Thursday Night College Football – South Alabama at Southern Miss
By: Joe Nelson
FCS college football kicked off last weekend and this week FBS action is finally here as a pair of schools just over 80 miles apart will meet in the unexpected season opener. The Sun Belt and Conference USA plan to play nearly full schedules this season and despite several cancellations and adjustments, both conferences have teams filling out the ‘soft’ opening of the 2020-21 season this week. Here is a look at the first FBS game of the 2020 season between South Alabama and Southern Miss.
Nelly’s will have predictions on all of this week’s college games in Wednesday’s Update to Green Sheet Issue #7
Match-up: South Alabama Jaguars at Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Venue: At M.M Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (30% Capacity Open ~10,800)
Time/TV: Thursday, September 3, 8:00 PM ET CBSSN
Line: Southern Miss -15½ Over/Under 53½
Last Meeting: No previous meeting
Southern Miss started last season 7-3 with two of those defeats in SEC West stadiums as the Golden Eagles were in contention in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles dropped the final two games of the regular season and then were blown out by Tulane in the Armed Forces Bowl to fall to 7-6. Jay Hopson is in his fifth season with the program as the head coach and has had a winning record every season, including a top three finish in Conference USA West every season. The Golden Eagles haven’t had a bowl win since his first season in 2016 however.
Deciphering probable personnel for a fundamental handicapping approach in college season openers always requires some guesswork and the challenge is escalated ahead of the 2020 season following the absence of spring practices along with limited summer camps. The expectation that teams will be managing potential virus cases as well with no obligation to publicly report that information also lurks as an added hurdle this season. The quarterbacks are established for both of these teams which appear to have a bit more returning production on the offensive end and similar experience levels overall for both programs.
Southern Miss should have an advantage in pass rushing in this matchup as the veteran South Alabama offensive line has appeared better suited for run blocking. A quick tempo in the spread offense will be expected for the Jaguars but negative plays will need to be avoided to keep the downs and distances reasonable. The Southern Miss defense had 10 interceptions last season despite finishing the season towards the bottom nationally with a -11 turnover margin and avoiding interceptions will be critical for both teams in this outcome.
Jack Abraham is the face of the Southern Miss football season as a redshirt senior with two seasons under his belt. He has been very accurate in his career but traded some efficiency for greater production from 2018 to 2019 despite finishing with nearly identical ratings both seasons. His arm strength and accuracy is mostly utilized in short routes and he is undersized to be considered a next level prospect. He was named to the preseason All-Conference USA team and if he stays healthy, he should pass up Brett Favre for third on the school’s all-time passing list.
Cephus Johnson led South Alabama early last season at quarterback but was eventually replaced by then freshman Desmond Trotter. Johnson transferred in January as Trotter is presumed to be leading the team after providing an offensive boost for the Jaguars in the final four games last season. Trotter has good size and was viable as a rusher and a passer last season with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions while also rushing for 197 yards, mostly in only four games. The Jaguars scored 26 points per game in those four contests including the season finale upset over Arkansas State, after the team averaged just over 11 points per game in going winless in the first seven FBS games of the season.
This figures to be a critical season for South Alabama and head coach Steve Campbell who has gone 5-19 in his first two seasons with the Jaguars. Campbell was hired after back-to-back 10-win seasons at FCS Central Arkansas, replacing Joey Jones who had led the program for nine years and into the FBS level transition in 2012. South Alabama has 11 games on the schedule this season with upcoming non-conference games with Tulane and UAB at home in September before the eight-game Sun Belt slate.
Southern Miss has 11 games still on the schedule but won’t play again until September 19 after this game. That will be a big home date with Louisiana Tech that figures to play a role in the West division race. Last season Southern Miss played one game vs. Sun Belt competition, a 47-42 victory at Troy. Abraham threw for 463 yards in what was an upset win as Troy was a 3-point home favorite last September.
South Alabama did face UAB last September, the leader of the Conference USA West division where Southern Miss resides. UAB dominated that game as a 12-point favorite winning 35-3 even without scoring in the final 21 minutes. In a challenging comparison to measure, UAB lost 37-2 at Southern Miss last season as a 7-point underdog last November. UAB would rally to win the next three however and took the division title as Southern Miss faltered at the end of the season.
With a spread over two touchdowns, South Alabama has some potential to be a double-digit underdog with a rushing edge given that the Golden Eagles gained just 3.5 yards per rush last season and barely eclipsed 1,500 yards for the season on the ground. Abraham isn’t a threat to make plays in the running game and he had two different four interception games last season. WR Quez Watkins was a 6th round NFL draft pick for Abraham to throw to last season and his absence will be felt. It will remain to be seen if the emergence Trotter late last season was a result of the schedule and a challenge to prepare for in the late season Sun Belt slate for South Alabama’s opponents or if he really is a substantial upgrade to for the Jaguars on offense.
It will be a welcome sight to see college football starting with the first head-to-head FBS game of the season, even if this isn’t one of the prime time power conference battles normally in this slot the first week of the season. With most of the non-conference games vs. major conference teams eliminated for schools like South Alabama and Southern Miss the opportunity to compile a better than usual record is ahead and the importance of this opener is significant on both sides Thursday night.
Historical Trends: Southern Miss has won its home opener in three of the past four seasons under Hopson but all three wins were as a massive favorite vs. FCS competition. Against FBS competition Southern Miss is only 5-11 ATS as a home favorite since Hopson took over in 2016. South Alabama hasn’t won a road game since October 2017, before Campbell arrived to Mobile. The Jaguars are 5-6 ATS on the road in his two seasons, allowing at least 28 points in every one of those games.
Additional Thursday Night Football:
Central Arkansas at UAB: ESPN3 will offer the opener for UAB as well Thursday night. Central Arkansas was on center stage last weekend, beating Austin Peay in the first FCS game of the season 24-17. The Bears had a 460-333 yardage edge but failed in several scoring chances while falling behind 10-0 before outscoring Austin Peay 24-7 the rest of the way. Down 17-16, Central Arkansas completed a 78-yard drive for the win (and cover) with 34 seconds to go, getting the two-point conversion as well, and getting an interception after a late desperation drive for Austin Peay had a bit of life across midfield.
UAB is playing at Miami next Thursday for a prominent FBS opportunity as this could be a dangerous game facing a team with a game under its belt already. The Blazers nearly were upset vs. FCS Alabama State to start last season, winning 24-19 while failing to top 300 yards as a 40-point favorite. UAB would go on to win a second straight division title however in Conference USA and returns a defense that should again be among the top units in the conference. Tyler Johnston is an experienced quarterback with mobility and the offensive line and receiving corps offer experience while if RB Spencer Brown can stay healthy he can be one of the top rushers in the conference.
UAB was dealt great tragedy ahead of the season as 19-year-old freshman linebacker Allen Merrick died in mid August, a few months after safety Jamari Smith died in May as the Blazers will have their memory to play for as a uniting driver for the season.
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