In the first game of the season with Southern Miss traveling to Kentucky, there are many storylines and superlatives.
Nick Mullens enters his senior season after having a record-setting junior year that is garnering national attention; offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson returns to Kentucky after spending a lone season where the team finished with a 5-7 record in 2015; replacing contributors such as Kalan Reed, Michael Thomas and Rashod Hill to name a few, but most importantly, how Hopson and his nearly entirely new staff will pick up where Todd Monken left off with the Golden Eagle football program.
All these questions will be answered in a game that Southern Miss comes in as a five-point underdog.
Dawson in particular, sees no storyline in his return to Lexington. Although he is wearing different colors a year later, the objective is still the same: Come away with a victory.
“I love a lot of people there,” Dawson said during Southern Miss Media Day on Aug. 13. “I have no ill will towards any of those guys. I wish we could’ve won more games for [Mark Stoops].”
He also adds that nothing special should be made of the tendencies that Kentucky may remember from his tenure. On the other hand, the defense that Dawson faced day in and day out will have new wrinkles in it.
“They’re not going to sit here and change their whole defensive scheme because of our first game,” Dawson said. “I have a little bit of knowledge about them and they have a little bit of knowledge about me.”
Last year’s contributors will be replaced by the likes of cornerback-combo Trae Collins and Cornell Armstrong, the possible junior college emergences of both Isaiah Jones and Allenzae Staggers and Wil Freeman making the adjustment from attacking quarterbacks to protecting one of the best in the nation.
“It’s a steady progression and we have to continue to grow,” Hopson said on the identity of his team. “We just want to play physical football, assignment football. That’s all that we ask.”
Hopson will have an early test of his coaching on the FBS level against a Kentucky team that is looking for retribution after a 5-7 season ending in disappointment. Both teams are looking for a push to remain relevant on the national scale. But who needs the game more?
The answer is simple: Southern Miss.
Although Kentucky fans will clamor for Stoops to skip town if he loses this game and snowballs to another disappointing season, his contract says otherwise.
If the school lets him go after this season, they will owe the man at the helm of Kentucky football $12 million dollars for a buyout, according to John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader. So this game is a must-win, but if he does not win, all is not gloomy for the future of the Wildcat coach.
Hopson’s team is not as massive of an underdog as it was in 2014 with Monken traveling to Mississippi State or to Alabama. Kentucky is an SEC opponent, but nonetheless not of the caliber of an Alabama, Texas A&M or an LSU [who USM will face later in the season].
This is a very winnable game for the Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss will have to be efficient on offense and avoid turnovers. The defensive backfield of Kentucky is long, athletic and the heart of the defense. The USM receiving core of D.J. Thompson, Jones and Staggers will have their work cut out for them in making their impact on the game.
The defensive front seven of Southern Miss will also be tested heavily throughout this contest. The Kentucky Wildcats will be able to roll out four running backs with at least 70 carries last season. The run game will be a major factor in how effective the Kentucky offense will be.
Lastly, how will the coaching staff react when push comes to shove? When the score is out of hand or when the offense can not move past the 50-yard line? Adversity changes many things and adversity will be a theme to watch during the entire 2016 Golden Eagle football season.
Prediction: Southern Miss 33, Kentucky 30