Patrick Magee

Will Southern Miss football meet expectations, or fall short?

Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson enters his first season as head coach with big expectations.
Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson enters his first season as head coach with big expectations. ttisbell@sunherald.com

Eight wins. Nine wins. Ten wins. Eleven wins.

The predictions have mostly been on the optimistic side for the Southern Miss football team for the 2016 season, and for good reason. With senior quarterback Nick Mullens back behind center following a season of 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns and plenty of other impact players returning, first-year head coach Jay Hopson enters a great situation with a Conference USA title a genuine possibility.

The only downside for Hopson is the pressure that comes with those expectations.

On Saturday, Golden Eagle fans will get their first glance at what all the buzz is about when USM opens the season at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at Kentucky.

Everyone else has had their chance at forecasting the USM football season so it's time I joined in.

First, let's have a look at the big contest on Saturday in Lexington.

It's been 16 years since USM last took down an SEC opponent when the Eagles won 21-0 at Alabama. On the surface, Kentucky appears as beatable as any SEC squad the Golden Eagles have faced in a couple of decades.

A look at 'Big Blue'

When Mark Stoops took the job as head coach at at Kentucky in 2013, it seemed like a good hire and it was easy to foresee a rejuvenated Wildcat program by year No. 4.

Through three seasons, Kentucky is 4-20 against SEC competition with no bowl bids. The swagger necessary to compete in the SEC hasn't yet materialized under Stoops.

With an annual salary of $3.4 million, the pressure is on Stoops to get bowl eligible in 2016.

I don't see Hopson, who makes a whopping $500,000, doing Stoops' job security any favors.

My prediction: Southern Miss 31, Kentucky 24.

If USM does indeed pick up a win Saturday, that doesn't necessarily mean that a major bowl bid is in the cards.

Past experience should let fans know that there will be the occasional trap game. When USM went 12-2 in 2011, there were the highs of wins over Virginia and Houston and the lows of road losses to Marshall and a poor UAB team.

USM may enter 10 of its games this season as the favorite. Kentucky and LSU could be the only teams favored by Las Vegas against the Golden Eagles this year.

The hurdles

A Sept. 24 trip to UTEP, the Oct. 29 contest against Marshall and the Nov. 25 season finale against Louisiana Tech will likely be the toughest conference bouts on the schedule for USM. The Oct. 8 road game at Texas-San Antonio and the Nov. 12 contest at Old Dominion also can't be counted out as trap games.

I see three games as particularly problematic for USM.

UTEP: After going 5-7 in 2015, a healthier UTEP has a chance to play keep away against USM with redshirt junior running back Aaron Jones working behind a big offensive line.

MARSHALL: When Marshall beat USM in 2011, the Herd began a five-game winning streak in what has been one of the more interesting match-ups in C-USA since the Herd joined the league in 2005. Coach Doc Holliday has his program exactly how he wants it with 33 wins in the last three years. Hopson is entering year No. 1 and the Eagles just haven't caught a break against Marshall in recent years.

LSU: As long as Leonard Fournette is carrying the load for LSU on Oct. 15 in Baton Rouge, it's hard to see the Golden Eagles hanging in there.

I see Southern Miss finishing the regular season with a win over Louisiana Tech to clinch the Conference USA West and a spot in the title game for the second consecutive season. That would give the Golden Eagles a 9-3 overall record.

Even with two losses in conference play, USM could still be in the hunt to host the conference championship game. There should be a good deal of parity in the C-USA East with Marshall, WKU, MTSU, Old Dominion, FAU and FIU all proving tough to handle. Whoever comes out of the East could very well have a pair of league losses.

Even if Marshall is the opponent in the title game, I see Mullens and company winning the program's sixth C-USA title trophy.

After three years in the wilderness from 2012-14, USM fans should gladly take that.

Game plan

Who: Southern Miss vs. Kentucky

When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Lexington, Ky.

Radio: 104.9 FM

TV: ESPNU

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