Sunday, July 06, 2008

Cheese Puff Previews 2008 #2: Southern Miss

This series of near-substanceless, air-injected preview puffery should in no way be mistaken for actual preseason football nutrition. Nonetheless, the hope is that you will find the series unaccountably tasty and even habit-forming, and as such it is unofficially sponsored by:

For years, Auburn fans (as well as fans of any other SEC team you'd care to mention, I'd wager) have had a certain kind of knee-jerk reaction to seeing the Southern Miss Eagles, the Tigers' Week 2 opponents, on the schedule: Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

You would think the sting of Auburn's back-to-back humiliations at the hands of the Eagles in 1990 and 1991--now 17 full years into the past--would have faded at least a little bit. But the utter misery I remember sharing with the Tiger crowd as we slowly trudged out of a silent-as-the-tomb Jordan-Hare in '90 ensured USM will never, ever get the "Whatever, easy win" treatment from yours truly. (As a pointless aside, I asked my Dad on the way home what bowl Auburn was going to. "The Toilet Bowl," he said, the first time I can ever remember hearing that particular chestnut.) Even if we as Auburn fans had been inclined to look past those embarrassments, Southern Miss has offered plenty of reminders in the intervening years of what their program is capable of: Georgia toppled in '96, a 21-0 beatdown of the Tide in 2000, a delightfully foreboding win in Lincoln in Bill Callahan's 2004 debut. That USM is perpetually one of the first teams mentioned in hypothetical "Let's rearrange the SEC!" discussions speaks to how ingrained their giant-killing reputation has become in the South's collective football consciousness.

The nice thing about the best college football writer on the planet being a Southern Miss supporter, though, is that you can get an accurate snapshot of the Eagles without having to rely on reputation--a reputation that even SMQ admits had become a bit overblown in the final disappointing days of the Bower era. The Eagles thumped an eventual 3-9 N.C. State team in Week 3 of 2006, but in four other games the past two seasons against what might be termed "legit" opposition--Florida and Virginia Tech in '06, Tennessee and Boise St. in '07--USM has been outscored by an average of nearly 25 points a game.

Compare those efforts to what Louisiana-Monroe accomplished last fall in Tuscaloosa, and what each team returns in experience, and it's genuinely debatable which of Auburn's opponents the first two weeks is actually the more dangerous. You've got to side with USM, of course, if for no other reason than their pedigree and potential under a talented offensive mind like Larry Fedora, but that it's even a legitimate question goes a long way towards explaining why Bower got the ax.

Last year: "USM will win C-USA" was the universal preseason 2007 consensus--like, even the Associated Football Writers of Alpha Centauri pegged the Eagles. But as you might have guessed from that whole "Jeff Bower got fired" thing, it didn't quite work out that way; the Eagles got pounded in Knoxville and Boise before turning the ball over seven times (!) in a loss at previously hapless Rice to open at 2-3. Thanks in part to a rotten C-USA the wheels never quite came off, but to extend the transportation-based analogy, the Eagles never really got on track, either, losing by 17 to UCF in Hattiesburg and by three to Memphis as a 17-point home favorite. After losing to Cincinnati 31-21 in the Bowl (every time someone types or says " Bowl," by the way, somewhere a fairy falls down dead), USM finished up at 7-6 with their best win either a meh 28-21 win over East Carolina or an equally meh 56-30 win at UTEP.

Meanwhile, behind a frightfully green-but-improving offensive line, Auburn rebounded from early upset losses to South Florida and Mississippi St. to upset top-five Florida on the road, take eventual national champion LSU to the wire, and stretch their school-record Iron Bowl winning streak to six on their way to a satisfying 9-4 final record.

Notable previous meeting: The 1947 contest between the Tigers and the football team then known as the Mississippi Southern College Southerners carried higher stakes than it might have otherwise thanks to a peculiar war of words between the presidents of the two institutions.

The Tigers had won the first-ever meeting between the schools 13-12 in 1946, MSC's first postwar season after putting the football program on hold for three seasons. In the wake of the victory, then-Auburn president Dr. Reginald W. Hannah said that he was happy to inaugurate the series not only because of the Auburn win, but because of the similarities between Auburn and Hattiesburg as communities: both were relatively small and rurally-based cities home to state institutions of higher learning of which they were intensely proud. Hannah even kindly referred to Hattiesburg as "the Auburn of Mississippi."

Surprisingly, MSC president Dr. Hilbert H. Fump took mild offense to Hannah's well-intended comments, stating in advance of the 1947 meeting that "In fact, if we are going to be so garish as to compare these two fine cities, and which ought to model itself after the other, I would argue there would be greater accuracy in calling Auburn the Hattiesburg of Alabama than vice versa."

