Friday, May 05, 2006
AN ABSURDLY PREMATURE ASSESSMENT OF (SMQ HOMERISM EDITION): SOUTHERN MISS
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SMQ spins the wheel for a hastily-rendered, too-soon look at a random school's prospects for the fall, sans inevitable academic and criminal suspensions, sudden transfers, debilitating injuries and other miscellaneous misfortunes of the long summer
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Even as it slips ever further into mediocrity, USM still seeks to regain control of the league it once owned
PAST FIVE SEASONS: 36-25 (27-12 Conference USA) - 2005: 7-5 (5-3 Conference USA); won New Oleans Bowl
STARTERS BACK, ROUGHLY: 13 (9 Offense, 4 Defense)
WHAT'S CHANGED: The Coley Bros., Kevis and Trevis, took their turn as the annual defensive combo of doom and bid Hattiesburg sionara. They were a poor man's version of the typical USM defensive stars, given the recent tradition set by Adalius Thomas, Rod Davis, Etric Pruitt, Terrell Paul, Michael Boley, et al - and considering neither brother was even drafted - but the defense they led was barely a poor dog's version of the typical Nasty Bunch, and Kevis still was good enough to assume the status of inepenetrable tackle machine and C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. After almost a straight decade with unquestioned, highly-touted defensive leaders coming back off big seasons each year, the returning experience on that side is suddenly muy pequena, a fact made more disturbing by the tremendous dip (to 73rd nationally, where it once built an annual home in the top ten) of the unit under first year coordinator Jay Hopson.
The other big change is at quarterback, where departed, oft-frustrating three-year starter Dustin Almond will be more popular in The Rock by October than at any point in his actual playing career.
WHAT'S THE SAME: Jeff Bower, as much an anchor at his alma mater as any coach in the country. Dude can't keep a decent assistant - SEC fans, check your coordinators' resumes - or recruit better than three-stars to podunk Hattiesburg, but the proof is in the pudding: eleven straight winning seasons, eight bowl games in nine years, C-USA-best four league championships. He's beaten Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Virginia Tech and Nebraska on the road, top ten TCU at home and five of eight bowl opponents. By mid-major/minor standards, that's gold, yet fans still are impatient with Bower because his teams are deadly dull on offense and no longer win the conference every season; to USM fans spoiled on immediate C-USA dominance a decade ago, it's still our league. That the product has been consistently quality enough that these remain the expectations is good; that they are rapidly becoming outsized for a program that's slipped extensively the past five years is, eh, not so good.
YOU SUCK...WISH YOU WERE HERE:Almond seemed to be finally getting it at the end of a career that was consistent only in being maddening: Almond typically followed abysmal performances with an out-of-the-blue string of good-but-not-great ones, veering from shaky starter to has-been benchwarmer to league-title-winning wunderkind in a few weeks as a sophomore, suffering persistent minor injury problems as a junior and starting off his senior year with the same inconsistency. After tossiing up four picks in an embarassing home loss to Tulsa, though, his TD-INT ratio was 17-5 over the last eight games, in seven of which he passed for more than 245 yards (he failed to do so only on the road against the rockin' NC State D). Alas, the process begins anew with Michigan State reject Stephen Reaves, who appears to be an Almond clone stylistically, and more athletic Jeremy Young, who got good Spring reviews but hasn't played well in spot duty (23-55, two picks, zero touchdowns). Former top recruit Travis Clark allegedly left Spring as a contender as well, according to super secret SMQ sources even the FBI couldn't drag out of him, though this is almost definitely a smokescreen to keep Young's seat warm over the summer.
NEXT, PLEASE...UH, NEXT....PLEASE?The challenge to replace long-time defensive starters is just as unsettling, as safety Brandon Sumrall, coming off an 80-tackle, four-interception season as a first-time starter, is the only returning player worth any confidence. The motley crew of cornerbacks vying to replace overrated but generally stable all-leaguer John Eubanks is either perenially inept (Jasper Faulk, Eddie Willingham) or completely inexperienced (Cornelius McGee, Lance Moore). The best bets for future starpower are the outside linebackers: Gerald McRath was set to start as a true freshman before missing the whole season to injury in '04, had six tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown in his first game last year to temporarily turn the tide the Eagles' way at Alabama (Tyrone Prothro - on a fourth-and-18 prayer, goddammit - turned it back) before missing the rest of the season again with another knee injury; he and true sophomore Tokumbo Abanikanda - seven tackles and a sack in his first start, in the bowl game, though he still must unseat so-so senior Wayne Hardy - each offers loads of talent in the Boley model if they can ever get on the field and stay there over the next three years. Otherwise, the defense looks like the dregs.
