 from October on, suffering the program’s first losing season since 1993.

In case you were wondering

Where do Southern Mississippi fans congregate? Start at Eagle Post, an independent Southern Miss Web site and message board. Southern Miss also has a pair of recruiting sites: Big Gold Nation and Golden Eagle Pride. Patrick Magee provides in-depth coverage of all university sports at the Web site of the Hattiesburg American. You can also follow Magee on Twitter.

Southern Mississippi’s all-name nominee LB Lelland Ducksworth.

Word Count

Through 60 teams 230,761.

Up Next

Who is No. 64? Tomorrow’s university is the only one in its conference to head into the 2012-13 academic year with a new football and men’s basketball head coach.

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Comments

  1. wildcat6 says:

    I believe that would be Illinois, known to Northwestern fans as “Ill-Annoy.”

  2. Woodysc says:

    RE: Tidbit (New Guys edition)
    Charlotte won’t join CUSA for football until 2015; the rest of its athletics join up in 2013. They will be competing in the FCS during 2013, their first year of football.

  3. Tim says:

    I’m wondering if you should list guys that have left school but have yet to actually make an NFL roster as “in” the league, Paul. A few guys you’ve listed so far this summer have since been waived.

  4. B1G Tool (wait, that's redundant) says:

    The Flailing Illness of Chambana.

  5. NTXCoog says:

    I think USM will be better than #65. I just don’t know how much better. That offensive line, running backs, and defense alone makes them better than half the teams in the country.

  6. Southern Miss To the Top says:

    Good article…I think defensively we will be ok, but I’m very apprehensive about the offense. We have definitely been spoiled the past few years with Fedora. If the quarterback play is decent, we will continue our streak of consecutive winning seasons.

  7. WillyEagle says:

    I think that most teams will underestimate how strong our lines and running game will be. Southern Miss is loaded at DE and the secondary with several dominating players. Wilson just might be the best cover corner in AL, MS, TN or LA. He made more plays (picks with return TDs and pass breakups) than the Honey Badger and had serious INT return yards. All of the key Southern Miss playmakers are either Seniors or Juniors.

    You have to remember that Southern Miss finished No. 7 in Pass Efficiency Defense while seeing about 150 more passes than anyone else in the Top 10. Southern Miss also set an NCAA record with 8 Pick Six TD’s and 13 Total Non-Offensive Touchdowns which led the nation. The players that set up these returns, Jamie Collins, Jacorious Cotton and others are mostly back. Southern Miss definitely has the most talent overall of any team in CUSA and over half the SEC teams at present. Southern Miss will finish again in the Top 20 and likely Top 15.

    Boise and Louisville will not win in Hattiesburg this season. Central Florida has only beaten Southern Miss once in their existence, and the Eagles proved that they can handle any team in the Western half of the conference. Marshall is my sleeper team in the East, but Southern Miss has them at home.

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