Bemused by Fump's impertinence and confident in the Tigers' ability following their victory over the Southerners the year before, Hannah wrote to Fump to propose a friendly wager: in the event of an Auburn victory, Fump would ride in an open-air automobile with a banner proclaiming him an honored guest from Hattiesburg, "the Auburn of Mississippi," in Auburn's summer civic parade; if the Southerners won, Hannah would do the same in Hattiesburg's parade.

Despite the being held in Montgomery (as it had been the year prior), MSC would go on to win the game 19-13, their only win over the Tigers until 1965. Hannah good-naturedly made good on his bet, but the wager took a dark turn when two MSC students emerged from the parade crowd to pelt the Auburn president with overripe tomatoes. A photograph of Hannah wiping a red blotch away from his forehead would eventually find its way onto the front page of the Jackson Clarion. Hannah would later say that he would have borne neither MSC nor Hattiesburg any grudge for the attack ("Boys can spend six days studying to become the next generation of leaders for this great nation, but on the seventh they will still be boys," he offered) if it had been greeted with the rebuke and apprehension of the two miscreants rather than what he called "uproarious laughter" from the Hattiesburg crowd and apathy from a police officer stationed not 10 yards away from where the tomatoes were thrown. As a result, though it's not believed to have made any substantial difference in their decision, the retired Hannah would write a strongly-worded letter to the Presidents of the SEC in the late 1960s urging them not to accept Southern Miss as a replacement for the departed Georgia Tech and Tulane, saying that Hattiesburg was "as uncouth and uncivilized a locale as one would ever wish to avoid, and far, far from worthy" of representing the Southeastern Conference.

Actual series history: It comes as a surprise, as often as USM seems to make the rounds in the SEC, that Auburn hasn't faced the Eagles since downing them 35-24 in Terry Bowden's undefeated 1993 season. USM has gone 5-16 against the Tigers and have 34 victories all-time against SEC opponents, but none since upending the Tide in 2000, a losing streak that has now stretched to seven games.

Causes for Alarm

1. Karmically, coaching changes seem to be a tricky thing. Pull the trigger too early, and the football gods hand you Ed Orgeron. Do it too late, out of some misplaced sense of loyalty--this ain't intramurals, brother!--and you lose to your state's I-AA program by 11.

But I tend to think that karma is on the Eagles' side in the jettisoning of Bower, not because the timing was necessarily perfect but because of the immediate "OMG those Uppity Fools what are they doing don't they realize they should be delighted to win one CUSA title in eight years" knee-jerk from the national media, as chronicled by SMQ (again) here. There's a quote from Gene Wojciechowski on USM in my copy of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia that reads like so:
If it weren't for Jeff Bower, people wouldn't know if it were Southern Miss or Northern Miss. There's a reason why Jeff Bower's name is on every athletic director's short list of job candidates. The guy knows how to win and does it the right way.
This was written in 2005, which partially excuses the "Some major program's going to snap him up any minute now" rah-rah, but the idea that Bower built Southern Miss with his own two hands from a pile of pine logs and horse glue was always bunk: the year before he arrived, Curley Hallman went 8-4 with wins over both Auburn and Alabama, that a year after he'd beaten top-10 Florida St., that a year after he'd gone 10-2 with a bowl win.

So: the idea that Bower was the only coach to ever accomplish anything at USM is a base canard, and it won't surprise me (nor disappoint me) at all to see such ignorance punished with a big first year from Fedora--a year that would be only bigger with a scalp in Jordan-Hare.

2. USM's punter is Britt Barefoot--Britt Barefoot!--a name so unstoppably awesome the guy even has his own Wikipedia page. Scientists place the increased likelihood of a punt rolling out of bounds inside the 5 due to the name "Britt Barefoot" at 32 percent.

Causes for Confidence

1. To say Tubby occasionally has problems getting his team prepared to play as a favorite is a secret on par with "San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds might have taken substances prohibited by the rules of Major League Baseball," but to be fair he's never really seemed to have an issue with mid-majors. He's never lost to one at Auburn, and over 14 games since the Great Escape against Louisiana Tech in 2001, his average margin of victory against non-BCS opposition is 39 points. Not much (all right, "none") of that opposition was of USM's traditional caliber, but you may have an even more Edward Gorey-influenced outlook than I towards Tubby if you don't believe that's encouraging.

2. Auburn, as you may be aware, has used a live golden eagle (with brief cameos from its bald eagle friends) as its mascot for nearly the last half-century, a mascot which does this before home games:

Southern Miss, meanwhile, despite being named the Golden Eagles, uses this as its mascot:

and has named it Seymour. Yes, Seymour.

