A Battle of Eagles! (Previewing Auburn hosting Southern Mississippi)
It has been a decade since these two teams met
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the another Auburn game preview! On September 29th, Auburn will host the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. This is a game Auburn should win, but after Auburn got decked in back-to-back years by this school in 1990 and 1991, they are not an opponent I look past. Southern Miss outplayed Kentucky pretty handily last season, only to lose on some freaky plays.
When we last covered Southern Miss, we saw Auburn quarterback Chris Todd have his best game in the Tony Franklin offense as Auburn roared up and down the field, only to fumble the ball repeatedly and end drives. The Eagles mounted a bit of a comeback in the second half, only for the skies above the field to empty in a crowd dispersing gully-washer of a downpour. Auburn prevailed that day, winning 27–13 to go to 2–0 in Tommy Tuberville’s last season.
This was the first season in the Larry Fedora era after the Golden Eagles had fired long-time successful coach Jeff Bower. Fedora would have a nice 4-year run, building up to a 12–2 season in 2011 before he moved up. The wheels came off for a while, after that. Ellis Johnson was Fedora’s replacement, and Johnson went 0–12 and was fired after just one season, only to land as Auburn’s defense coordinator for a couple of years. Southern Miss then hired Todd Monken, who had a couple of awful seasons but then got the Eagles to the Heart of Dallas Bowl and was hired away. Jay Hopson replaced Monken, and this will be his 3rd season. Hopson has won 15 games and lost 11 with the Golden Eagles.
This season, Southern Mississippi begins with Jackson State and Louisiana Monroe at home, then has a road trip to Appalachian State and hosts Rice, before the trip to Auburn. Jackson State should be a win, but the other 3 games will be a challenge for this bunch. We’ll have a much clearer idea what to expect after seeing how the Golden Eagles’ September goes. Auburn will have played Washington in Atlanta and hosted Alabama State, LSU and Arkansas before the game with USM. The Golden Eagles will face a very battle-tested Auburn squad.
Southern Miss has some good answers in the backfield this year and big questions elsewhere. They have to replace a couple of starting offensive linemen. At the receiver spots, 4 of the top 6 targets from last year are gone. There are some talented young receivers that got their feet wet last season but had only about a 50-percent catch rate. That bodes well for the Auburn secondary! At quarterback, Southern Mississippi has two guys that carried them last season and also signed a promising JUCO transfer. Will the Eagles have all the pieces put together productively by late September? That is the question.
Defensively, the Eagles lost a lot of bodies on the line and in the secondary. However, the worst loss will likely be coordinator Tony Pecoraro. He did a phenomenal job last season and was poached away by Lane Kiffen over at Florida Atlantic. Southern Miss has brought in veteran coach Tim Billings to run the defense. Billings was previously the athletic director/football coach at North Lamar High School in Paris, Texas. He has extensive experience in the college football world, most recently at Memphis as a very successful defensive line coach.
On special teams, Southern Miss brings back experienced legs at all 3 positions, all of whom did well last season. Punt coverage was good, while kick coverage was suspect. Returns on both units were nothing special.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Southern Mississippi offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. Southern Miss did a solid job on the line last season, setting up a rushing game that managed 4.8 yards per carry, and they only allowed 14 sacks in 13 games. However, a couple of starters must be replaced this year. From left to right, we should see junior Drake Dorbeck, sophomore Arvin Fletcher, sophomore Wyatt Richtofen at center, junior Ty Pollard and sophomore Woodlyson Alcius at right tackle. That is a LOT of underclassmen. Big advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Southern Mississippi backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. Ito Smith will be a huge loss for the Golden Eagles after his 1,483 yard season last year. Next man up is senior Tez Parks, who contributed 272 yards last season. George Payne returns after missing last season due to injury. Little scat-back T’Rod Daniels played just a bit last season, but he’s fast and dangerous, and averaged 7.6 yards per carry. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Southern Mississippi receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. Penciled in at the top of the depth chart are 3 young sophomores who’ll be moved around liberally. Ques Watkins, Jalond Adams and Tim Jones all played last year as freshmen and contributed 36 catches for 677 yards. That’s a gaudy 18.8 yards per catch average. The real question was whether the trio would catch it on a consistent basis.
