When it comes to storylines, The University of Southern Mississippi’s season-opening football game at the University of Kentucky is like a gridiron octopus.
The game will usher in the Jay Hopson era, as the former Golden Eagles’ assistant returns to Hattiesburg as head coach after rebuilding a downtrodden Alcorn State program into a champion.
The Golden Eagles would like nothing more than to start his tenure with a bang.
In 2015, USM returned from wandering in college football’s wastelands for three seasons to post a 9-5 record and claim the crown of Conference USA’s West Division.
Now, with record-setting quarterback Nick Mullens back at the controls, the Golden Eagles are hoping to continue to move forward and a win over the Wildcats could be the first step.
USM opens a season against an opponent from what most consider college football’s stoutest league, the Southeastern Conference, for a third, consecutive season.
A win over Kentucky would snap a 13-game losing streak against the SEC, giving USM its first win since the Golden Eagles’ beat Alabama 21-0 on Sept. 16, 2000. It would also be the first time the Golden Eagles had beaten an SEC foe in a season opener since an 11-7 win over Georgia in Athens, GA.
First-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson returns to Commonwealth Stadium after spending the 2015 season on Coach Mark Stoops’ Kentucky staff
“I have a little bit of knowledge about them, and they have a little bit of knowledge about me,” Dawson said. “It goes both ways, but on both sides, there are question marks, and ultimately, like Coach Hop says, 'the team that executes the best is going to win.'”
For USM to do so, the Golden Eagles will have to slow down a Kentucky running game powered by returning standouts Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp.
Wildcats sophomore quarterback Drew Barker has appeared in just five games, starting the final two of the 2015 season.
And while most of the attention has focused on Mullens and the Golden Eagles’ passing game, USM punished opponents on the ground last season, producing 1,000-yard rushers in Jalen Richard and Ito Smith.
Richard is gone, but Smith returns. The question is whether USM’s offense, which had to replace both starting tackles on the line, can keep the Wildcats off balance with a balanced attack featuring both the run and the pass.
“We’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” USM tackle Will Freeman said. “We’re confident in ourselves. We think we have a really strong team, and now we have to go out and execute.”
The teams will kick off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
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