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Every year, the South Alabama Jaguars are both great and terrible

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The Jaguars are capable of absolutely anything, which they prove annually.

South Alabama v Mississippi State Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

In 2013, South Alabama beat .500-plus teams Western Kentucky, ULM, and UL-Lafayette by a combined 51 points and lost to sub-.500 Troy, FIU, North Texas, and Hawaii by a combined 55.

In 2014, the Jaguars crushed 7-5 Appalachian State, got crushed by 3-9 Texas State, and lost to FCS Southern Utah.

In 2016, USA beat 11-win San Diego State (by 18!) and Mississippi State and fell by a combined 22 to 5-7 Georgia Southern and 4-8 ULM.

Joey Jones' startup in Mobile has been nothing if not entertaining. Against mostly non-DI teams, the Jags' existence began with 19 consecutive wins from 2009-11, then a stretch of 21 losses in 30 games. Now they've settled into a frustrating identity: a team that can win or lose any game on the schedule — and basically does both in equal portions.

Despite some impressive wins, USA has gone 6-6, 6-7, 5-7, and 6-7. The Jaguars are competitive, dangerous, and inconsistent. And that makes them hard to preview.

Or easy, I guess. I may have just told you everything you need to know. A deeper dive might not be necessary.

(But we’re going to take the dive anyway. It’s what we do.)

2016 in review

2016 USA statistical profile.

2016 was Jones' strangest season yet. South Alabama showed maybe its highest ceiling but couldn't show it for more than one game -- or in some cases, one quarter -- at a time.

  • In the season opener against Mississippi State, the Jags trailed 17-0 at halftime and 20-7 after three quarters, then scored on a 99-yard drive and stole a 21-20 win with a four-yard touchdown pass from Dallas Davis to Gerald Everett with 57 seconds left.
  • They then lost to Georgia Southern at home and to Louisiana-Lafayette when the Cajuns were maybe in their worst form all year.
  • They went up 14-0 on FCS Nicholls State, then gave up a 23-0 run in the second quarter. They trailed by seven until scoring with 16 seconds left in regulation, then stuffed a two-point conversion to win, 41-40, in overtime.
  • They then outscored an awesome San Diego State, 28-8, in the second half to hand the Aztecs a 42-24 loss, one of only three Ls they would take all year.
  • After competitive losses to Arkansas State (17-7) and Troy (28-21), they eked out a 13-10 win over a bad Georgia State for homecoming, then lost in overtime at ULM. They then barely lost to a peaking Idaho, then barely beat a bad New Mexico State.
  • In the Arizona Bowl against Air Force, they bolted to a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter. They then got outscored, 42-0.

How can a team play this consistently inconsistent?

A reliance on big pass plays.

USA passers averaged 13.6 yards per completion, but with only a 56 percent completion rate. Team passer rating from the first eight games: 160.4, 98.7, 171.6, 89.3, 210.6, 97.4, 153.4, 86.7. The level of competition didn't really seem to matter -- either the passing game was clicking or it wasn't.

Things leveled out a bit (USA’s passer rating was between 122 and 135 in four of the final five games), but the passing game had a lot of hits and a lot of misses.

Decent Plan A, no Plan B.

USA’s offense was two different offenses. On standard downs, the Jaguars ran 64 percent of the time, 40th in FBS; on passing downs, they threw it 82 percent of the time, most in FBS. On running downs, they were Ohio State. On passing downs, they were Washington State.

This handcuffs your personnel. Sophomore quarterback Davis was asked to throw a lot of passes when opponents knew he was going to throw the ball, and sophomores are inconsistent enough as is.

Sometimes this worked, and all was well. But predictability made USA even more reliant on big plays, since opponents were able to figure out tendencies.

A one-dimensional ... defense.

Opponents ran 69 percent of the time on standard downs (10th in FBS) and 45 percent of the time on passing downs (fourth). Part of this came with the terrain of playing run-heavy teams like Georgia Southern, San Diego State, and Air Force. But that's REALLY run-heavy, and USA did also play pass-happy teams like Georgia State and Idaho.

