Southern Miss

There’s no sugar coating it. Southern Miss football cannot afford to lose to UAB.

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There’s no point in glossing over the situation that the Southern Miss football team faces in Saturday’s home game against UAB.

USM cannot afford to lose.

Sure, the Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-1) can still rally for a bowl bid if they take the loss. But a defeat would be a major setback, riling up the fan base and causing some concern about the status of the program under fourth-year head coach Jay Hopson.

A loss would all but eliminate USM from contention in the C-USA West — a division that the Golden Eagles haven’t won since Todd Monken’s final season as head coach in 2015.

With a defeat, Southern Miss would be in a position where it would probably have to win two of the final three games to guarantee itself a bowl bid. While a win at UTSA on Nov. 16 seems likely, the final two games against WKU and FAU are far from sure things.

It’s crucial that USM build momentum going into the final three weeks of the season and that starts with Saturday’s game.

The suggestion that a UAB win on Saturday would be a disaster for USM is in no way an indictment of the Blazers. UAB (6-2, 3-1) is a decent football team with arguably Conference USA’s best coach in Bill Clark.

However, a closer look at the Blazers reveals possibly the softest six-win team in the nation. UAB has five victories over FBS competition, but those five squads are a combined 5-38 with a total of two wins over FBS competition - both belong to a bad UTSA team that has beaten Rice (0-9) and UTEP (1-7).

A win is a win, but each of UAB’s victories up to this point have been equally unimpressive. Even a season-opening 24-19 home victory over Alabama State, a mediocre SWAC team, was an underwhelming showing.

Prime opportunity

A glance at some of the other factors that could play into Saturday’s matchup show that Southern Miss is in an ideal position to pull out the victory.

USM is coming off a bye week that allowed several key players to heal, including senior De’Michael Harris and the rest of the running back corps.

UAB played last week, taking a bruising 30-7 loss at Tennessee.

Tyler Johnston, UAB’s starting quarterback, is uncertain for Saturday’s game after leaving early in the fourth quarter of the loss to Tennessee with a sprain.

The Southern Miss defense appeared to get its swagger back in a 20-6 win at Rice on Oct. 26 and they’ve had a couple of weeks to game plan for Saturday’s game.

That’s not to say all signs are pointing to a USM win on Saturday.

If Johnston is ready to go and can recover from his three-interception effort against Tennessee, he has a talented group of receivers to throw to against a USM secondary that has been exploited at times.

UAB’s defense ranks fifth in the nation with just 255.3 yards allowed per game, but that stat seems loaded when you consider the quality of competition they’ve faced up to this point.

Even the two teams that the Blazers have lost two this season are far from offensive juggernauts. Western Kentucky ranks 101st in the nation with an average of 360.3 yards per game and Tennessee checks in at 348.8 for 106th best.

An unpredictable rivalry

Saturday’s UAB-USM game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on the NFL Network — an unfortunate kickoff time considering the “Game of the Century” starts at the same time with LSU and Alabama doing battle in Tuscaloosa.

The UAB-USM series has been an odd one from the outset, beginning with a 33-30 win for USM in Birmingham on Nov. 11, 2000.

On top of the pressure to stay on track in the C-USA West, Southern Miss fans are tired of losing to UAB — a program that’s still a relative neophyte and somehow managed to survive being shutdown for seven months back in 2014. USM has lost three consecutive games in the series and seven of the last eight, including last season’s 26-23 defeat at Legion Field.

This is all after USM won the first nine games of the series, including a 70-14 blowout in Hattiesburg in 2008.

From UAB’s 34-31 win over No. 20 Southern Miss to end USM’s major bowl hopes in 2011 to USM’s 62-27 victory in 2013 to end a 23-game losing streak, it’s been a very strange series.

If UAB runs its win streak to four games over the Golden Eagles on Saturday, the pressure mounts for Hopson and company.

Patrick Magee is a sports writer who has covered South Mississippi for much of the last two decades. From Southern Miss to high schools, he stays on top of it all.