Auburn safeties vs. Southern Mississippi secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. The young receivers in the section above will also play slot. Senior tight end Jay’Shawn Washington returns, but he was hardly targeted last season, catching just 6 passes for 72 yards. It seems obvious that the Golden Eagles have some explosiveness at the receiver positions, but will they have the consistency to move the chains this season? At quarterback, the Eagles have options. When Quadra Griggs was healthy, the Southern Miss offense was dangerous. Griggs suffered a hand injury last season, and after that he was pretty spotty throwing it. When Griggs was healthy, Southern Miss went 5–2, losing only to Kentucky and Florida State. Junior Keon Howard was Griggs’ relief this season, and with Griggs on the mend this past spring, Howard started in the Southern Mississippi spring game, and had a good day, hitting on 11 of 15 passes, with at least 2 drops. Howard also added 6 carries for 53 yards. Advantage: Even.
Punting: For now, sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Arryn Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Last season, Shannon averaged 39.8 yards per punt, and Marshall averaged 39.4. Sophomore Zac Everett had a really solid year last year for the Eagles, averaging 40.6 yards per punt. Southern Miss was good in coverage, allowing 15 returns for a 5.8 yards per return average. Auburn was not good last season, giving up 11.4 yards per return. Both teams are still auditioning return men. Advantage: Southern Mississippi.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience, but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there will be a new fair catch rule in effect that puts the ball at the 20. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5. Sophomore Briggs Bourgeois was a pleasant surprise for Southern Miss last season, nailing 36 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs, but he did have 5 balls kicked out of bounds. Word is that he has improved his leg strength this season. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. The Golden Eagles have experience in the return department with T’Rod Daniels, who averaged only 19.2 yards per return last season. Neither team was great in coverage. Auburn gave up 27.2 yards per return, while Southern Mississippi held its opponents to 24.4. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. Senior Parker Shaunfield is the man for Southern Mississippi. He hit 17 of 20 field goal attempts last season with only a couple of botched extra points that probably were not his fault. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Southern Mississippi defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who reputedly took the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle this spring between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn has turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman NickBrahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. This line has a long way to go before September rolls around. Southern Miss lost 4 of its top 7 defensive linemen this offseason, including both starting tackles off of a very disruptive unit. All is not lost here, though. Senior end Ladarius Harris should post up on the strong side. Jacques Turner should be solid on the other side. At tackle, well, it’s a guessing game right now. Delmond Landry should start at nose tackle with a host of JUCOs, backups and prospects looking for playing time. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Southern Mississippi linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking and running sideways or backwards. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. The returning strength of the Southern Mississippi defense is a veteran group of salty linebackers. Led by senior Jeremy Sangster, crazy-good sophomore Racheem Boothe, Sherrod Ruff and Paxton Schrimsher, this is a fast, vicious and good tackling bunch. The real issue is whether they will have any help up front or behind them. Advantage: Southern Mississippi.
Auburn receivers vs. Southern Mississippi corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Cornerback is a real worry for this defense. In terms of tackles from last season, corner Wydell Flott had 4 total tackles in 10 games, and Rachaun Mitchell had 24. The pair combined for exactly ONE pass defended. There is no experience behind these guys. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Southern Mississippi safeties: This is a strength-against-strength matchup with lots of experience on both sides. Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries this spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket and can make every throw. It will be incumbent for Stidham to get off to a quick start, this year. Southern Mississippi should field some combination of Tyler Barnes, Picasso Nelson Jr., and Kris Reed. JUCO transfers Ty Williams and Ky’el Hemby will be expected to step in and help immediately. Frankly, the secondary was cautious and backed way off in the Southern Miss spring game. Advantage: Auburn.
The only way Southern Miss has a chance in this game is if Auburn’s offensive line does not gel next fall. If Auburn is able to give Jarrett Stidham time to throw, a lot of damage will be done on a back seven suspect in coverage. The Eagles will have to load the box against Auburn’s powerful running game. On offense, expect a few explosive plays from the Eagles, but this team has not shown the ability to sustain such play against capable Power Five competition, and Auburn should be among the elite defenses. Unless Auburn gets caught looking ahead to a road trip to Starkville, the Tigers should pretty much be able to name the score, in this game.
Prediction: Auburn streaks by Southern Mississippi, 48-18.