Southern Miss is 1-0 in Conference USA play, but steps out of league action this week to face Auburn for the Tigers’ homecoming game.

The Golden Eagles are no strangers to steps up to the SEC level. Southern Miss played Kentucky and Tennessee last season, played LSU in 2016, and have both Alabama and Mississippi State on the schedule for 2019.

Southern Miss is 2-1 on the season now, having beaten Jackson State and Rice and falling by just one point to Louisiana-Monroe 21-20.

Last season Southern Miss gave both Kentucky and Tennessee runs for their money, ultimately falling to the Wildcats 24-17 and to the volunteers 24-10.

What challenges can Southern Miss offer Auburn on its homecoming Saturday? We spoke to Golden Eagles beat writer Nick Suss (@nicksuss) of the Hattiesburg American to find out.

1. What’s Southern Miss’s biggest strength, that could give Auburn problems?

Southern Miss’ biggest strength is its passing attack, but its best matchup with Auburn has to be its knack for preventing big plays. Only one FBS defense has allowed fewer plays of 10 yards or longer this season than USM’s 24, and Southern Miss is tied with familiar Auburn foes Georgia and Washington for second in the nation in allowing the fewest pass plays of 20 yards or longer. Auburn’s third-down offense has been pretty mediocre this season (35.9 percent, 92nd in FBS) and if USM can force the Tigers into unfavorable situations, the strength of the Golden Eagles defense can take over.

2. Who’s a standout player that could shine for Southern Miss against Auburn?

USM’s top two receivers, sophomores Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams, feed off each other in an interesting way. They’ve combined for 519 yards and seven touchdowns receiving this year, adding 145 yards and a touchdown as punt returners and 13 yards on the ground. But they do things in different ways. Adams is USM’s timing receiver, scoring both of his touchdowns on shovel passes caught behind the line of scrimmage that he turned into 83 yards after the catch. Southern Miss uses him (and teammates De’Michael Harris and Neil McLaurin) to get into rhythm, attempting to take an opponent’s pass rush out of the game. Once the underneath routes draw a defense in, USM goes over the top to Watkins, for whom an average touchdown reception travels 21 yards through the air. If USM can use Watkins and Adams in concert and take Auburn’s bigger, faster, stronger and superior pass rush out of the game, the Golden Eagles have a chance.

3. Southern Miss will win if...

Southern Miss wins if it checks all the underdog boxes. Win the turnover battle. Win on third downs. Limit big plays. Show out on special teams. Catch the favorites sleeping with an unexpected wrinkle. And stick to what you do best. Southern Miss is a stellar passing team with the No. 3 passing defense in the FBS and a knack for creating turnovers. There’s going to have to be a degree of Auburn beating itself for Southern Miss to win this game, but interestingly, all of the things that Southern Miss does well match up pretty evenly with Auburn’s weaknesses, however minuscule those weaknesses may be comparatively.

4. Auburn will win if...

Auburn wins if they get to the quarterback. Plain and simple. Southern Miss’ rushing attack is a work in progress, and that’s putting it nicely. In their loss against UL-Monroe, the Golden Eagles averaged 1.71 yards per carry. That let the Warhawks pin their ears back and rush the passer, resulting in five sacks and three forced fumbles. Now translate that to the talent on Auburn’s defensive line. Yeah. Get USM out of rhythm and USM’s offense goes from scary to backpedaling real quick.

5. They said it:

“I think it’s kind of who we are at Southern Miss. I think that does help in recruiting because I think kids want to know who you’re playing non-conference. We have Alabama and Auburn for the next four years. Next year we go to Mississippi State. We played LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee in the last two years. We know what we’re getting into and we know the challenge we have ahead of us.” -- USM coach Jay Hopson about playing SEC-caliber opponents

6. Prediction:

I’m not in the business of predicting final scores. Doesn’t feel right to do. But let me just say this: I wouldn’t be shocked to see this game be closer than expected in the third quarter. There’s probably going to come a point when Southern Miss runs out of gas. My guess is it’ll come five or 10 minutes into the second half. But I also don’t see a world where Auburn covers a 27-point spread against a USM team averaging 38 points per game. Either way, I’ll take Auburn to win.

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