In retrospect, the second half of the Southern Miss’s game versus the Kentucky Wildcats served as a frustrating reminder of what should have been for the Golden Eagles season. For one half, everything clicked on offense and defense as they dominated the Wildcats 35-0. And that was as good as it would get for the rest of the year.
They had an offense that was good enough to finish 21st in the nation, yet struggled to score at times. The defense was good enough to rank 15th, yet it struggled to keep people from scoring.
It all adds up to a frustrating 7-6 season in which they opened their season with two straight wins and closed it with two straight wins which included a New Orleans Bowl win over Louisiana. In between, the Golden Eagles struggled and went 3-6.
That's in the past, however. Let's take an early look at the 2017 Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
Gone is quarterback Nick Mullens, but that does not mean that the dangerous Golden Eagle defense is decimated. RB Ito Smith returns and is coming off a 1459 yard season with 17 touchdowns. Allenzae Staggers will head the receiving corps and he is one of the best in the CUSA. They have the offensive tools, but there are questions about the offense.
First, they have the bulk of the offensive line to rebuild. Center Cameron Tom and the entire left side of the line is gone, along with some valuable depth. And there is still the quarterback situation. Keon Howard played some last year but still has to beat out Kwadra Griggs.
The defense suffered heavy losses as well, as only five starters return. Four of the top six tacklers are gone from last season, but DB Picasso Nelson Jr returns as what should still be a pretty solid pass defense. While the defense lost a lot of starters. a lot of the remaining roster has experience and is ready to step up this year.
In a way, this game can represent the end of the old era of Kentucky football versus the future of Kentucky football moving forward. I have seen some displeasure online about the fact that Southern Mississippi beat Kentucky last year and the fact that this game is one the road.
The days of worrying about this game should be over. There will always be a subset of Kentucky football fans whose sole purpose is to fret and worry but a solid performance here should win them over.
The Wildcats went through a true discovery season last year and discovered themselves and what they were made of. That whole journey of self-discovery started with the second half collapse against Southern Miss. And the players on the Kentucky team remember that game very well.
Not to disrespect the Golden Eagles, but they have lost 11 starters from the team that shocked the Wildcats last year. And game one of the season is not a good time to break in a new quarterback against a defense that is itching for a chance at revenge.
Kentucky should be able to bury the demons from their past and leave Hattiesburg with a 35-14 win.