One must say this for the South Alabama Jaguars: they have carved an incredibly unique path to the world of FBS football. The USA program was created in December 2007, hired its first coach (Joey Jones) in January 2008, played its first game in 2009, played its first FCS opponent in 2010, and played its first FBS opponent in 2011. The Jaguars will play a full Sun Belt schedule in 2012 and, having fulfilled its provisional years, will become a full-time member in 2013.
Aside from the pure velocity of their transformation from nothing into something, USA's general success level has also been quite unique. They have taken the "Kansas State in the late-1980s" approach: schedule lots of wins. Their first season consisted of junior varsities, prep schools and junior colleges; among others, they beat Fork Union Military Academy, 64-6, and Louisburg Junior College, 41-7. They won all seven of their inaugural games. They also won all 10 of their contests in 2010, beating Division II schools like Missouri S&T and even a few FCS teams (Lamar, UC Davis, Georgia State). Though they did fall to Georgia State and Cal Poly in 2011, they have still gone 23-2 versus teams from levels below FBS over the course of their existence. To say the least, that isn't bad.
But now the REAL games begin. Jones and company welcome a full FBS schedule this fall, including trips to N.C. State, Mississippi State and Hawaii and a full Sun Belt schedule. They have been ready for each challenge they have faced in their incredibly short existence; are they ready for this one?
Because they actually lost a game, the 2011 season immediately qualifies as the worst in USA history. That said, things could have been quite a bit worse. The Jaguars were outscored just 68-38 by two FBS opponents (35-13 by N.C. State, 33-25 by Kent State) -- respectable showings, each -- lost at Georgia State in overtime and got thumped by Cal Poly, 41-10, to finish a 6-4 campaign. USA fielded a perfectly sound 3-4 defense that ranked 16th overall at the FCS level, but the offense was nonexistent. Redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Bennett jumped into the deep end of the pool and didn't necessarily come up swimming. Bennett completed just 31 of 68 passes for 463 yards, one touchdown, five picks and five sacks in games against N.C. State and Kent State, but at Kent, he almost engineered a crazy comeback. The Jaguars trailed 33-0 five minutes into the second half, but four scoring drives got them to within 33-25, and the game ended with USA on Kent State's 9-yard line.
The Kent State game encapsulated the Bennett's season as a whole: occasional competence spoiled by disaster. He threw a pair of touchdowns in a romp over Lamar and completed 18 of 27 passes in easy wins over Henderson State and Mississippi Valley State, but he threw at least two picks in five of 10 games, and he threw four (in just 29 passes) against Georgia State. With almost every piece of a solid defense returning, all eyes will be on Bennett and the offense to see if USA's first season (provisionally) in the Sun Belt is marginally successful or wholly forgettable.
With a healthy dose of returning starters, including just about every major skill position contributor, the biggest change made by Joey Jones heading into 2012 came in the coaches' booth. He fired offensive coordinator Greg Gregory following a season in which South Alabama ranked just 88th in total offense at the FCS level. It was difficult to completely blame Gregory for the offense's struggles -- Bennett, the top three running backs, receiver Jereme Jones and right guard Melvin Meggs were all first-year players, and leading receivers Bryant Lavender and Corey Waldon were both sophomores. This was not a team infused with the proper amount of experience. Still, Jones found a potentially fantastic replacement in Robert Matthews. A former assistant at both Oklahoma State under Mike Gundy (Director of Football Operations, 2006-09) and Southern Miss under former Gundy assistant Larry Fedora (Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator, 2010-11), Matthews is a young (34) and potentially exciting assistant, well-schooled in the ways of the spread offense. Matthews spent most of the spring introducing a spread offense to what was previously power personnel.
As mentioned above, C.J. Bennett, perhaps USA's first true star recruit (he was a three-star prospect and the No. 39 pro-style quarterback in the country in 2010 according to Rivals.com), struggled for much of 2011. He was sacked eight percent of the time, and 7.2 percent of the passes he did get off were picked off. His odds of success were minimal with such young personnel around him, but early indications are that he has taken well to Matthews' spread this spring. He has two potentially lovely receiving options in junior Bryant Lavender (perhaps the MVP of USA's spring) and Corey Waldon. The two combined to catch 51 passes for 664 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2011. Throw in junior Corey Besteda (11 catches, 203 yards in 2011), sophomore Jereme Jones (21 catches, 205 yards), incoming junior college tight end Wes Saxton (a high-three-star recruit) and 6-foot-3 freshman Cameron Broadnax, and the Jaguars might have enough weapons to make the spread work. Sophomore running backs Kendall Houston and Demetre Baker (combined: 223 carries, 1,049 yards, 17 touchdowns in 2011) probably won't see quite as many carries this fall, but they appear potentially competent.
