Once again, the undeniable strength of Nebraska's offense this season will be its running game. Led by preseason All-American senior Rex Burkhead, the Huskers feature one of the deepest and most versatile backfields in the Big Ten Conference. Not only that, there's always the running threat of junior quarterback Taylor Martinez to add yet another dimension to NU's ground attack.
On the other side of the ball, arguably the biggest strength of Southern Miss' defense is its front four. The Golden Eagles ranked 24th nationally in rushing defense, giving up an average of just 118.6 yards per game last season. They also return one of the best defensive ends in the country in Jamie Collins, who racked up 98 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2011 and is on the preseason watch list for the Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik awards.
What this match-up will come down to is the play of Nebraska's offensive line. With three former walk-ons starting at center and the two guard spots and two new starting tackles, how well the Huskers control the line of scrimmage will go a long way in determining NU's offensive success today. Southern Miss has plenty of talent up front, but Nebraska's o-line will prove to be too much for it to handle for four quarters.
NU Pass Offense vs. USM Pass Defense
If there's one area Southern Miss won't be scared about coming into today's game, it's facing Martinez and Nebraska's passing game. It's not so much a knock on the Huskers' ability to throw the football, but more about the Golden Eagles being as battle tested against the pass as any team in the country.
Playing in the Conference-USA, USM faced potent spread offenses on a near weekly basis, including the likes of Houston, which led the nation in total offense and passing offense last season. All Southern Miss did in that game was hold the Cougars to a season-low 28 points to win the conference title.
Southern Miss is obviously coming in under a new coaching staff with head coach Ellis Johnson - formerly the defensive coordinator at South Carolina - but Nebraska is expecting to see the same type of talent in the secondary. The talk all offseason has been how much improved Martinez has become as a passer and the progress he's made with his young but promising receiving corps. All that will get put the test in a big way this afternoon.
Edge: SOUTHERN MISS
USM Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Just like on the other side of the ball, maybe one of the biggest keys in this game is whether Southern Miss will be able to establish any sort of running game against Nebraska's front seven. The Huskers bring back the bulk of their front four, but have some huge shoes to replace both on the d-line and linebacker. The Golden Eagles are in the same boat, as they lost their leading in rusher from 2011.
For USM, their top returning rusher from last season is technically a wide receiver, as the multi-purpose Tracey Lampley was second on the team with 91 carries for 463 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. They also return running back Kendrick Hardy, who rushed for 426 yards on 72 attempts, all of which coming in the first five weeks before he suffered a season-ending injury. Leading the way is center Austin Quattrochi, a preseason candidate for the Rimington Award.
Uncharacteristically of a Bo Pelini defense, the Huskers struggled the most last season against the run, giving up 158.5 yards per game to rank eighth in the Big Ten and 64th nationally. The hope is for a more aggressive approach under new defensive coordinator John Papuchis, but there are still plenty of questions left to be answered. While concerns linger about the depth on the defensive line and linebacker, NU should be able to make the Golden Eagles' offense one dimensional by shutting down the ground game.
USM Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
It's no secret that Southern Miss is going to have to move the football through the air if its going to have any chance at pulling off the upset today. This just might be the most intriguing are of the game because of that fact, as Southern Miss is rolling out a new quarterback in Chris Campbell, who will be making his first start since he was a high school senior in 2008.
Campbell must try and fill the shoes of veteran quarterback Austin Davis, who threw for 3,496 yards and 30 touchdowns in last year's 12-2 campaign. As if that weren't bad enough, USM also must replace its top two receivers from 2011 - Kelvin Bolden and Ryan Balentine - who combined for 107 catches for 1,413 yards and 15 touchdowns. Lampley, who finished with 1,798 yards of total offense, is also the team's top returning wide out.
Nebraska's strength on defense seems to be its secondary. While there's still some sorting to be done in terms of finding starters at each position, there might be as much depth in the back end of the defense as Pelini has had since he took over in Lincoln. As long as the defensive line can get decent pressure on Campbell, it should be tough for him to find open passing windows. One thing we know is Southern Miss is going come out slinging the ball around from the opening possession, but that could end up being an ill-advised strategy when all is said and done.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Senior kicker/punter Brett Maher may have been left off as a Groza and Guy award finalist, but he still put up a terrific season. Maher made 19-of-22 field goals in the regular season and was a perfect on 42-of-42 on extra-points. His 19 field goals last season put him into the top five on the NU single-season list for field goals made. After a great start to his collegiate career, return man Ameer Abdullah cooled off towards the end of the year, but teams made it a point to kick away from him at all costs.
Abdullah and Maher will once again headline NU's special teams, and the Huskers have a few other promising options to work with in the return game, particularly at the No. 2 kickoff returner spot.
Southern Miss returns some playmakers on special teams in its own right. Lampley ranked 15th nationally last year with 11.5 yards per return, including a 60-yard runback for a touchdown. Then there's punter Peter Boehme, who averaged 43.0 yards per punt to rank 18th in the country.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can establish a consistent running attack, make some plays through the air and force Southern Miss to abandon its run game and make Campbell try to beat them with his arm. With a new coaching staff and a new quarterback, it's been difficult for the Huskers to know exactly what they're going to see today, but as long as they execute and stick to their game plan, they should be just fine.
Southern Miss Will Win If:
It can force Martinez to throw as much as possible while maintaining a balanced attack on offense. The Golden Eagles have the playmakers in the secondary to make Martinez pay for any mistake throwing the football, and if it can find a way to take the pressure of Campbell and keep its defense off the field, there is certainly a chance for USM to pick up its second win in its past two trips to Lincoln.
One way Nebraska can put an end to any chance of an upset is by coming out and slamming the door on Southern Miss right away on both sides of the ball. A quick start in this game is absolutely huge for the Huskers, as the only real way the Golden Eagles could pull off a win is by keeping it close into the fourth quarter. A slow start could drain some of the energy out of the home crowd, and NU can't afford to give an opportunistic team like this any extra hope.