No, this is not about my local Georgia State Panthers, they’re not about to surprise anyone. Unfortunately, the Georgia Dome, while fielding a winner on Sundays, will likely be host the home team recieving several lopsided beat downs on Saturdays this fall.
Rather, a couple of the other newest members to the highest level of college football may look to surprise in the Sun Belt Conference this fall. And by surprise, I’m not sure I just mean play the spoiler role when it comes to ruining another teams run at the conference title and likely spot in New Orleans on the first day of of Bowl Season.
Last year South Alabama competed at the FBS level for the first time, having spent three years as an FCS team and going 23-4 in those three years, albeit as an independent and not facing a very difficult schedule.
The Jaguars won only two games a year ago, but were surprisingly competitive in many of their defeats. They were underdogs by 30 points or more to North Carolina State and Mississippi State, but lost by 24 points or less in both contests, while only being outgained by 79 yards in the two games combined. It may not seem like much, but for a young program like South Alabama, it was a very positive sign.
They fell by only 7 to an Arkansas State team that won 10 games and won the conference a year ago, and were also fairly competitive against both Louisiana and Louisiana-Monroe, two Sun Belt teams who combined to win 17 games.
Oh, there were bad points in the year as well, such as gaining only 166 yards in a 23-7 loss at Hawaii and downing Nicholls State by only a 9-3 count. But overall, the year would likely be deemed a success by Joey Jones, the only head coach the program has known.
With 17 starters (9 on offense, 8 on defense) the Jaguars should be able to build on their competitiveness of a year ago. Enough to possibly get to .500 or even make a bowl game? Playing in the postseason may be a bit of a reach, but in a day and age of parity where seemingly 6 or 7 plays make the difference in 8-4 and 4-8, it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities.
The Jaguars bring back four starters on the offensive life, and center Ucambre Williams started five games last season before being lost for the year to injury. The Jaguars topped 100 yards rushing in 9 of 12 games last season, and averaged 147 yards a game on the ground in conference play. Demetre Baker, a former Georgia signee and Kendall Houston both return in the backfield and continued improvement should be expected.
Their four leading receivers from a season ago are also all back, including Jereme’ Jones and Corey Betesda. Jones is the possession guy, while Betesda averaged over 15 yards per catch in 2012. Ross Metheny is back for his senior year at quarterback and should build over his 2012 season. The signs were there during Metheny’s first two years at Virginia, and were a reason he was a decent rated recruit coming out of high school.
The Jaguar offense shouldn’t have to make incredible leaps this season though, because the defense should be solid. South Alabama was -12 in turnovers last year, contributing to the near 30 points a game they allowed, despite yielding just 383 yards per game.
They return 9 of their top 12 tacklers from a year ago, with 5 of the front 7 being back, and just one starter missing from the secondary. They have awards canidates at all three levels of the defense, and Alex Page (DE), Enrique Williams, and Tyrell Pearson (CB) will be among the best players in the conference at their respective positions.
Page is the start of the defenisve line after having six sacks a season ago, but may not be the key to the defensive front. Cesare Johnson will be the anchor their 3-4, and some around Mobile will tell you tell you he has the potential to play on Sundays. If he starts tapping into that potential this season, the linebackers will be the beneficiaries of his efforts.
As mentioned, the secondary loses only one starter, but the hope is that JUCO transfer Steffon Fuller may be able to fill that void, and join a secondary that included Pearson and safety Terrel Brigham who had 71 tackles and defended 7 passes as a sophomore a year ago.
South Alabama isn’t going to win 10 games this season, that just won’t happen. But odds are good they won’t lose 10 either. The fact of the matter is, they’re still probably not quite ready to make a bowl game either. However, the three favorites (Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky) in the conference all must come to Mobile. And while that doesn’t bode well for a good record, it does mean, in many ways the conference title will go through Mobile. There is a strong possibility that the Jaguars trip up one of those three, and whichever one they defeat, they deal a serious blow to their hopes of winning the conference.