Aside from the transition to a new offense, the largest issue facing the USA offense in 2012 could be the offensive line. This wasn't an amazing unit last year, but that was with guard Jon Griffin and tackles Brian Krauskopf and Chris Brunson, who had combined for 65 career starts. Only two 2011 starters return -- now-sophomore Melvin Meggs and senior Trey Clark. Kentucky transfer James Elliott could help, but depth is an obvious concern.
One can debate whether USA's offense will be good enough for its solid defense to matter, but it does appear that, as they provisionally enter the FBS ranks, the Jaguars' defense is quite a bit ahead of the other unit. Led by coordinator Bill Clark, who spent nearly a decade as the head coach at Prattville (Ala.) high school before joining Jones' staff, the USA defense was rock solid at the FCS level last year. The Jaguars allowed 10 points or fewer in four of eight games versus non-FBS competition, and as might be expected from a program that hasn't really been around long enough to lose many difference makers, they return just about everybody in 2012.
They say the key to good baseball defense is to be strong up the middle -- catcher, second baseman, shortstop, center fielder. We can often say the same thing about a football defense; you are only going to be as good as your defensive tackles, middle linebacker and safeties. USA's defense was stellar in all of those areas last year, and they should be again this year. Senior middle linebacker Jake Johnson returns to anchor the defense after a strong season that saw him register almost 11 percent of USA's tackles and make 6.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He will get help from safeties Charles Harris (10.9 percent of the team's tackles, three forced fumbles) and B.J. Scott (four passes broken up and 40.0 tackles in seven games) and nose tackles Andy Dalgleish and Montavious Williams (combined: nine tackles for loss).
The spring dismissal of strongside linebacker and playmaker Ken Barefield will hurt a bit on the edges, but Enrique Williams and Desmond LaVelle (combined: 6.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions) will keep the linebacking corps stocked, and USA does still return seven of the eight players who made at least four tackles for loss in 2011, including "JACK" linebacker (the DE/OLB hybrid of the 3-4) Clifton Crews, who had five TFLs and three forced fumbles. In general, the 3-4 suits this personnel well -- they swarm to the outside and leverage plays back toward Johnson, Williams, Harris and Scott. The Jaguars sacked N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon four times in 24 pass attempts (they also allowed 17 completions and four touchdown passes, of course) and held Kent State's weak offense to just 281 total yards, so they do have some playmaking ability. Whether it is enough for a full, 12-game FBS slate, we obviously do not know.
Life in the Sun Belt is interesting at the moment. Thanks to a series of strong coaching hires, the conference is inarguably more difficult than it used to be -- Florida International is a Top 50 team in the early projections, Western Kentucky and UL-Lafayette were quite competitive last year, North Texas and UL-Monroe have made interesting recent hires, and it hasn't been that long since Troy looked like a high-class mid-major. Still … there is, and will always be, some dead weight. According to initial projections, South Alabama will play three teams ranked 108th or worse in 2012 (Troy, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee), another FBS newcomer (UT-San Antonio) and an FCS opponent (Nicholls State). With four of those five opponents visiting Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, it isn't difficult to define success as a solid, and at least slightly realistic, four to five wins.
South Alabama has gone about building a program from scratch exactly as you'd think one should. Joey Jones has hired good, local, young assistants with solid recruiting pedigrees, he will be employing an en vogue style on both offense (spread) and defense (3-4), and his program has slowly built confidence and increased its degree of difficulty with each passing year. But now we go from increments to leaps. Western Kentucky looked like they were going about things the right way, too, and then they lost 33 of their first 34 FBS games.
It does appear that USA has a defense that will keep things interesting with the (very much) weaker half of its schedule. That alone puts them ahead of where Western Kentucky was heading into its provisional FBS season.