Five storylines to track for the Golden Eagles as they prepare for their first ever Sun Belt Media Days

USM quarterback Ty Keyes| Photo by Austin Lindsey

It’s that time again. The time has come for media days, which means football is right around the corner. For many, the anticipation this season for Southern Miss football is optimistic and excited. This year will look different in many ways, and it all starts July 26 – 27 at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans, LA, for Sun Belt Media Day.

What are the storylines that Southern Miss fans should be tracking throughout the two-day conference in the Big Easy?

1. Southern Miss’s move to the Sun Belt. 

As reported here at the Printz over the past several months, Southern Miss’s exit from Conference USA was shocking and sudden. When Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill came to Southern Miss’s campus to announce the exit, the original plan was for Southern Miss to join the Sun Belt on July 1, 2023.

However, over the next few months it was recognized by the Athletic Department at USM that a move must come sooner. Conference USA bylaws stated that universities must give a 14-months notice before leaving the conference. Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion decided to go forward anyway, embraced by the Sun Belt but with Conference USA vowing legal action.

Eventually, after several months of legal turmoil, Conference USA reached an agreement with the three schools, which allowed them to join the Sun Belt a year early.

Football is the first sport that Southern Miss will play in their newfound conference. It is also the first time Southern Miss will not play in Conference USA since being a charter member of the conference in 1995.

Things to watch for regarding this topic at Media Day are Commissioner Gill’s response to possibly adding more teams and his response to all of the legal action that happened over the spring.

2. Southern Miss was voted to finish fifth in the west. Will they be able to compete?

Each year the Sun Belt comes out with the preseason coach’s poll, which is a poll that predicts the final standings of the conference at the end of the year. Each head coach from each school participates in the poll.

The poll results are as follows:

East Division 

1. App State – 94 Points (10)

2. Coastal Carolina – 77 Points (2)

3. Georgia State – 68 Points (1)

4. Marshall – 62 Points

5. Georgia Southern – 35 Points (1)

6. James Madison – 31 Points

7. Old Dominion – 25 Points

West Division 

1. Louisiana – 95 Points (12)

2. South Alabama – 79 Points (2)

3. Troy – 76 Points

4. Texas State – 41 Points

5. Southern Miss – 40 Points

6. Arkansas State – 37 Points

7. ULM – 24 Points

Southern Miss faces a tough schedule with a tough non-conference slate, welcoming Liberty to start the season and then taking a trip to Miami to take on the Hurricanes.

Vegas Insider has the over/under win total for Southern Miss at 4.5. The Golden Eagles draw Coastal Carolina and Georgia State from the East and have tough stretches with back-to-back road games at Tulane and Troy.

Southern Miss hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2019; fans would like nothing else but to make a bowl game, but will Southern Miss be able to compete with the Sun Belt? That’s the question that most people are asking.

Southern Miss is 27-32 all-time against the Sun Belt but is 2-5 in the past five seasons.

3. Southern Miss has 16 returning starters. 

One of the significant issues for Southern Miss last season was that the Golden Eagles were a very young team, and they were trying to get a lot of players playing time trying to figure out who should be playing where.

In addition to the apparent detrimental injuries to the QB room, Southern Miss had one injury after another last year, which sucked the life out of the team.

Last year they started 1-9 and had more than ten players who took snaps as a quarterback before winning the previous two games, with Frank Gore Jr. taking the snaps in what was labeled as the ”super back” offense.

But this season, with a much more experienced team, one that was awarded No. 12 on most improved teams by writer Phil Steele and with the added transfers picked up within the transfer portal, USM could significantly improve this team from last season.

4. Hayes Maples is out for the season. Does that change the defense approach?  

In breaking news just Monday morning, the Golden Eagles have lost star linebacker Hayes Maples, due to an apparent knee injury; BigGoldNation first reported this.

The loss of Maples is significant for sure. He was second-team All-Conference USA in 2020 and 2021. Maples was also awarded an appearance on Conference USA’sUSA’s all-freshman team in 2019.

We have heard no official statement from Southern Miss directly, so undoubtedly, this will be a question proposed to Will Hall on Wednesday.

However, the linebacker room is strong for Southern Miss, so it will be the next man up. Still, when you lose a veteran and leader on the defense, questions start to arise for the Nasty Bunch.

LB Swayze Bozeman will be at Media Day, and I’m sure he will be asked about Maples.

5. How is Ty Keyes fitting into his role of starting QB?

For Southern Miss, the quarterback room is obviously the most critical part of the team this season because there can be virtually no replication of whatever they were trying to do last season.

Trey Lowe and Keyes are all back from injury, and with Keyes’s performance last season, it’s his job to lose in the fall. There hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the quarterback situation with Hall, but that will ve a topic heavily discussed on Wednesday. 

Keyes’s stats in 2021 certainly don’t scream starting quarterback (33/65, 355 yards, 3 TDs and 4 INTs), but the way he ran the offense still looked better than anything else Southern Miss had to offer. For one, his running ability challenged Alabama, and he hung in against the Crimson Tide as a true freshman. He threw two TD passes with one pick, and nothing will be more challenging than that this season.

For Keyes, he will have his weapons back like wide receivers Jason Brownlee, Jakarius Caston and TE Cole Cavallo. Of course, he will also have third-year Gore Jr. lining up to his right every single snap. The argument is if he could just run the offense the way Hall wants him to, it could be something special.

Expect questions from Hall and Brownlee about Keyes’s development into the team leader at quarterback.

Sun Belt Media Days are July 26-27. Hall, Brownlee and Bozeman will be featured on ESPN+ Wednesday, July 27, at 2 p.m.