That means opponents were all seeing the same thing on film: an aggressive secondary, a decent pass rush, and a sieve of a run defense. The Jags ranked 119th in Rushing S&P+ and 113th in Adj. Line Yards. If you could run, South Alabama was in trouble.

If you couldn't, USA's aggressive defense was going to take some shots at forcing big plays.

The defense could stabilize a bit. USA welcomes back five of last year's top six linemen, two of three linebackers, and four of six defensive backs. Plus, they could welcome quite a few transfers and three-star freshmen.

The offense, however, is a question mark. Transfers could bolster the line, but the receiving corps has to be rebuilt, and, well, predictability is not an asset.


Offense

Full advanced stats glossary.

The USA offense has improved marginally under third-year coordinator Bryant Vincent. The Jaguars' adjusted scoring average (per Off. S&P+) was 22.9 points per game in 2014, when they reached their first bowl game. It was 24.3 in 2015 and 25.0 in 2016, and considering the youth at quarterback, that's not nothing.

Still, their Off. S&P+ ranking has only improved from 103rd in 2014 to 95th in 2016. The man who helped breathe life into UAB in 2014 hasn't been able to pull off quite the same turnaround in Mobile.

Continuity at QB will help. Davis won the starting job and looked great against Mississippi State and UL-Lafayette, but he missed two games and threw at least two picks in three starts: the tighter-than-expected wins over Nicholls and NMSU and the loss to Idaho.

If Davis is able to develop as a second-year starter and stay on the field, that could make the offense more stable. But he has to hold off fellow junior Cole Garvin, who looked mostly good in limited action; he went 31-for-49 for 409 yards against SDSU and Presbyterian but also went just 3-for-12 against Arkansas State. Garvin was a well-regarded recruit and still has time to win the job. But whoever is behind center will be more experienced. That's something.

Now he just needs guys to throw to. Last year's top four targets are gone; they accounted for 156 catches, 2,404 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Tight end Maaseiah Francis (261 yards, 10.9 per target) returns, but the leading returning wideout, sophomore Jordan McCray, has seven career catches.

Continuity in the receiving corps is especially important, and USA has little. If Davis/Garvin establish a strong rapport with Francis, McCray, the running backs, and perhaps 6'3 JUCO transfer Malik Stanley, maybe the Jags can get by.

NCAA Football: South Alabama at San Diego State
Xavier Johnson
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Or maybe they can just lean on the run. Senior Xavier Johnson returns after rushing for 831 yards (5.5 per carry) and 10 scores, and both Davis and Garvin were effective pieces when requested; they combined to average six non-sack carries per game but averaged 6.4 yards per carry.

Johnson, the QBs, and a couple of exciting newcomers (mid-three-star redshirt freshman Jalin Buie and JUCO transfer Tywun Walters) will run behind a line that sort of got a head start on 2017 last year. Starters Steven Foster (right guard) and Curtis Williams (left tackle) are gone, but only started 17 of 26 games last year, and five players return with at least two career starts. Toss in Miami transfer Tyler Grimsley and Mississippi State transfer Sean Barrette, and you might find a solid five-man unit right there.

A less predictable, more ground-based offense could do some damage. But iffiness in the receiving corps could ground an already inconsistent attack.


Defense

Kane Wommack took over as USA coordinator in 2016, and — you couldn't really tell. That was a good thing. South Alabama's defense has been solid since the Jags joined FBS; despite the occasional glitch, they ranked 72nd in Def. S&P+ in 2013 and 70th in 2014, and after falling back to 107th in 2015, they rose back to 71st with Wommack.

And that was with a dreadful run defense. After getting lit up early, the Jaguars allowed just a 117.8 passer rating over the final nine games of the regular season.

