The 17th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers put their nation-leading 26-game season opener winning streak on the line as they host the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Memorial Stadium.
Southern Miss will begin its era with Ellis Johnson as its head coach on Saturday as he makes his debut in replacement of the departed Larry Fedora. The Golden Eagles soared to new heights during their Conference USA Championship run in 2011 as they managed to submit the first 10-win season for the program since 1988. Johnson, who served as USM's defensive coordinator from 1988-1989, most recently was the assistant head coach at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier. He will be making his debut at a collegiate head coach after 36 years as an assistant.
Nebraska jumped out to a great start in 2011, but lost three of its last five, including a 30-13 defeat to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Cornhuskers ended up finishing their inaugural tour of the Big Ten with a 9-4 overall record. Head coach Bo Pelini spent years eight years as an assistant in the NFL before migrating to the NCAA to become Nebraska's defensive coordinator in 2003. Pelini was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma and LSU before he became the Cornhuskers' head coach.
Nebraska holds a slight 2-1 advantage in its all-time series with the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss has challenged the Cornhuskers in the previous encounters and won the last meeting, 21-17, in 2004.
The Golden Eagles were able to win the C-USA last season due to their phenomenal offense that finished 14th in the NCAA in scoring (36.9 ppg) and 17th in total offense (461.4 ypg) during their run for the gold. Junior QB Chris Campbell has a great deal of pressure not only to fill the shoes of four-year starter Austin Davis, but also to keep redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd from taking away his job.
Campbell will have an array of weapons that should make it easier for him to spread the ball around the field and transition into the starting spot. The undersized and speedy Tracy Lampley (5-9, 168) is a big play threat as dual- threat runner and slot receiver. Junior WR Dominique Sullivan is the top returner with 32 catches for 461 yards and two TDs. Senior Quentin Pierce could be a factor as well.
The rushing attack revolves around the trio of Desmond Johnson, Jeremy Hester, and Kendrick Hardy. The three rushers add their own styles to the mix which gives USM versatility at the position.
Defensively, USM returns three of its top four tacklers from 2011, including Jamie Collins (98 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks). The Golden Eagles were just as strong on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 with the 26th-best scoring defense (20.8 ppg) and 29th-best total defense (343.0 yards per game) in the nation.
Sophomore Rakeem Nunez-Roches (6-3, 312) will be a big factor to the defense's success in his first year as the team's starting nose tackle. Dasman McCullum (6-3, 238) and Jamie Collins (6-5, 239) are the best pass rushers heading into the season. Starting safety Deron Wilson is a player to watch as he is a preseason candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award.
USM's defense will have its work cut out for it when it tries to slow down Nebraska's duel-threat signal caller. Junior Taylor Martinez is entering his third year as the team's starting quarterback and is on pace to ink his name in Nebraska's record books. The Cornhuskers' star QB threw for over 2,000 yards and rushed for 874 yards while accounting for 22 total touchdowns as a sophomore. Martinez needs to improve his accuracy and decision making to become a complete player.
"The quarterback is a running back. He's over 200 lbs., and can fly," said Johnson on Martinez. "He's very quick. He's been criticized about his throwing but if you go back and check the completion percentage and his interceptions versus touchdowns, he's very effective. They are a handful and they have that physical mentality that they used to have back in the 70's and 80's."
One player to watch is Kenny Bell, who grabbed a team-high 32 catches for 461 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2011. Running back Rex Burkhead should once again be an integral part of the offensive attack. Burkhead finished 2011 ranked 19th nationally with an average of 104.4 yards per game. His total of 1,357 yards was the seventh highest single season in NU history and he will move into the program's top ten career rushing list if he gains 90 yards against Southern Miss.
Nebraska has fallen off slightly since leading the nation in scoring defense in 2009 while operating in Pelini's Blackshirt defense, but it is still effective. The Cornhuskers finished 2011 ranked 42nd in the NCAA with 23.4 points allowed per game and did an exceptional job of stopping opposing passing attacks.
Senior defensive end Cameron Meredith showed his playmaking ability as a defensive end last year when he recorded a career-high five sacks. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler meshes will with Meredith on the line. Steinkuhler was included on a few preseason watch lists including the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which considers only the top 42 overall defensive players in college football.
Senior linebacker Will Compton was second on the team with 82 tackles in 2011, and he will be counted to fill the void left by Lavonte David's departure for the NFL. The secondary has a pair of talented and experienced defensive backs in senior safety Daimion Stafford and junior cornerback Andrew Green.
"We'll be challenged right out of the gate, and that is one thing that is different," said Compton when asked about USM. "We are playing a quality football team and we will need a sense of urgency right away. I think we will be ready to go. I know we will be ready to go."