Conference: Conference USA
Head Coach: Jay Hopson, 2nd year (12-9 overall)
Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Leading Passer: Keon Howard — 89-for-148m 1,099 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT
Leading Rusher: Ito Smith — 144 carries, 817 yards, 7 TD
Leading Receiver: Korey Robertson — 43 catches, 580 yards, 7 TD
Southern Miss will be one of the better Group of Five teams that the Vols have played in recent memory. The Golden Eagles aren’t a mid-major juggernaut, but they’re a solid team. And they have enough talent and coaching to find a way to win on Saturday.
The Golden Eagles’ defense is inside the top 30 nationally in yards allowed per game and inside the top 40 in points allowed per game. Their defense has better rankings in that regard than Florida’s, for example. The one aspect of Southern Miss’s defense that is good news for Tennessee is that they don’t force many turnovers.
Tennessee has forced 12 turnovers on the year. Southern Miss has forced just one more on the season.
But that’s about the only positive the Vols can take away from the Golden Eagles’ defense.
Southern Miss is holding opponents to a 33.06 percent conversion rate on third down this year. That rate is the 32nd-best in the country. Tennessee, meanwhile, has the 115th third down offense in the nation, converting just 32.1 percent of their third down tries.
Another piece of bad news for Tennessee is that Southern Miss is tied for 15th in the nation in tackles for loss, totaling a whopping 62 tackles for loss this year so far. The Vols have allowed the 11th-most tackles for loss in the country this year. Tennessee has also allowed 23 sacks, and Southern Miss has 17 this season.
Almost all of Southern Miss’s defensive stats have come against lesser opponents, but they’re still very solid numbers. The Golden Eagles’ defense is no pushover, and Tennessee’s offense could easily struggle against them.
The Golden Eagles’ offense is more than capable as well. Southern Miss has two quarterbacks who have thrown for over 1,000 yards (Keon Howard, Kwadra Griggs), and both are effective runners as well. Howard is the better runner of the two, but both have been able to rip off big runs this season.
Speaking of Southern Miss’s rushing attack, running back Ito Smith takes a very similar role in the Golden Eagles’ offense that John Kelly does for Tennessee. He has 817 rushing yards and 325 receiving yards on the season. He has, however, been injured lately and seen a decline in his production. Tez Park has filled in nicely for him, though.
Southern Miss spreads the ball around on offense too. They have three players with 27 or more receptions, and six different players have caught a touchdown this year. Korey Robertson is the main target, though, hauling in 43 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns this year.
Tennessee has proven this year that they can’t just walk out and expect a win against any FBS opponent this season. If UMass can give the Vols issues, then Southern Miss certainly can too.
And if the Golden Eagle’s defense can stymie Tennessee’s offense, then the Vols may be in for a long night in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.