Finally! After what seems like an eternity, college football is back, and our beloved Kentucky Wildcats are preparing to face off against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. While best known as the college home of Brett Favre, Southern Miss has carved out a pretty good resume of their own in the shadows of the SEC.
Historically, Southern Miss has a better winning percentage overall (.581) than Kentucky (.494), and the Golden Eagles have appeared in more bowls than the Wildcats (21-15). This can be attributed to the fact that Southern Miss does not have to deal with the grind of a SEC schedule, but this is a program that has had 109 NFL Draft picks so they can not be overlooked. Southern Miss is coming off a 9-5 season which included a loss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to Washington.
The two teams have played just twice, with Kentucky winning both games. But that is ancient history. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this may not be your typical "SEC vs non-power-5 school" as the Golden Eagles are a deadly opponent. USA Today has the Golden Eagles as the #45 team in their preseason rankings while Kentucky trails in a #71.
Their overall success has not translated into beating SEC teams. Southern Miss is 1-14 versus the SEC since the new millennium, and that was a 21-0 win in 2000 over ... wait for it ... Alabama. Since then, they have gone 0-13 against the SEC, and if you were wondering, Alabama got their revenge over the Golden Eagles 52-13 in 2013. With that said, let's meet the Golden Eagles.
Quarterback Nick Mullens is coming off a great year for the Golden Eagles as he passed for 4476 yards and 38 touchdowns. Those big numbers were not limited to Sun Belt opponent either. Against Mississippi State, Nebraska, and Washington, Mullens completed 65.8% of his passes for 1089 yards and a 5-1 TD/INT ratio. He torched the Nebraska secondary for 447 yards.
Southern Miss has a balanced offense with an effective running game. Ito Smith averaged 6.6 yards per carry on his way to 1128 yards and 10 touchdowns, Smith has breakaway speed and is tough to bring down from behind. Smith is also a threat to catch passes out of the backfield with 49 receptions for 515 yards. George Payne, who missed last season with an injury looks to be Ito's backup. He found the end zone six times in 2014 but averaged just 3.2 yards a carry.
Mullen's favorite targets from last year, Michael Thomas and Casey Martin, are gone, but DJ Thompson is slated to have a huge season. Last year, Thompson caught 55 passes for 779 yards as the third option. After Thompson, there is potential but questions marks as to who will emerge as another big target for Mullen. Korey Robertson has the most experience at this level with 14 catches and 200 yards. Also, the Golden Eagles has some talented JUCO players expected to step it up. If you watched "Last Chance U" on Netflix, you are familiar with Isaiah Jones and Allenzae Staggers.
Even with a new defensive coordinator, expect the Eagles to be very aggressive on defense. Last year, they were prone to give up the big play and allowed 30 plays of 30 yards or more. And while the offense played well against the three big names of their schedule last year, you can not say the same about the defense. Against the trio of Mississippi State, Nebraska, and Washington, the Golden Eagles gave up 43 points a game and 7.5 yards a play. Against everyone else, it was 4.7 yards per play and 22 points.
Southern Miss lost two starting defensive ends and MLB Brian Anderson. They still have talent on the line with Dylan Bradley who was the team leader in sacks with 6.5. Xavier Thigpen also returns and he had 3.5 sacks last year. Elijah Parker and Darian Yancey return at the outside linebacker positions, but the biggest thing to be excited about her is Jordan Harris, who transferred from Iowa State. Harris was one of the Cyclone's better defenders, and he had 70 tackles and will be a big presence on defense.
The secondary is the strongest part of the Golden Eagle's defense. Cornell Armstrong had two picks last year, and he leads the team in returning players with 12 passes defended. D'Nerius Antoine split time at linebacker and safety and led this team with 103 tackles. Picasso Nelson was third on the team with 53 tackles and provides valuable experience and Devonta Foster, who started two games, returns. DeVontre Parnell was hampered by injuries at Louisville, but the former four-star recruit could battle for a position as well.
SO, WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
A lot has been made of the weapons that returned on offense, but the factor of who is not on the field could affect this game as well. While Mullen was a terror last year, especially on third down, his best third and long targets in Martin and Thomas are gone. These two had 23 catches for 450 yards on third and long situations, so this will be one area to watch. Mullen has lost four of his top five receivers, and you have to wonder if the chemistry will be there in game one.
Also, there are new faces for the head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. That is a lot to adjust to for your second toughest game of the year (LSU is also on the schedule). I could write another thousand words on the added storyline of Shannon Dawson being the offensive coordinator of Southern Miss. This has been done however, and I will just say that it is very rare that a non-Power Five position coach brings this much drama to the game.
As for the actual game, look for Kentucky to go with the running game early and often to soften up the defense and open up opportunities for Drew Barker to hit his much-hyped receiving crew. No matter what happens with the rest of the offense, this running game is still good enough to win the game, especially with some questions in the Golden Eagle front seven.
The other big question is whether Kentucky can stop Southern Miss? This offense will still put up points, but the biggest thing to watch is how the Golden Eagles receivers fare against the Kentucky secondary. This is a position of strength for Kentucky, and as we mentioned, there are some concerns with the wideouts in game one. It won't be a total shutdownthough, and Southern Miss will put some points on the board. In the end, this is a game that could be a shootout for the first few quarters, but I expect the more physical Wildcats to wear down the Golden Eagles and come out a 38-28 winner.