Southern Miss faces a difficult path to the C-USA West title, but it has a shot to make an early statement when conference play begins Saturday.
An improved North Texas squad (2-2, 1-0) comes to Roberts Stadium for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.
In Seth Littrell's second season as head coach, the Mean Green have an offense that's starting to resemble the potent spread scheme that Larry Fedora, Littrell's former boss at North Carolina, employed at USM from 2008-2011 and now at UNC. North Texas leads C-USA in total offense (504 ypg) and scoring offense (37.8).
Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine has completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 1,076 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions. North Texas also features C-USA's leading rusher in senior Jeffery Wilson, who has 63 carries for 518 yards and six touchdowns.
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USM is a 9-point favorite on its home field Saturday thanks to what should be a sizable advantage on the defensive side of the ball. The Golden Eagles rank sixth in the nation and second in C-USA in total defense, allowing 241.3 yards a game.
The UNT defense has given up its fair share of yardage this season, allowing an average of 397.3 yards. UNT gave up 395 yards in a 46-43 win over UAB last week and 493 in a 54-32 loss to SMU. Iowa rolled up 435 yards in a 31-14 win over the Mean Green.
USM (2-1) is in a position to put up plenty of points against UNT, but the Golden Eagles don't want to get into a shootout against C-USA's most productive offense so far.
My prediction: Southern Miss 35, North Texas 24.
October is key
If USM is to make a run at the C-USA West title, it will have to play its best football starting on Saturday and hope for a strong October. USM begins league play with five consecutive games against West Division opponents – Sept. 30 vs. UNT, Oct. 7 at UTSA, Oct. 14 vs. UTEP, Oct. 21 at La. Tech and Oct. 28 vs. UAB.
The road trips to UTSA (3-0) and Louisiana Tech (2-2, 1-0) make USM's conference slate one of the most difficult. Games against UTEP, Rice and Charlotte appear to be sure victories, but the regular season finale at Marshall (2-1) on Nov. 25 is always a tough trek to make.
Before USM can start thinking about a West Division title, it first has to get through North Texas on Saturday. If the Eagles lose, they'll need a lot of help to get back in the race.
The defense is there
If the first three games of the season are any indication, the defense should put USM squarely in the hunt in the West. The Golden Eagles may have the best defense in the conference.
UTSA also has a claim to make for that title after allowing an an average of 207 yards a game through the first three contests to lead C-USA in total defense and rank second in the nation. The Roadrunners will have a bye week to prepare for the Golden Eagles at the Alamodome next week.
USM players should remember well the embarrassment of last season's 55-32 loss at UTSA, which gashed the Eagles' defense with 35 carries for 339 yards and six touchdowns.
The real question going forward is whether USM's first-year starter at quarterback, redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs, can build on his early play. He has completed 58 percent of his passes for 681 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. If he can continue his clean play and improve on his completion percentage, the USM offense should be just fine.
USM also needs its offensive line to hold up after losing starting left tackle Drake Dorbeck to injury. There's not much depth there and that group can't afford more injuries.
If USM can get past UNT and UTSA the next two weeks, the Golden Eagles will be in good shape.
Who: Southern Miss vs. North Texas
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: 104.9 FM
C-USA Power Rankings
1. UTSA (3-0)
2. La. Tech (2-2, 1-0)
3. Southern Miss (2-1)
4. Marshall (2-1)
5. WKU (2-2, 0-1)
6. MTSU (2-2)
7. North Texas (2-2, 1-0)
8. Old Dominion (2-2)
9. UAB (2-2, 0-1)
10. FAU (1-3)
12. FIU (2-1, 1-0)
12. Rice (1-3, 1-1)
13. UTEP (0-4, 0-1)
14. Charlotte (0-4)