Matchup: Southern Miss

This week, Tennessee takes on Southern Miss in Knoxville. This is our take on this Vols vs Golden Eagles matchup.

Tennessee hasn't started a season 0-2 since the debacle of 1988.

The danger exists for a repeat if the Vols don't improve in several areas before facing giant killer Southern Miss on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee must improve its run defense, its pass rush, its kick coverage and its ability to convert on third and short.

Those areas cost Tennessee in a season-opening 45-31 loss at California.

They could cost the Vols against Southern Miss, the Conference USA runner-up last year and the favorite to win its league this season.

Southern Miss returns nine starters from a defense that held nine opponents to 20 or fewer points. The Golden Eagles have a mobile quarterback and a shifty running back who rushed for 1,388 yards last season.

The task for Tennessee won't be easy.

Tennessee defensive end Xavier Mitchell, who grew up one hour from USM's campus, said this is the type game the Eagles live for. Since 1990, Southern Miss has beaten Auburn and Alabama twice, LSU, Georgia, Virginia Tech and Nebraska.

Now, USM is only 4-24 against SEC opponents under coach Jeff Bower (1991 to present) and their last win over a quality SEC team was in 1996 against Georgia, but they did upset Nebraska in the 2004 season opener.

Southern Miss catches UT at a vulnerable time – a sandwich game between Cal and Florida. If UT had beaten Cal, the Vols would have fought a letdown. By losing to Cal, you wonder about UT's psyche.

UT defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell is confident the Vols are capable of bouncing back.

``Oh yes, I know we are,'' Caldwell said. ``I think we've got a good football team. I think we've got a good defense. We faced a very good offense (at Cal). We made them look good at times, but we're a lot better than what we played Saturday.''

How UT plays remains to be seen. Some Vols fans have already thrown in the towel, predicting a 6-6 season. And it's worth noting that as of Thursday morning, UT hadn't sold out the USM game. The last home opener not to sell out was Fresno State in 2003 and that was because kickoff was moved from night to the heat of the afternoon.

Here is a look at the matchups between Tennessee and Southern Miss.

Game #: 1131
Site: Knoxville
Date: Sep. 8
Conference: USA
Coach Match-up:
For the Vols - Fulmer and for the Golden Eagles - Bower


Vols

Golden Eagles
OLCOMMENTSOL

UT's line played well against Cal as running backs averaged 5.3 yards per carry and one sack was allowed – on a linebacker blitz (a bust by a running back). USM lost three starters (both guards and the center) from a line that helped USM set a record for total yards (4,635) and rush for more than 2,000 yards for the first time since 1987. Tackle Chris Clark is an all-conference player.

QB'sCOMMENTSQB's

UT's Erik Ainge hit a career-high 32 of 47 for 271 yards despite a broken little finger on his passing hand. He has erased any doubts about his toughness and whether he should start. Many are projecting Ainge to be a first-round NFL draft pick. USM's Jeremy Young completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns with just six interceptions last year (three against Florida). He can also run. He suffered a thumb injury and was just 11 of 26 passing in the opener.

RB'sCOMMENTSRB's

UT's Arian Foster averaged 6.8 yards per run against Cal and showed a spark as a receiver and kickoff return man. Montario Hardesty ran hard but didn't break tackles. LaMarcus Coker returns from a one-game suspension. UT's Damion Fletcher was the top freshman rusher in the nation (1,388 yards) – he had one big offer out of high school. He racked up 156 yards against UT-Martin, the same number Cal's Justin Forsett had against UT in the opener.

WR'sCOMMENTSWR's

UT wideouts caught 20 passes against Cal, with three – Austin Rogers, Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe – grabbing six each. But Rogers and Briscoe averaged less than 7 yards per catch. Redshirt freshman Torris Magee led USM with five catches in the opener. The leading returner among wideouts caught 23.


Vols

Golden Eagles
DLCOMMENTSDL

John Chavis said the line wasn't dominated by Cal, but it wasn't productive. Tackle J.T. Mapu was a no-show. Vols need ends to be more disruptive and they've got to get a pass rush. End Xavier Mitchell has been cleared for contact, but you've got to wonder how effective he will be. USM returns all four starters, including end Matthew Chatelain, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He's a four-year starter who had 4.5 sacks last year. .End Robert Henderson had 4.5 sacks. All-conference tackle Martavius Prince had 15 tackle for loss and three sacks.

LB'sCOMMENTSLB's

UT's Jerod Mayo had a team-high 10 tackles but missed too many potential tackles. Ryan Karl appeared tentative after suffering an offseason back injury. Rico McCoy played OK. USM returns all three linebackers, led by Gerald McRath, a freshman All-American who led the team with 104 stops, 11 behind the line.

DB'sCOMMENTSDB's

UT will start true freshman Eric Berry at strong safety. Jonathan Hefney is an All-SEC player who didn't play like one against Cal. USM returns both safeties but loses both corners.

S. TeamsCOMMENTSS. Teams

UT was awful on kick coverage, had a net punting average of only 28 and allowed a 77-yard punt return for a score against Cal. UT did fare well on kick returns with Arian Foster averaging 39 yards with average field position after a kick return at the 38. Punt returns were non-existent. USM loses a four-year starting place kicker and punter Britt Barefoot averaged just 38.6 yards last year. The return specialists are new.


Vols

Golden Eagles
INTANGIBLES

USM relishes the role of an underdog. UT is bitter about losing its opener. Phillip Fulmer has lost only one home opener – 1994 against Florida.

PREDICTION

Tennessee 27, USM 20.


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