It has been almost a full calendar years since the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles stunned the Commonwealth of Kentucky and I am still not really sure what in the heck actually happened.
I’m not really sure how you can blow a 35-10 lead in a little over 15 minutes and how you can go from total domination to total collapse so quickly. The loss to Southern Mississippi was by far the low point of the 2016 season, and I am sure the staff and the players are still scratching their heads as to what happened.
While the loss was disappointing, it did not lead to a total meltdown of a season that myself and most of the BBN was expecting. This was a team that was able to grow from the loss, learn their lessons, and still make a bowl game.
The expectations are higher for the Wildcats this year, but none of that means anything is Kentucky stumbles at Hattiesburg. Let's meet the Golden Eagles.
The big question mark surrounding the Golden Eagles is the quarterback position. Nick Mullens is gone, and of this writing, Jay Hopson had not announced a starter. It appears that it will be either Kwadra Griggs or Keon Howard. There are also some publications that have touted freshman Marcelo Rodriguez due to an impressive scrimmage, but I doubt that he will get the call.
Howard played last year when Mullens went down and was largely ineffective, completing just 44% of his passes and tossing just one touchdown against four interceptions.
JUCO transfer Griggs appears to be more of a clubhouse leader, and he may have been Mullens backup last year had he not been sitting out his transfer year. He has a strong arm and is mobile and appears to be the best bet if he has recovered from a finger injury. Hopson has said that both will probably play tomorrow.
Other than Mullens, most of the skill players in the Golden Eagles return. Ito Smith rushed for nearly 1,500 yards last year and 17 touchdowns. Smith is also a receiving threat at he caught 43 passes for 459 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith is the only active FBS player with 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving for his career. Junior Tez Parks will back him up, but he only had 34 carries for 155 yards last year.
Mullens' favorite target, Allenzae Staggers is back also, and he is coming off a 1,165 yard, seven touchdown season. Korey Robertson (437 yards, 3 TDs) and Isaiah Jones (331 yards, 2 TDs) return and make this a deep and productive receiving corps, regardless of who the quarterback may be. TE Julian Allen (281 yards) may be more of a safety target on Saturday and could be a factor.
The Kentucky game last year was pretty much the microcosm of the Southern Mississippi defense last year. It was brilliant at times, porous at times and wholly unpredictable. This is a unit that is missing their leading tackler and their leading pass rusher from last year, but what remains is experienced and consists of mostly juniors and seniors that have been biding their time to step into the starting lineup.
DE Xavier Thigpen was a one man wrecking crew against Kentucky last season as he blocked a punt and forced one fumble and recovered another. Thigpen had 12.5 tackles for a loss last year and has 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Darian Yancey returns, and you will hear his name called a good bit.
Southern Miss lost two of their top linebackers, but Sherrod Ruff is poised to lead this unit. He is a hard hitter that forced a team high three fumbles, and he was third on the team in tackles for a loss.
The defensive secondary is the strength of this team as they return mostly senior starters. The core of this unit led C-USA in passing yards allowed and touchdowns last season. Losing D'Nerius Antoine will hurt, but Tavarius Moore will be expected to pick up the slack.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
The fact that Kentucky's former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is on the other side of the field will continue to be a storyline, but it should not be. Eddie Gran proved over the course of the season that he is a superior coordinator to Dawson and Dawson's main concern this year is finding an adequate signal caller rather than any lingering Kentucky drama.
Kentucky was the better team last season, even though they lost, and they are a much better team right now. Most of Kentucky's weapons on offense and defense are back while the Golden Eagles have lost their best player.
While the Eagles have a solid defense, it is still one that melted down at times and allowed teams like UTSA and Charlotte to rush for over 300 yards. Benny Snell was on pace for a redshirt freshman season when these teams previously met. That is how much things have changed. Kentucky's offensive line is no match for the defensive lines of the Golden Eagles and Kentucky should be able to run at will.
On the other end of things, this will be a great test for Kentucky's questionable defensive line to put some pressure on the quarterback and as Southern Miss is looking at three new starters on the line.
The Golden Eagles are looking for answers on the offensive line, but Kentucky's defensive line could be the question that gets answered.
The bottom line is that this is a game that Kentucky should win and win rather easily ... even on the road. Last years meltdown was of epic proportions, but Kentucky just has too much talent this time around.
Look for Kentucky to get their revenge with a 41-20 win over the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.