By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 10, 2014
There was a time when Southern Miss was a better yearly opponent for Alabama than some SEC teams.
A couple of Alabama-Southern Miss games are noteworthy, for all the wrong reasons. There was the Reggie Collier-led upset of one of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s last Alabama teams. And then there was the 21-0 loss to USM in 2000 that should have been the impetus for firing Mike DuBose.
This Southern Miss team, though, is nothing like those teams. The Golden Eagles have few weapons. The quality of the program has fallen off significantly since the questionable decision to force former coach Jeff Bower out of a job.
The 2014 edition of USM football has seen the Golden Eagles get blown out 49-0 by Mississippi State in the opener, followed by barely beating Alcorn 26-20 in Week 2. Alabama, which had trash-time work cut short by lightning last week against FAU, figures to be able to empty the bench in this game.
Southern Miss would prefer to throw the ball on all four downs if it was possible. The Golden Eagles often start four wide receivers in its base set, and there is not even a tight end in the primary alignment. Unfortunately for USM, the offense has been balanced up to this point – the team has been equally bad running and throwing the football. The only positive thing to say at this point is that the Golden Eagles have gained more than they’ve lost in the turnover game. Alabama counters with what has proven to be a very multiple pro-set attack indeed. The Crimson Tide is 9th in the country in total offense even though the Florida Atlantic game was stopped in the middle of the fourth quarter due to weather.
Nick Mullens has thrown every pass for the Golden Eagles so far this year. He’s 41-of-75 (54.7%) for 420 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He’s also shown pretty good wheels, carrying 13 times for 44 yards (3.4 avg.). But the Blake-and-Jake Show for Alabama is producing much better results. Mullens has averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt; Blake Sims (10.2) and Jake Coker (8.4) are almost twice that. Alabama still has not made a definitive call on who its starter is, will presumably continue to start Sims until something untoward happens. Sims is completing 76.6% of his passes for 478 total yards, and is averaging 6.2 yards on the ground. Coker threw for 202 yards in his debut against FAU, averaged 62.5% completion and ran for another 23 yards on 4 carries (5.8 avg.). Cole Weeks will back up Mullens for FAU; neither is particularly impressive in terms of size or ability. Advantage: Alabama
Freshman Ito Smith will start for the Golden Eagles, but he has struggled, rushing for just a 3.6-yard average on 41 carries. USM has yet to record a rushing touchdown. Both of Smith’s usual backups, Jalen Richard and George Payne, are injured; Payne figures to get limited snaps in this game while Richard is probably out altogether. It doesn’t matter much, though, as the two combined for 18 yards on 8 carries (2.3 avg.) before their respective injuries. Tez Parks has been filling in for Richard and Payne, and he has shown nice explosion, getting 57 yards on 7 carries (8.1 avg.). The Golden Eagles do have a fullback available, Daythan Davis, who has caught 1 short pass and has no carries. Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at the top of the depth chart, with Kenyan Drake providing depth. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny figure to play in this game as well. Jalston Fowler gives Alabama an improving presence at fullback, with Michael Nysewander backing him up. Really no contest here. Advantage: Alabama
Casey Martin is the Golden Eagles’ leading receiver, but he has just 11 catches for 95 yards (8.6 avg.) and no touchdowns. Martin isn’t even a full-time starter; James Cox, D.J. Thompson, Kyle Foster and Markese Triplett are the typical first-teamers. Triplett is capable of being a matchup problem for defenses; at 6’4” and 230 pounds, he’s basically a small tight end. Foster has been the team’s long-range threat so far, as he’s averaging almost 20 yards per catch. Michael Thomas is the primary name off the bench, along with Curtis Mikell. Alabama will be a bit thin this week, as DeAndrew White is out and Christion Jones may sit as a precautionary measure. That would leave Amari Cooper starting next to Chris Black, with ArDarius Stewart, Cameron Sims and Raheem Falkins the primary backups. Robert Foster and Parker Barrineau would add depth. O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler will continue to split work at tight end, with Dakota Ball, Ty Flournoy-Smith and Brandon Greene providing depth behind them. Malcolm Faciane is also available. Even with one starter out and another slowed by injury, Alabama is in much better shape. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s offensive line might be the most pleasant surprise of all this season. Center Ryan Kelly, guards Leon Brown and Arie Kouandjio and tackles Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd have been solid in both games so far. Depth is outstanding, with Grant Hill and Dominick Jackson at the tackles, Isaac Luatua and Alphonse Taylor at the guard slots and Bradley Bozeman at center. Southern Miss counters with Cameron Tom at center, Fredrick Moore and Brandon Farmer at the guards and Rashod Hill at left tackle. Norman Price will start at the other tackle slot if he’s healthy; if not, a freshman, Jerry Harris, will have to take the reins. Oliver Bates, Devin Farrior and Randal Agee provide depth. Alabama is much better than USM anyway and with the injury to Price, the gap widens. Advantage: Alabama
Southern Miss is all about hybrids. The Golden Eagles use only three true linemen and two true linebackers, with a hybrid end/LB “Bandit” position and a “Spur,” a hybrid linebacker-safety, on the field in base alignment. It’s a defense that seems to be fashioned to stop a hurry-up, no-huddle spread, but Alabama doesn’t run that. Right now, it’s not stopping anything. Southern Miss’ best ranking in any major defensive category is 69th in raw pass defense. Alabama, meanwhile, is seeing its defensive rankings return to form; the Crimson Tide is 3rd in the country in rushing defense already, and that number should improve with this week’s work. The Tide’s secondary has given up too many yards so far, though, and that won’t improve much this week with pass-happy Southern Miss in town.