QUANTITY, AT LEAST: The best position on the team, from sheer depth if nothing else, is receiver, where 195 catches and 2,500-plus yards returns with, most notably, Anthony Perine, Josh Barnes, Chris Johnson, Tavarres Williams, Damion Carter, Joe Singleton, running back Larry Thomas and, most exciting, potentially freaky-good tight end Shaun Nelson, who managed to lead the team in catches and yards and attract some freshman all-America notice after a good bowl game despite manning a position heretofore barely known to exist in this scheme's passing progressions. It's troubling that, unless Nelson really breaks out, there's no go-to guy - though there never really has been here, even in the halcyon Sherrod Gideon/Todd Pinkston days - but the wealth of experience is good for the new quarterback(s), and hopefully also for the mediocre-at-best rushing game, whose two underwhelming backfield options (Thomas and "emerging," maybe, Cody Hull) will run into the backs of four returning linemen who pass protected pretty well for a change but still can't seem to move anybody out of the way.
JUST TO GET HIM IN: Very accurate domestic assailant kicker Darren McCaleb may be the team's best player.
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McCaleb: One of the nation's best at kicking field goals, his girlfriend
OVERLY OPTIMISTIC POST-SPRING CHATTER: Kansas State transfer Marcus Raines - a bit of a thug himself, with just that little, you know, three-year sentence for manslaughter in a beating death on his record - came in touted as an unmericful Mack truck of a middle linebacker last summer, then didn't play a down. Now, this Spring, with a year in the system under his belt and unfettered by a veteran award-winner in his way, Raines promptly lost the starting job to a former walk-on quarterback. Uh...
Mitch Craft has his supporters, and supposedly his ascension is due to his own linebacking merit and not the incompetence of Raines. But on a purely psychological level, there can't be many better situations for your defense than sticking a 240-pound, ex-con violent offender in the middle of it; how much of that effect is lost in lining up with an ex-walk-on who joined the team expecting to play a position whose counterpart on the opposing team he's now charged with leveling whenever possible? SMQ wants to see the offcially-designated badass!
REASON FOR HOPE: The offense is experienced after improving to one its best overall seasons as a unit this decade. The kicking and coverage teams should remain a strong point.
REASON TO BE AFRAID, VERY AFRAID: The defense is inexperienced after by far its worst showing in well over a decade. The offense was still just so-so, and bad against anybody decent, and only that because of a gutsy senior quarterback who's now graduated.
IF THIS TEAM WERE ANY POP CULTURAL, HISTORICAL, POLITICAL, LITERARY OR OTHERWISE NOTABLE FIGURE, IT WOULD BE... Harrison Ford at the Holy Temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Faced with early trips to Florida and Virginia Tech and a home date with NC State, USM's quest for its holy grail - an undefeated season and BCS berth - would require surviving roughly the same stages as Indiana Jones' navigation through the "Breath of God" to reach his sacred goal.
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How did you get past the Hokies?
WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE, SMQ'S THINKING... The schedule of course has been reviewed with care, and then wept upon; even the mercifully Crimson Tide-less slate includes three virtually built-in defeats, making it very difficult to project more than seven regular season wins - not that any of those games will suffice as an excuse for falling short again of at least C-USA's East Division championship.
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Previous absurdly premature assessments:
April 3: Central Michigan...April 4: Brigham Young...April 6: Kentucky...April 7: Bowling Green...April 8: Southern Cal...April 11: Rutgers...April 12: Marshall...April 13: Florida State...April 15: San Diego State...April 17: Alabama...April 19: Oregon State...April 20: Buffalo...April 22: NC State...April 23: Arizona...April 24: Memphis...April 26: Louisiana Tech...April 28: Iowa...April 30: Toledo...May 2: Ohio State...May 3:
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