Patrick Magee

Which direction is Southern Miss football headed?

Southern Miss receiver Isaiah Jones points out a Savannah State defender after making a cut back to the middle of the field on Sept. 10, 2016, in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss receiver Isaiah Jones points out a Savannah State defender after making a cut back to the middle of the field on Sept. 10, 2016, in Hattiesburg. Sun Herald File

Entering each of the last three seasons, there was a sense that Southern Miss football was on an upward trajectory.

In 2017, there’s no great feel for which direction the team is headed.

The 2016 season fell short of expectations with a 7-6 record thanks to injuries and a couple of baffling performances against Texas-San Antonio and Charlotte. While the Golden Eagles took it on the chin against the Roadrunners and 49ers, they still managed to beat two of the better teams they played last year — Kentucky and Louisiana Tech.

USM fans have grown accustomed to the volatility that was on full display last season. For every high, there seems to be a frustrating low.

There is reason to be optimistic for USM football in 2017 with Jay Hopson settling in for his second season as head coach after having to rush in just prior to spring practice after Todd Monken’s departure in 2016. Aside from the departure of offensive line coach Jack Wright, the staff is largely intact from a year ago.

Senior running back Ito Smith leads a talented group in the backfield and USM has plenty of options at receiver.

On defense, the Golden Eagles are at the deepest they’ve been in quite some time. Defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro believes he has a 10-man rotation on the defensive line and the secondary should be one of the best in Conference USA.

All indications are that the 2017 class of signees was a good one, but it remains to be seen how much those true freshmen will contribute this year.

The concerns

It all comes back to the quarterback.

Nick Mullens is no longer in Hattiesburg after serving the last four years as the starter.

Hopson and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson have yet to name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s 3 p.m. season opener against Kentucky in Hattiesburg, but it would be surprising if redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs doesn’t jog onto the field first as long as he’s healthy.

Griggs, who missed a few practices recently with a banged up finger, had some standout moments during fall camp and gives the offense the best chance to stretch the field in the passing game.

Sophomore Keon Howard can’t be counted out and it may be hard to keep freshman Marcelo Rodriguez on the sideline if either Griggs or Howard struggle behind center.

The starting five along the offensive line should be just fine, but multiple injuries could put USM in an extremely tough spot. There are three true freshmen listed as second string on the offensive line — Paul Gainer, Hayden Sturdevant and Woodlyson Alcius.

You can have loads of talent at receiver and running back, but that matters little if both your quarterback and offensive line are struggling.

Predicting 2017

At the moment, I’m seeing a 7-5 record for USM. It’s more likely to move up to eight wins rather than drop back to six considering the schedule isn’t all that difficult.

I’d give USM a better chance on its home field Saturday if I knew exactly what it was going to get out of its quarterback. Griggs seems perfectly capable of making the offense go, but you just don’t know how he will react until you see him behind center and playing in front of a packed house.

If USM is to win Saturday, it will be because the defense played far superior to last year’s 44-35 victory in Lexington.

My prediction: Kentucky 27, Southern Miss 21.

Here’s how I see the the season playing out for the Golden Eagles:

  • Sept. 2 – Kentucky (L)
  • Sept. 9 – Southern (W)
  • Sept. 16 – at La.-Monroe (W)
  • Sept. 30 – North Texas (W)
  • Oct. 7 – at UTSA (L)
  • Oct. 14 – UTEP (W)
  • Oct. 21 – at La. Tech (L)
  • Oct. 28 – UAB (W)
  • Nov. 4 – at Tennessee (L)
  • Nov. 11 – at Rice (W)
  • Nov. 18 – Charlotte (W)
  • Nov. 25 – at Marshall (L)

Expect the unexpected.

Game plan

What: Kentucky vs. Southern Miss

When: 3 p.m., Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: CBS Sports Network