It really is a shame that two major college football programs in the same small state can go 24 years without playing each other. Especially when Mississippi State -- one of those aforementioned two teams -- duels it up with Ole Miss every year, and has played Alcorn and Jackson State multiple times in recent years. Nevertheless and moving past the cause for the 24 year delay, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles will travel to Starkville on August 30th to take on Mississippi State to open the 2014 season. It's nice that two mascots that were able to come together to make the greatest mascot duo picture ever are back together again:
2013 - Year in review
To say Southern Miss has had a rough go of it over the last several seasons is putting it mildly. I haven't talked to a single Golden Eagle fan who hasn't buried the Ellis Johnson year
s deep in their subconscious, and last year wasn't a whole lot better, as the Eagles were basically one ridiculously good half of football away from riding into Starkville on a 24-game losing streak. But that ridiculous half of football did happen, and it happened to close out the season for Todd Monken's crew, which means that hope springs eternal for USM just like the rest of us as they head into this fall.
As is often the case with a struggling team, an early forced youth movement was evident for USM in 2013. The Golden Eagles started freshman Nick Mullens for the last few games, and true freshman such as Tyre'oune Holmes (WR) and Marquis Ricard (WR) saw significant playing time when a coach would likely rather they be on the sidelines learning or in a redshirt season getting bigger. But there is some good to come out of playing a ton of young guys early, and that is that they're seasoned veterans as young sophomores going into the next fall. That will be the case for Mullens and a few others as the Eagles head into the fall.
On defense, Bill Connelly was impressed with the Southern Miss line in 2013, and says the front seven should be a strength again in 2014:
Run defense could be a strength again, and this time without the air quotes. Two of the top three defensive tackles return, not including former star recruit Dylan Bradley, who moves from undersized tackle to big end. Plus, Rakeem Nunez-Roches returns after missing last season with injury. Lanky end Dasman McCullum made quite a few big plays last fall (while failing to do much in terms of mundane plays), and a trio of three-star redshirt freshmen are available this year as well. At linebacker, Alan Howze returns after a medical redshirt -- he was on pace for 78 tackles and more than 10 tackles for loss before getting hurt last year -- and joins a pair of players who more or less held their own last year (Terrick Wright and C.J. Perry).
It sounds like Southern held their own on defense as they have for so many years, but as Bill also said in his USM preview, "it didn't matter because the offense was so hopeless." That offense should be improved, though, and it sounds like a salty defense will be on the other side of things to help them out as well.
The good news is that there's nowhere to go but up for Southern, and the hey there's more good news is that the Southern of old was the class of Conference USA. If USM can ever return to that level then 2012-13 will be easily forgotten, but for now this is still the team who lost 55-14 to North Texas, at home, on homecoming. The road to improvement is a steep one, but a more experienced roster should help make it happen. Schedule-wise, things won't start off easy for Southern as they head to both MSU and Alabama in the first three weeks. Yikes. State certainly isn't unbeatable for USM, but Alabama is. Alabama is about as tough of a game as it gets for all of us, honestly. After that things begin to settle into conference play where we should find out what or how much improvement this team has made from last year
It's the season opener
Season openers are some of the greatest days of a calendar year because by that time we've been walking in the football-less Sahara with nothing but arrests and previews for nourishment and then BAM, there's actual football again. But season openers are also scary as hell for me as a fan, because it's always like starting a car that hasn't run in awhile. There will be kinks, and things won't look as pretty as they will three weeks in. The biggest thing to watch will be whether or not MSU will be good enough to overcome the hiccups that will arise. State should be. Despite my words above spinning hope for Golden Eagle fans everywhere, they are still a 1-11 team in a lower tier conference. MSU and Ole Miss both should expect to beat a Southern (at least in their current state), and anything less than a few touchdowns worth of victory margin will be cause for concern.
Southern's got nothing to lose
"There's nothing like shutting up a cowbell" - That's what Todd Monken told a collective of Southern fans on the coast recently, and why wouldn't he. For one, Monken is just borrowing tactics from Dan Mullen's bag of tricks. And Monken and Southern have nothing to lose going into August 30th's game, so why wouldn't he fire things up a bit. USM opened as a 28.5 underdog to MSU the other day, and that four-touchdown margin is probably an accurate depiction of what most fans expect this game to be. With that being the case, if I'm Todd Monken I'm throwing everything I have at MSU and Dan Mullen in the opener. State will be opening a shiny new $75 million renovated Davis Wade, we'll be heavy favorites, and State fans have big expectations for this season. If MSU loses, well I hate to dwell on it, but let's say it will do quite a bit to deflate expectations for this year. That's why the game scares the everloving crap out of me; because MSU has nothing to gain, and Southern nothing to lose. I'll be disappointed if we don't see every trick Monken has come August 30th.
Avoiding the "play to their level" syndrome
Adding to the last two points, Mississippi State simply cannot come out and play down to their opponent's level. MSU was AWFUL at doing that last year (heyowadup, Bowling Green and UK?), and that has really been a trend every year in the Dan Mullen era (for some games, not all). State has three games to open that it should easily win, with this game being one of them. But if MSU plays as they did against Kentucky last year, or if they get caught looking past USM, don't think Monken, Mullens and the rest of the Golden Eagles won't come into town and take the life out of what could be a great season. Get up big, don't fart around, and let's make it 1-0 on the year when this game comes around in... ONE MONTH /breaths into paper bag