2023 Preseason Opponent Preview: Southern Miss

9/6/23 Update

Southern Miss opened the 2023 season against an FCS team that was 5-6 last season, and they won as you would expect, 40-14. Being it was only one game against an inferior opponent, I’m just going to tack on an update to our original preview. 

On offense, Clemson transfer Billy Wiles won the starting job and had a nice day passing for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns with a 72.4% completion rate. Southern Miss allowed three total sacks, but only one came against the starter. Keep in mind the level of competition, as FSU had four sacks against LSU. Florida State’s defensive line should have a dominant performance in this game.

It wasn’t a perfect show from the Golden Eagle offense, as they were only 5-14 on third down and had a 42% success rate against an overmatched defense. Jarkarius Caston had 104 yard receiving performance, so he will be the one to watch in the passing game. Surprisingly, Frank Gore Jr. had a quiet day with only 31 total yards.

On defense, USM allowed 226 yards, but 182 came on the ground. Could this be the game we see the FSU backs break loose for a big day? Alcorn only had 44 pass yards, but they only threw the ball 14 times.

Alcorn State only ran 43 plays compared to 66 by USM. For comparison, FSU ran 76 plays against LSU in game one. They will play at a much faster pace than USM saw in week one, and they are in for a gigantic step up in competition on Saturday.

The student section has already sold out, so Doak should be rocking. If FSU comes out and plays like they did in the second half of the LSU game, it will be over quickly and they can get the backups some reps. They cannot sleepwalk through this and let mistakes get them off to a slow start, but I don’t see that being the case in a night game at Doak. This team is focused, and Mike Norvell has an edge to him this year, seeing the way he looked on the sideline vs. LSU. Southern Miss is not a terrible FCS team like half the country played in week one, but I don’t see this one being close. 

Southern Miss Head Coach Will Hall enters year 3 after taking over a 3-7 team in 2021. Since getting off to a rocky 3-9 start in year one, the Golden Eagles improved to 7-6 and a bowl game last season. Three of their losses were by a combined 12 points, and they even upset Tulane, who finished 12-2 and beat Southern California in the Cotton Bowl.

The professionals in Vegas have them winning only 5 games, but they make a jump in strength of schedule this year by playing two Power 5 teams. Miami was the only Power 5 opponent they played last season, and they lost to the Hurricanes 30-7. The same Canes that lost by 42 points to FSU. ; )

On offense, Frank Gore Jr., that’s all you need to know.

Ok, maybe not. However, while there are ten other players, Gore is undoubtedly the engine that powers this offense. Last season, he accounted for 39.2% of their total yardage by himself. He started all 13 games at running back last season but also played some QB and even started three games at QB in 2021.

Last season, Gore racked up 1,776 All-Purpose yards and 13 touchdowns. His decision to return for his senior year was huge for USM, as the next most productive running back returns only 48 yards (2.2 YPC). They did add Memphis transfer Dreke Clark, who had an impressive 83.5 PFF in 2021 but did not play in 2022 and has a career average under 5 YPC.

At QB, Zach Wilcke started eight games as a true freshman last season but was inconsistent and got benched for the last 4. He does return the most production at QB after two others transferred out. Last season, Wilcke had a 57.1% completion percentage and threw for 1,157 yards. He threw for 9 touchdowns but also had 9 Interceptions and 7 fumbles. His PFF grade was 38.4, which is far from good.

They did create some competition at QB by adding former Clemson walk-on Billy Wiles and Holoman Edwards from Houston. However, they only have a combined four passing attempts in 2 years at their previous stops. Last season, Southern Miss only eclipsed the 200-yard mark through the air in 3 games, so the competition is open.

Whoever wins the job will be without their leader in receiving yards and touchdowns from a year ago. The former WR1 had over double the production of the second-leading receiver. They returned 6 of their 7 top targets, but none went for more than 500 yards, and only 3 had over 200. To be fair, the receiver position has suffered from the inconsistent QB play.

They had a rough season up front in 2021 but somewhat rebounded in 2022. They return 4 out of 5 starters, but it’s not a dominant group. Last season, they were held under 100 yards rushing in 5 games, including only 34 vs. Miami. For reference, FSU put up 229 rushing yards vs. Miami. They also finished 92nd in sacks allowed.

With 87 combined starts as a unit coming into 2023, they should be improved this season. At the same time, FSU should also have one of the country’s best defensive lines, so it will likely be a long night for this group.

2023 Southern Miss Football Schedule

On the other side of the ball, they will be guided by a new defensive coordinator, as last year’s DC is now at Florida. (See you soon!) Southern Miss had a decent defense last season, finishing middle to upper third of the pack in scoring (45th) and total defense (59th). They also finished in the top 25 in a few more advanced metrics, 23rd in EPA allowed, and 19th in success rate. Of course, we must consider the competition, as they only played 1 P5 team and zero top-25 offenses.

I noticed when looking at the numbers from last season (also note this for the Florida game, being it’s the same DC) that they play a very aggressive style of defense. They finished 4th in sacks, 7th in interceptions, and 3rd in tackles for loss. This comes at a cost as they also finished 117th in explosive plays allowed (20+ yards), which is dangerous against an offense like FSU, who was 3rd overall in explosive plays created last year. The new DC was an internal hire, so the style of play probably won’t change much.

Up front, they lost their leader in sacks by a wide margin, but he was somehow not even a starter. They return three starters who make up one of the better units in the Sun Belt.

At LB, they return Hayes Maples, who DNP in ’22 but was 2nd in tackles in ’21. They also return Swayze Bozeman, who played in 4 games before being OFY. However, they lost the number 2 and 3 tacklers from last year’s defense, who were both starting linebackers.

On the back end, All-Conference safety Jay Stanley returns after leading the team in PBUs last season. However, he’s the only returning starter from a year ago. They added 3 Power 5 transfers from the SEC, but none of which made an impact at their former schools.

The defense was their strength last year. According to F+ rankings (opponent and tempo adjusted), the defense was 53rd while the offense finished down at 106th.

USM did have a top 20 special teams unit last season but lost an All-Conference punter and kicker.

Southern Miss should take another step forward this season, but they will be severely overmatched against FSU. The Noles should dominate the LOS on defense and take advantage of the lack of experience USM has at the QB position. On offense, they should be able to exploit a secondary that is being rebuilt.

Frank Gore Jr. is a certified dude who could produce at the Power 5 level, so he could be a factor. FSU will also be coming off either a huge win over LSU or a hard-fought loss, potentially leading to a hangover game.

Southern Miss gets a tune-up game the week before FSU but also has a big game against Tulane the following week. FSU played another team from the Sun Belt last season, beating Louisiana 49-17. Southern Miss beat that same Louisiana team 39-24.

For FSU, it will be the first home game of the season and a night game in Doak at that. I suspect it will be a nice crowd with all the excitement around this team. I got FSU winning this game big and being able to pull the starters early to get the backups a few reps. Thanks for reading! Go Noles!

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