UK Football

Mark Stoops’ nightmare scenario

After calling the plays for the Kentucky offense in 2015, Shannon Dawson will be on the Southern Mississippi sideline when the Golden Eagles visit Commonwealth Stadium for the 2016 season opener.
After calling the plays for the Kentucky offense in 2015, Shannon Dawson will be on the Southern Mississippi sideline when the Golden Eagles visit Commonwealth Stadium for the 2016 season opener. Ken Weaver

If you are one of those Long-Suffering UK Football Fans who believe the program is governed by Murphy’s Law — anything that can go wrong, will go wrong — there is one game on the Wildcats’ 2016 football schedule that should terrify you.

It ought to worry Mark Stoops, too.

For reasons of perception, it would be little short of catastrophic if Stoops’ crucial fourth season as UK head man were to start off with a season-opening loss to Southern Mississippi — and new Golden Eagles offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.

The same Shannon Dawson let go last season after one year as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator.

If Dawson comes into Commonwealth Stadium in his first game as Southern Miss OC and hangs 40-plus on Stoops and the Cats in an USM upset, can you imagine the hellfire and brimstone on radio talk shows, Internet message boards and social media platforms?

That’s not an impossible scenario, either.

On paper, Dawson walked into a plush situation when new Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson brought the Hal Mumme-disciple to Hattiesburg. A season ago, when Southern Mississippi went 9-5 and won the Conference-USA West under head man Todd Monken, the Golden Eagles’ offense soared.

Southern Miss scored 40-or-more points in seven games, and went above 50 five times. For the season, the Golden Eagles averaged 39.9 points and 509.5 yards a game and converted 46 percent of their third downs.

Several cornerstones from that high-flying USM attack return.

When Dawson comes back to Commonwealth Stadium with Southern Miss Sept. 3 to face UK in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff, he will bring with him the most accomplished quarterback in the game.

A year ago as a junior, Nick Mullens completed 63.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns versus only 12 interceptions.

Those gaudy numbers for the 6-foot-1, 196-pound senior from Hoover, Ala., weren’t strictly the result of playing in an up-tempo attack against porous C-USA defenses, either.

In three games against power five conference foes — Mississippi State, at Nebraska and Washington in the Dallas Bowl — Mullens averaged 363 yards a game passing and completed 65.9 percent of his throws.

Dawson will also bring a standout running back to Lexington. Last season, Ito Smith (1,128 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns) and Jalen Richard (1,098 yards, 14 TDs) combined to give USM a potent one-two ground punch.

Richard is gone, but the explosive, 5-9, 195-pound Smith is back. With 49 catches for 515 yards, Smith is a lethal threat in the passing game, too. That figures to be important for USM, since the Golden Eagles lose their two leading receivers from last season.

In his return to UK, Dawson will also have the three interior offensive linemen who started for Southern Miss last season, though the Golden Eagles must replace both starting tackles.

The other thing USM should be bringing to Kentucky is an unusually motivated offensive coordinator.

In the one year he spent at UK after leaving West Virginia, Dawson and Stoops oft seemed out of synch. That was most apparent in Kentucky’s questionable game management last year late in first halves.

While going 5-7 for a second-consecutive season, UK repeatedly put itself in dire situations just before halftime. In the Wildcats’ seven losses, they were outscored in the final 5:10 of first halves by a combined 48-12.

The low point came at Vanderbilt. Down 14-10, UK failed on an ill-advised 4th-and-1 deep pass attempt from near midfield just before halftime.

That failure set up Vandy with a short field and yielded what became the game-deciding TD in a disheartening 21-17 loss that ultimately kept the Cats from becoming bowl eligible.

Even with that, Dawson would have every reason to feel that his only getting one year to run the UK offense was not a fair chance to show what he could do.

From Stoops’ perspective, with a 12-24 record through three seasons, the Kentucky head coach is at the point he has to produce better on-field results. It’s hard to blame Stoops for acting decisively if he ended last season convinced he and Dawson were not a compatible match.

Once Southern Miss tabbed Dawson to run its attack, it gave the UK-USM season opener a humdinger of a storyline.

What will happen?

If the Cats have really recruited as well during Stoops’ tenure as has been portrayed by the recruiting analysts, the Wildcats should be well equipped in the coach’s fourth season to take care of business at home against a C-USA team— even a good one with a top-notch senior quarterback, a star running back and a highly-motivated offensive coordinator.

Yet if Shannon Dawson’s Southern Mississippi offense lights up the UK defense and produces a road upset in the coach’s return to Commonwealth Stadium, that would be an ultimate Murphy’s Law moment even in Kentucky’s star-crossed football history.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader