The University of South Alabama is in the infancy of its football lifetime, but that doesn’t mean the Jaguars are content with just being a part of the Football Bowl Subdivision party.
Entering its second full season competing in the Sun Belt Conference and the first year it is eligible for the league title, USA football is hoping to prove it belongs among its peers.
“We got a long ways to go – we’ve gone a good ways, but we got a long way to go for sure,” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. “We have some guys that are fifth-year seniors at this point and they really want to leave their mark on this program, and that’s a great challenge for them this year – and gain respect around the league. I think we gained some last year because we played a lot of teams very close and had a win in the Sun Belt, did some good things, but bottom line is you have to get wins to really earn respect.”
Wins were not hard to come by in the program’s first three years of existence. The Jags won their first 19 games and were a combined 23-4 from 2009-11. But only five of those wins were against Division I opponents – all of which competed in the Football Championship Series at the time.
Last year, a dose of reality set in as South Alabama went 2-11 and lost their final six games. All time, USA is 3-14 against programs which currently field an FBS program. Two of those wins are against startups Georgia State and Texas-San Antonio, and the third came last year against Florida Atlantic.
“I think there’s no doubt that us playing Division I (FBS) competition (helped) – we made that decision,” Jones said. “We could have played FCS competition because that’s what we were. We wanted to play Division I (FBS) competition knowing we were going into the Sun Belt this year. We took our lumps last year, but we played Arkansas State within seven points, played Middle Tennessee within eight.
“Bottom line, we’re going to be more prepared this year because of going through that schedule.”
The Jaguars were selected by the league’s coaches to finish seventh out of eight Sun Belt teams in 2013. Junior tight end Wes Saxton and senior defensive back Tyrell Pearson were the only two representatives on the preseason all-SBC team.
Despite those low expectations, USA does return eight starters to the Sun Belt’s second-best defense – behind Western Kentucky – from a season ago. The Jags allowed 382.9 yards per game last year.
The main issue for USA will be getting the offense going. Jones’ team ranked last out of 10 SBC teams in 2012 in scoring offense, total offense, third-down conversions and pass efficiency and ninth in rushing offense and passing offense.
They also had a league-worst 67 yards of penalties per game.
“We have some older guys on defense. This year we’ll be even better defensively, we’ve recruited some good guys to come in,” Jones said of his team. “But our offense has worked hard. There’s no doubt that if we can get better offensively and move up the ladder statistically with our offense scoring points we’ll have a better chance to win some ballgames.”
South Alabama opens the 2013 season at home on a Thursday night in Ladd-Peebles Stadium (capacity 33,471) against a Southern Utah team that finished 5-6 in the FCS last season. A short trip to New Orleans to play Tulane precedes the conference opener against Western Kentucky.
The Jaguars also make trips to Tennessee and Kent State outside of conference play.
“I’ve been through a lot of games, been through a lot of seasons,” Jones said of building the USA program into a competitor. “We’re preaching work ethic. We’re preaching concentrating on your goals. We’re preaching so many things from a tangible standpoint, but you have to win some of those close games. I think, in my opinion, this year, for us to have what I call a successful season, we’re going to have to win about three games that are close. Last year we probably lost three or four games that were close.
“If we can win those games, that’s going, to me, put us over the edge. That’s what our goal is to get those tight games and learn how to win them.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a seven-part series previewing Western Kentucky’s Sun Belt Conference opponents in 2013.