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Southern Miss vs. UTEP: Q&A With Underdog Dynasty

Bobby Albrant, SB Nation's Southern Miss correspondent for Underdog Dynasty gives us some solid insight on the Golden Eagles.

NCAA Football: Savannah State at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Miner Rush: Statistically, Southern Miss is around the top of the conference in a lot of categories, how much of these stats are lingering from the domination of Savannah State, and how much is Southern Miss just that good?

Bobby Albrant: One thing to keep in mind is that Southern Miss pulled most of its top producers at halftime against Savannah State. In fact, Nick Mullens was pulled just after the midway point of the second quarter. So, even though Southern Miss stacked up some nice stats against a weak opponent, there is validity in the stat rankings now.

Also, before the Savannah State game, Ito Smith became the nation's 6th-ranked rusher following the game against an SEC team (okay - yeah - it was Kentucky). Ito's stats are well-earned and reflect what he did last year when he averaged nine yards per touch on 171 carries.

Southern Miss finished 12-ranked among the nation's offenses last season and with most everyone returning, it should earn high offensive ranking once again in 2016.

I would be surprised if the rankings the Golden Eagles have gained so far don't appear much the same at the end of the season.

MR: If Nick Mullens does this…….Southern Miss rolls?

BA: Nick starts slow in most games and this season has been a slow start as well. He threw three interceptions in the first half of his first game this year and added two more last week. Those are uncharacteristic results for the top PFF-rated quarterback returning this year.

Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson told Nick yesterday that part of the problem is that Shannon hasn't put Nick into the best positions possible to succeed and he would see to it that he fixed that beginning this week.

Nick is an important part of the Golden Eagles' success, but Ito Smith is a terror on the ground and that opens things up for the entire offense.

As Troy coach Neal Brown said last week, "We've got to stop their running game. It seems to me that everything with Southern Miss begins with Ito Smith carrying the ball." Troy did a great job of slowing Ito down and that was a big reason why Troy beat Southern Miss.

MR: Did Troy expose something UTEP might be able to take advantage of on either side of the ball?

BA: Absolutely. Troy ran right at the heart of the Southern Miss defense. They gave the ball to wrecking-ball Jordan Chumm 36 times and dared USM to stop him. Chumm ran for 176 yards and exposed the need for the Golden Eagles to get tougher up front defensively.

Southern Miss also had an injury to Dylan Bradley that compounded its defensive problem. Bradley said on Monday that it's just a slight ankle injury and he will be back this week.

If UTEP goes to the ground game like the coach has stated, it might have some nice results. Southern Miss has been stout against the passing game all season and has a deep and talented secondary.

MR: Are there are any glaring differences from a Todd Monken coached Southern Miss squad to what you've seen under a Jay Hopson Southern Miss squad?

BA: Offensively, no. The balanced-spread attack is still in play for Southern Miss.

On defense, Tony Pecoraro came with coach Jay Hopson from Alcorn State and the two of them are defensively-focused guys. They are bringing a lot more pressure than last year and they bring it from all angles. Watch for Xavier Thigpin because, as the UTEP coach said this week, he is only a junior but he is already NFL-ready.

And also watch a monster athlete named D'nerius Antoine who is pure aggression and instinct. My bet is that he will force a turnover somewhere during the game and he will jar some ball carriers to the bench for awhile. He is truly an amazing player.

MR: Give us three Southern Miss players UTEP should be worried about?

BA: Ito Smith carrying the ball. He is powerful, agile, and fast. He can break it on any play or just bowl over defenders for a first down. He's also effective as a receiver out of the backfield.

Allenzae Staggers (wr) had 10 catches, 112 yards, and two touchdowns last week. Mullens had started to go to Allenzae often because Staggers seldom drops the ball. His route running is fabulous and he is very athletic.

Center Cameron Tom. This is a four-year starter and is on the Rimington Watch list. He is a giant of a guy with great footwork and high character. If UTEP brings heat from the edges to test USM's inexperienced tackles, you can expect Tom to slide over and take care of business.

Prediction?

I have personally believed all season (and said it on my website aciventura.com) that UTEP is not a team that anyone should take lightly and that I believe that at least one time this season, the Miners are going to jump up and shock the football world with an upset.

The prediction system I've developed on that website says that UTEP hasn't been able to stop the run and Southern Miss has Ito Smith.

Southern Miss 45, UTEP 24

Despite last week's difficult loss to Army, I still see UTEP as a team on the rise. It takes time to bring teams back to competitiveness and if fans are patient, it will happen in El Paso under the current set of coaches