The Golden Eagles have good size inside, where Adam Williams starts at nose and Rakeem Nunez-Roches starts at off-tackle. Michael Smith is more than big enough to play the strongside end spot. And yet, Southern Miss ranks 113th against the run. Dasman McCullum starts at the Bandit spot, sort of a Jack linebacker position but with a greater emphasis on beef. There is no depth at all, however, with USM’s reserve tackles weighing in at 245 (Nic Bekkers), 261 (Wil Freeman) and 289 (nosetackle Draper Riley). Alabama will likely continue to use A’Shawn Robinson in the middle, flanked by Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ends. Brandon Ivory, Korren Kirven and Josh Frazier will back up the middle, while Dalvin Tomlinson, Dee Liner, Da’Shawn Hand and Jarran Reed will spot the ends. Anthony Orr could see time in this game. Alabama is better overall, but particularly in terms of depth. Advantage: Alabama
Brian Anderson and Alan Howze get the call in the middle for Southern Miss. Speed is an issue with Anderson, while Howze is borderline on size. Either David Bertucci or Justin Penn will get the call at the Spur spot, which probably should be listed under the defensive backs category. The two players average around 200 pounds. Alabama will start Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland in the middle, with Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall as the outside linebackers. DePriest’s return against Florida Atlantic was well welcomed, and he proved to be much more able to call plays against a spread offense than Reuben Foster had been in the opener. Foster will back up the middle along with Shaun Dion Hamilton, while Dillon Lee splits time between inside and outside linebacker. Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans and Walker Jones add depth outside; Williams and Evans provided a major-league 1-2 punch coming off the corner against FAU. Advantage: Alabama
Give Southern Miss credit; the Golden Eagles can do some good things in the passing game. USM ranks 14th nationally in interceptions and the pass defense is a big reason why the Golden Eagles are 5th in red zone defense. But in addition to ranking 69th in raw pass defense, Southern Miss is 102nd in pass efficiency defense, meaning there are too many big plays being allowed here. Picasso Nelson and Kalan Reed will start at the corners, with Emmanuel Johnson and Jacorius Cotton at the safeties. Kevin Williams, Jomez Applewhite, Trae Collins and Kelsey Douglas will back up the starters. Alabama will start Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones at the corners, with Bradley Sylve and Tony Brown backing them up. Nick Perry and Landon Collins get the call at safety, with Geno Smith and Jabriel Washington the primary backups there. Others, like Anthony Averett and Marlon Humphrey, or walkons such as Jerrod Bierbower, could find themselves playing in this game. Alabama’s quarterbacks will have to avoid being baited into bad throws by this secondary, but Alabama’s advantage at safety gives the Tide the edge. Advantage: Alabama
Kicker Corey Acosta has a strong leg, but so-so accuracy for Southern Miss. Punter Tyler Sarrazin has been barely adequate. Kickoff returns have been terrible, and the Southern Miss defense hasn’t forced enough points to rank in punt returns yet. For Alabama, the kicking positions have become a surprise strength of the team. Adam Griffith’s reliability at kicker is welcomed, and true freshman punter J.K. Scott has shown a gold-standard leg. Alabama is also dangerous in the punt return game, but kickoff returns and kickoff coverage both need to be more consistent. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories and in both OL-DL matchups. This game shouldn’t be close.
The Golden Eagles have been one of the worst teams in Division-IA for a year or so, and it’s unlikely the turnaround will start in Tuscaloosa. For that matter, Southern Miss ought to hope for another lightning storm – say, about midway through the first quarter – if it wants to keep the score close.
The Golden Eagles have been known in the past for playing Alabama tough and keeping the margins respectable. It’s just hard to imagine one of those games this time around.
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