August 30, 2016

Southern Mississippi has a long, proud tradition of being a mid-major program that can be trouble for foes from bigger conferences.

But it's been a while since the Golden Eagles have knocked off a team from the Southeastern Conference. Southern Miss will try to snap a 13-game losing streak against SEC foes when it travels to face Kentucky on Saturday.

First-year coach Jay Hopson said the game is a great opportunity, but also cautions against making too much out of the season's first weekend.

''I always like to say, `We count our poker chips out at the end,''' Hopson said. ''Every team in America wants to win the first game because that's the only game this week, but the reality is it's a long season.''

That's true, but there's little doubt that this SEC game is a little more winnable than most for the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss is coming off a resurgent 9-5 season where it won the C-USA Western Division before losing to Western Kentucky for the league championship.

Senior quarterback Nick Mullens - who threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns last season - returns to run the offense while several experienced players return on defense.

Kentucky is trying to bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 season. Southern Miss' last SEC win was a 21-0 victory over Alabama in 2000.

Southern Miss might have had a better opportunity to win on Saturday if it hadn't had to deal with a coaching transition during the offseason. Todd Monken surprisingly left after his third season to become the offensive coordinator with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so the Golden Eagles turned to Jay Hopson, who led Alcorn State to back-to-back SWAC titles before coming to Hattiesburg.

Monken had an offensive background while Hopson's first love is defense. But players and coaches have insisted the transition has been smooth.

Hopson's defensive background might be useful in a game against a SEC opponent. The 47-year-old played in college at Ole Miss and has also been an assistant in the league, so he's familiar with league's physical reputation.

''It's going to be a hard nose, tough football game,'' Hopson said. ''It's kind of coach speak, but it's true. We know we've got our plate full.''

At least one Southern Miss coach should have plenty of motivation to win Saturday's game. Shannon Dawson - who was Kentucky's offensive coordinator for one season in 2015 before being fired - is now the offensive coordinator for the Golden Eagles.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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