South Alabama continues taking major baby steps
South Alabama has feasted on inferior competition since forming a college football program, but now the time has come for the Jaguars to pull a seat up to the adult’s table. After a few years of scheduling weaker competition in hopes of forming a winning foundation, the four-year-old football program will play a full FBS schedule as a new member of the Sun Belt Conference.
It was just five years ago the University of South Alabama announced their decision to introduce a fully funded college football program, which took the field for the first time in 2009 in front of 26,000 interested fans. Year one ended with a 7-0 record against junior colleges and other small-school programs. The following season South Alabama piled up on FCS, Division 2 and NAIA competition, and in 2011 the program focused more on FCS-level opponents with a couple FBS stops mixed in.
“We have to beat people on our schedule right now, we can’t wait until August to do it,” Jaguars head coach Joey Jones said this spring. “We have to take advantage of every minute that we can to get better, and I think they did that today.”
The spring practices were completed before the death of assistant head coach Kurt Crain. The tragic death of Crain will leave the Jaguars playing with some heavy hearts in the fall. Crain helped develop South Alabama’s inside linebackers from the birth of the Jaguars, helping to establish a defensive identity for the infant program. South Alabama held four opponents to fewer than ten points last season, and they managed to keep from being totally embarrassed at N.C. State (35-13) and Kent State (33-25) in road games at FBS programs. The defense for the Jaguars is the bright spot for the team in 2012.
Leading the South Alabama defense will be middle linebacker Jake Johnson, who led the team in tackles last fall and plays with the intensity that was inspired by Crain’s coaching. Safeties B.J. Scott and Charles Harris will add good pass protection in the secondary, which could be critical in the Sun Belt.
On offense South Alabama is a bit of a mystery, and a few steps behind the defense. All of the skill positions seem to be pretty set in terms of starters, including quarterback C.J. Bennett and top target Bryant Lavender. After making a change at offensive coordinator following a dismal year on offense, South Alabama will hope former Oklahoma State assistant Robert Matthews will start turning things around. Of course, this means the Jaguars will look to employ a spread offensive system in the fall. In order for the offense to improve though, they will need a more consistent passing attack. Bennett struggled last season but it is believed he has some decent potential to play well for the Jaguars.
2012 South Alabama Schedule (via FBSchedules.com)
- August 30 - UTSA
- September 8 – NICHOLLS STATE
- September 15 – @ North Carolina State
- September 22 – @ Mississippi State
- September 29 – TROY*
- October 6 – Open Date
- October 13 – @ Arkansas State*
- October 20 – FLORIDA ATLANTIC*
- October 27 – @ Louisiana-Monroe*
- November 3 – FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL*
- November 10 – @ North Texas*
- November 17 – MIDDLE TENNESSEE*
- November 24 – @ Louisiana-Lafayette*
- December 1 – @ Hawaii
* Denotes Sun Belt Conference game
As is the case with other programs making the transition from FCS to FBS in 2012, the overall level of competition is increasing for the young Jaguars program in the fall. This year the Jaguars will play just one FCS opponent (Nicholls State), but they open the season at home against the University of Texas-San Antonio, which is also make the transition to FBS and doing so earlier than initially planned. A 2-0 start would certainly not be out of the question for South Alabama (defeated UTSA in double overtime in 2011 in San Antonio), but after that wins will be hard to come by.
Road games against BCS AQ conferences at NC State and Mississippi State could turn ugly in a hurry, but that would largely be expected and understood. In the Sun Belt Conference (South Alabama is not eligible for postseason play) the Jaguars will get perennial conference contender Troy at home but travel to Gus Malzahn’s Arkansas State after a bye week. A season-ending game at Hawaii not only helps fill Hawaii’s schedule (and increases their chances to become bowl eligible under NCAA postseason eligibility rules), but also will serve as a bowl trip for the new FBS school.
Like UTSA, the bar for South Alabama should be set relatively low this season. As mentioned above, a 2-0 start is a real possibility, but picking up wins elsewhere will prove to be somewhat difficult on a consistent basis. The Sun Belt Conference is one of the weaker conferences in the FBS, and with struggling programs like Middle Tennessee and North Texas it is possible South Alabama picks up a win or two in conference play, but this is also a conference that sent a conference-record number of teams to bowl games to the postseason last year.
Arkansas State and Florida International have some of the top coaches in the conference, and Louisiana-Lafayette is coming off one of their best seasons in program history. Troy is always a tough out in this conference and Florida Atlantic will be interesting to watch with an upgraded stadium and new head coach in place.
South Alabama cannot afford to focus solely on wins this season. Instead, the focus should be on establishing the foundation for long-term success and building on an identity. The defense should keep the Jaguars in some conference games, so the emphasis will have to be on getting the offense to move the football.
Who to Follow?
- Official football site (@USAJaguarSports)
- JagFever.com (@jagfever1)
Please feel free to suggest others to follow in the comments section, and the list will be updated as needed.
Hype this up on BallHyped. 2012 College Football Preview Index
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