Wommack was certainly aggressive. Even with a dreadful overall ground defense, USA still ranked 12th in power success rate and 56th in stuff rate. Combined with a No. 40 ranking in Adj. Sack Rate, that paints a picture of an active front. End Randy Allen and linebackers Darrell Songy and Roman Buchanan combined for a monstrous 38 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks (12.5 of which came from Allen). Defensive backs Jeremy Reaves and Devon Earl, meanwhile, combined for 13 TFLs and 14 passes defensed.

Songy and Reaves are back, but those other three graduated, as did safety Kalen Jackson and corner Quinton Dent. That opens the door for some turnover, but there's quite a bit of returning talent to like.

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Mississippi State
Tyree Turner
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
  • Sophomore tackle Tyree Turner recorded 6.5 tackles for loss in his debut season.
  • Bandit end Finesse Middleton had 8.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks backing up Allen.
  • Corner Jalen Thompson tied Reaves for the team lead with 10 passes defensed.

Newcomers could make a quick difference, too. Missouri transfer Rocel McWilliams and JUCO tackles Jeffery Whatley and Roy Albritton could join the rotation up front, as could quite a few interesting freshmen. Linebacker Kendric Haynes was a high-three-star recruit per the 247Sports Composite, and safety Al DeShazor, corner Devin Rockette, and tackle Jalon Sheffield pulled three-star ratings as well.

There appears to be both depth and athleticism. USA has established a ceiling around 70th in Def. S&P+, but it wouldn't be a shock to see the Jags exceed that this year. That will depend on increased competence in the mundane. Being able to attack the line of scrimmage only matters so much when you’re getting gashed.


Special Teams

USA did one thing well in special teams: punt. Brandon McKee was astounding, averaging both length (44.4-yard average) and height (18 fair catches in 43 punts, plus 20 kicks downed inside the 20). USA ranked 15th in punt efficiency.

That was it, though. The Jags were 106th or worse in every other special teams category and ranked just 105th in Special Teams S&P+.

McKee's gone, but most other key players return. That's the opposite of what you might prefer.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Ole Miss 26 -25.7 7%
9-Sep Oklahoma State 22 -21.6 11%
16-Sep Alabama A&M NR 34.5 98%
30-Sep at Louisiana Tech 82 -9.4 29%
TBA Arkansas State 83 -3.4 42%
TBA Idaho 119 5.1 62%
TBA UL-Lafayette 112 3.2 57%
TBA UL-Monroe 121 6.5 65%
TBA at Georgia Southern 98 -5.9 37%
TBA at Georgia State 113 -2.4 44%
TBA at New Mexico State 124 1.1 53%
TBA at Troy 79 -11.5 25%
Projected S&P+ Rk 108
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 116 / 86
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -6.0 (93)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 111 / 105
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / -3.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 52% (46%, 58%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.1 (-0.1)

Now comes the fool's errand. It's a safe bet that South Alabama is going to win close to six games. The Jaguars are probably going to rank around 100th in S&P+, too. The S&P+ projections are a little on the lower side (108th, 5.3 wins), but not that much lower.

But the path to sixish wins is never quite what you think with this team. And one could see how things could get strange again. They have a less than 25 percent chance of winning in only two games and are only over 65 percent once. About seven games are relative tossups, and one could see some sort of "win at Louisiana Tech, then lose at home to ULM" turn.

South Alabama is at once one of the most and least stable programs in the Sun Belt. That Jones has pulled this off is a remarkable feat, considering how young the program is. It played its first game in 2009, and Jones is the only coach the Jags have ever had.

Still, at some point you want more, right? South Alabama has proven capable of taking down impressive teams, but the Jags still go win-lose-win-lose-win all year. At some point, those consternating losses have to stop, right?

Even if there is a brighter future, that probably isn't going to take shape in 2017. The Jags are too green in the receiving corps, and the run defense still has a lot to prove, even if the pass defense is awesome.

But hey, if you’re going to be mediocre, you’d rather be mediocre in this way, right? More ups and more downs is way more entertaining. For outsiders, at least.


Team preview stats

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