This column is the first in a series of previews of our 2010 gridiron opponents. Today, we're taking a look at the Southern Miss. Golden Eagles, who were kind enough to agree to come to Columbia at the last minute after the North Carolina Tarheels backed out of their game against us so that they could play the LSU Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Southern Miss., a traditional mid-major power, comes into the season with high hopes of contending for the Conference USA championship. Their coach is Larry Fedora, who enters his third season after replacing longtime coach Jeff Bower. Fedora is 14-12 in Hattiesburg after two 7-6 seasons, both ending with berths in the New Orleans Bowl. USM should do better than that this year, and they'll be looking to start the season off right when they come to Columbia. As many of you know, this is a program with a history of upsetting southern football powers, and they're not to be taken lightly.
Offense: Fedora, who since his days as offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, Florida, and Oklahoma State has been considered a top offensive mind, has the Eagles primed for a productive offensive year in 2010. Fedora likes to run a no-huddle, variable-tempo spread offense. The Golden Eagles ranked 31st in the country in total offense and 18th in scoring offense last season, and with lots of talent returning with experience running Fedora's scheme, they could be even better this year.
Personnel-wise, the Golden Eagles strengths are QB Martevious Young and a deep WR corp. The Golden Eagles will have one glaring weakness on offense, though: they return only one offensive lineman, C Cameron Zipp. That will be a liability against what will likely be the best defensive front they'll face this season.
Defense: The Golden Eagles finished 80th in the country in 2010 in total defense, with the major culprit being a porous pass defense that gave up 260+ ypg. Their rushing defense was more respectable at 43rd in the country, but it also gave up a somewhat suspect--although not particularly horrible--3.63 pc, suggesting that the rushing defense numbers came as a result of teams choosing not to run against them too much. USM does return nine starters, but, as is usually the case with a bad unit, it's questionable whether or not that's a plus for them.
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Player Whose Name You Should Remember: DeAndre Brown, WR. Brown is a junior wide receiver who has caught almost 2000 yards in his career. He was the third-highest recruited WR of the 2008 class, right behind Julio Jones and A.J. Green. He chose to stay home and play for the Golden Eagles despite receiving offers from virtually every powerhouse program in the southeast. Brown's greatest asset is his size and athletic ability. At a legit 6'6 / 230+, he is built like a small tight end, but he runs like a wideout. He also has great hands, and his size and hands combined make him the perfect jump ball target.
You can bank on Stephon Gilmore lining up across the line from Brown. Gilmore has stopped some big-time receivers before, but Brown will certainly be one of his greatest challenges. Let's hope he's ready to step it up and shut this guy down.
What to Expect: Southern Miss. has a good program, but talent-wise they shouldn't be able to hand with us for too long. However, regardless of the opponent, opening games have typically been pretty brutal for us under Steve Spurrier, and that could very well happen against a decent USM squad. The question here shouldn't be our defense; while Brown and Co. will definitely make some plays and move the ball, I expect that a healthy USC defense should be able to keep the Golden Eagles out of the red zone for most--but not all--of the evening. The real issue, of course, is our offense, just like it always is in opening games. If we move the ball efficiently and manage to score 20-30 points, we should be fine. If we have trouble moving the ball and, especially, if we turn it over, we're in trouble.
IMO, there are a couple of issues at play in how we perform offensively in opening games. First of all, we've been so touch-and-go that the opening game has often included a good deal of either tentativeness (last season) or lineup experimentation gone awry (2008), neither of which have led to much success. Even in 2007, when we had an experienced lineup in place, we had Blake Mitchell sitting out for disciplinary reasons, and that led to fairly tentative game plan with Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher under center. Second of all, it's no mystery that Spurrier may be inclined to hold his hand for the Georgia game.
The first of these two factors shouldn't apply this year. Regardless of what Steve Spurrier is saying about Stephen Garcia and Conner Shaw, Garcia is an experienced QB this year and should be relied upon to produce, and the rest of the offense is also stacked as one of our better in recent years. That means that we shouldn't expect either too much tentativeness or a four-turnover performance. The point about Georgia, though, remains, and it will likely be as on Spurrier's mind as ever this season. Spurrier knows that this is an important year for his regime and that beating Georgia is about as close to a must-win for success this year as any game. Combine that with his longtime hatred for the 'Dawgs, and you have the ingredients at play for Coach to resist rolling out any special wrinkles in his offense that he may want to save to spring on the 'Dawgs.
What all of this means to me is that we will likely go for some quick scores to put the game out of reach, but that we likely won't pull out the playbook or air it out as long as we're able to move the ball fairly consistently without doing so. I think that should be a reasonable possibility--and our ability to do so should be a good indication of whether or not Garcia and our offensive line have made much progress.
Prediction: I wouldn't be at all surprised if this game is relatively close at halftime. You can expect Southern Miss. to manage to score, and for all my hopes, I'll be surprised if we come out and rack up 300+ yards in the first half. However, I expect we'll pull away to some degree in the second, much as we did against mid-major competition last season. I predict a 14-24 point Carolina victory.