We win, and it is not close.

Actual alleged analysis: How much of a shot you believe Southern Miss has in this game depends directly on how much faith you put in Fedora's ability to not only have an offense worth installing, but to have it installed and functional by the second game of the year. Because, frankly, I don't see a lot of reasons for Eagle optimism outside of potential Fedoran wizardry. This was, as we've seen, a less-than-impressive outfit last season that now has to replace its quarterback, its entire defensive line, its center and both guards, and three other defensive starters.

Yes, RB Damion Fletcher and his 2,974 yards in two years is a talent. Yes, it's unlikely Bower left the defensive cupboard bare. Yes, due to both returning experience and the arrival of five-star Deandre Brown ("the highest-rated recruit in Southern Miss history by a mile"), Fedora will have more talent to play with at wideout than Bower likely ever had. Still: 7-6 in the CUSA with a home loss to Rice is 7-6 in the CUSA with a home loss to Rice is 7-6 in the CUSA with a home loss to Rice, with more across-the-board talent on hand than they'll have this season. The Stassen consensus places the Eagles third in CUSA East and Steele calls for them to drop all the way to fifth. Is this really the sort of team that can come into Jordan-Hare Stadium and win?

It won't hurt USM that the game is set for a Raycom-dictated early kickoff, an obstacle Tubby has been stunningly unable to deal with properly the last couple of years, and if SMQ thinks Fedora is the man for the job I'm certainly not going to argue with him. Early in the season and quarterback-questionable as it might be, the Eagle offense should be a bit more explosive than it's shown the last few seasons. If the USM defense can keep so much of a toehold on the level of quality they've shown the last several seasons (first in C-USA in scoring D as recently as last year), they'll likely be more of a threat than UL-Monroe promises to be.

But the odds are that any newfound explosiveness is only going to matter so much against Marks, Coleman, Blackmon, Evans, Savage, et al., just as the just-out-of-the-box defensive line will only be able to handle the likes of Ziemba and Green for so long no matter how much potential they allegedly have. Two years from now, a game against Southern Miss will likely be every bit as scary as it was when Favre was just having fun out there or their last coach was at the peak of his Bowers ... er, powers. But in 2008? I can see a sluggish Auburn first quarter. I can see a slim USM lead at the half, sure. I could even see a game that's tied entering the fourth quarter. But unless Auburn's in the midst of rejecting the spread transplant entirely or Fedora has secretly been the second coming of Urban Meyer, I can't see an Eagle win.


J.M. said...

Oh brother. Seymour. Like, "see more"? Like an eagle with eagle eyes sees more? Their mascot is a pun?

I still remember coming back from the Tennessee vs. Miss. St. game when I was in high school. We stopped at a rest stop at the state line and all these Vol fans were high-fiving each other and hooting -- Southern Miss had beat Bama and it was a perfect moment.

Jerry Hinnen said...

I have no idea if "Seymour" is supposed to be a "see-more" pun or not, but regardless: it's "Seymour." It's not a name for a mascot, it's the name for that guy in the back of the class with coke-bottle glasses whose whose Mom makes him wear a bow tie.

Thanks for sharing that very nice memory as well.

SMQ said...

The name "Seymour" is kind of a pun (the full name is "Seymour d'Campus," as in "See more of the campus"), but it was inspired by the mascot at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, named Seymour d'Fair ("See more of the fair"), which was played by a guy who also happened to be a former USM mascot. So it's really an homage.'Campus

But, yeah, the old potbellied Seymour costume (pre-2005) was much better than the sleeker, open-mouthed version shown here. USM used to keep a live eagle, too, but it died in its cage (or whatever) under sketchy circumstances in the late eighties/early nineties and was never replaced.

Truth2005 said...

Nice write up but I beg the difference with the talent we have coming back. Auburn can overlook us and think its going to be a cake walk, they will have a rude awaken. They have 6'3,6'5,6'6 receivers that can run and catch. Parham who runs a 4'3 that will be on the field with the likely of Fletcher, Nelson, Magee,,,,,Watch out here comes the Eagles

Jerry Hinnen said...

SMQ: thanks for the clarification. And for being awesome.

Truth: First, thanks for the compliment. And between the early kickoff, the unfamiliarity with Fedoran gameplanning, and general overconfident sluggishness, I'll give USM a shot, certainly. But again, the trends on both sides over the past couple of years in this matchup--Auburn's success vs. mids, USM's struggles against majors--are so strong that unless the preseason wisdom on both is WAY off, it really shouldn't happen.

Then again, I'm the guy who called Miss. St. an "auto-win" last year, so there you go.