We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week, we’re once again joined by our friends at Underdog Dynasty, who cover Conference USA (among other leagues) for SB Nation. CUSA correspondent Tanner Spearman joins us to bring a Southern Miss perspective on Wednesday’s Independence Bowl showdown.
TN: The Golden Eagles finished the regular season at 8-4 and second in Conference USA’s East division. Were the season’s results in line with expectations of Southern Miss fans?
UD: I'm not gonna say they're disappointed or consider it a failure, but Southern Miss fans are known to have high expectations. They remember sharing a conference with the likes of Louisville, Houston, Memphis, USF, and UCF. They remember not too long ago being giant killers and taking down big name programs. Thanks to that history, anything other than a conference title in the current C-USA format is a bit of a let down. In the preseason we predicted USM to finish third in C-USA West, and their fans either laughed or told us to keep sleeping on them. Yet, if you apply the head-to-head tiebreaker with UAB, they finished third. They want conference titles and P5 wins. They were hoping for a little more this season, but a win over Florida State would likely have them very pleased with 2017. At the very least, 8-4 is a definite step in the right direction in Jay Hopson's second year after a 6-6 debut (7-6 after the bowl win).
TN: USM’s offense currently sits at 59th in the country by S&P+, struggling with efficiency but featuring some big play ability. What type of attack does Shannon Dawson employ, and do you think the ratings tell an accurate story as to USM’s strengths and weaknesses?
UD: Your description of the ratings sounds about right. Southern Miss can torch a bad defense, but against bowl teams they have scored in the 20s or low 30s. In two games against SEC teams, they scored 17 on Kentucky and 10 on Tennessee. To be fair, however, Keon Howard started at QB in the first half against UK. They switched to Kwadra Griggs in the second half and did much better offensively. Howard also played the first three quarters against UT. They've gone back and forth between the two all year thanks to injury to Griggs, but I expect him to face FSU. He started all three games after the UT game, and Southern Miss won all of them. As for Dawson, he runs an air raid offense, but don't overlook running back Ito Smith. The senior has over 1300 yards and 13 touchdowns, and is an anchor for this offense. Junior Korey Robertson is a 1000 yard receiver, but senior Allenzae Staggers is a guy to watch, as well.
TN: If the Golden Eagles are going to have success against the FSU defense, how will they do it?
UD: Ito Smith, Ito Smith, and Ito Smith. The senior running back is the key to this offense. He has 232 carries for 1321 yards and 13 touchdowns. No one else comes anywhere close. On top of that, he is the team's third leading receiver with 36 catches for 370 yards and two touchdowns. There are certainly other playmakers on this offense, such as 1,000-yard receiver Korey Robertson, but Smith is the top weapon for Southern Miss.
TN: The Southern Miss defense has been very impressive this season, checking in at 25th by S&P+. Tony Pecoraro’s name has been discussed among some FSU fans as a potential defensive coordinator hire. What does he like to do schematically? Who are his standout players at USM?
UD: Pecoraro's defense can be pretty multiple, depending on the game plan for that day and that opponent. They won't do anything super fancy or exotic, but they'll mix up the formations. For example, against North Texas, USM primarily used a 3-3-5 defense. Meanwhile, against UTSA they went with more of a 4-3, but also mixed in 3-3-5, 4-2-5, etc. I'd say the base is 3-3-5, but they aren't afraid to change things up. It seems like Pecoraro will organize his defense in whatever format puts them at an advantage, so should he take another job somewhere else, he might change things up based on the talent and depth at each position. For now at USM, some players to watch include senior DE Xavier Thigpen, freshman LB Racheem Boothe, and senior DBs Jomez Applewhite and Tarvarius Moore.
TN: Which match-up with the FSU offense poses the biggest problem for the Southern Miss defense?
UD: The Southern Miss defense is pretty well-rounded, ranking 25th nationally in passing defense and 29th in rushing, so it's hard to point to one of those over the other. I'm not sure there's a particular weak spot for FSU to exploit. One thing you might see, however, is plenty of blitzing. How FSU handles that blitz could have a major impact. FSU's offense will just have to play its normal game and do it well. I am interested to see how the Golden Eagle front fairs against Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick.
TN: Finally, FSU opened as a significant favorite in Vegas, despite S&P+ favoring Southern Miss. To be fair, Bill C has repeatedly said he thinks the G5 teams are a little too highly rated by that metric this season, but it’s interesting nonetheless. How do you see things unfolding in Shreveport?
UD: If all you told me was that Southern Miss was playing a 6-6 ACC team and nothing else, I'd think USM had a very good chance to win that game. Slap the Florida State logo on that and suddenly I'm a little more hesitant. Yes, they finished 6-6, but FSU played teams like Miami and NC State very close. Despite the Gators' struggles, they won that game by 16 on the road. FSU still has a lot of raw talent, more so than you'd expect from a 6-6 team. The coaching change could make things more interesting, however, and I wonder how motivated the Seminoles will be. At the end of the day, though, I wouldn't be totally shocked if Southern Miss won, but I feel like the safe bet is with FSU.
Big thanks to Tanner for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to Underdog Dynasty for all things CUSA, Sun Belt, and Independent. Our answers to UD’s questions will be up shortly.