Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In their final season as an FCS Independent, the South Alabama Jaguars had an up and down campaign, finishing 6-4.
Their wins came at home against West Alabama (20-10), Lamar (30-8), UT-Martin (33-30), Henderson State (28-3) and Mississippi Valley State (35-3), and on the road against UTSA (30-27 in double overtime.
Head coach Joey Jones is now 23-4 as the Jaguars head coach after going undefeated in both 2009 and 2010.
The team is a member of the Sun Belt Conference now, and while it will play a full FBS schedule, it will not be eligible for the conference title or postseason bowl game until 2013.
OFFENSE: South Alabama had a modest offense in 2011, scoring 24.4 points per game and gaining 326.7 yards per game. Both numbers would have placed in the bottom-half of the Sun Belt rankings, but those stats came against FCS competition, so expect the numbers to come down in the first season playing against better competition.
Any freshman quarterback being thrown in as the starter from day one is going to experience some growing pains, and C.J. Bennett was no exception. He completed 54.9 percent of his passes for 1,640 yards with just 7 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. An improvement in his overall skills for his sophomore campaign isn't out of the question, but considering he will have to face a whole new set of faster and more talented defenses, Bennett could be in for another long season.
Though Bennett is expected to have a difficult time getting the ball to his receivers, at least he knows that he has some reliable options returning in starters Bryant Lavender (28 catches, 370 yards), and Jereme Jones (205 yards, 2 TDs).
The strength of the USA offense last season was its running game, and the two- headed attack of Kendall Houston (558 yards, 8 TDs) and Demetre Baker (491 yards, 9 TDs) are both back for another go. The Jaguars will need to control the clock by slowing the tempo if it has any chance of competing this season, so expect for those two to have heavy workloads once again.
DEFENSE: The South Alabama defense has a much better chance of playing well right away than does the offense, as the unit allowed just 309.7 yards per game last year, which ranked 16th in the FCS and would have been tops in the Sun Belt. It limited foes to 21.7 points per game.
Most of the team's top defensive contributors are back for the 2012 season. Jake Johnson is a leader from the middle linebacker spot, and he led the team a year ago with 83 tackles while also adding 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble.
An experienced secondary is led by a pair of hard-nosed safeties in Charles Harris (81 tackles, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles) and B.J. Scott (48 tackles, 4 pass breakups). Linemen Desmond LaVelle (25 tackles) and Romelle Jones (7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) should provide pressure up front.
Despite the unit's success last season, all of it came against smaller, slower, less-talented offenses, so it will be interesting to see how it responds to the FBS competition in its first year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Michael Chapuseaux will take over placekicking duties from the departed Jordan Means. Scott Garber will return as the punter after he averaged 41.7 yards per kick in 2011.
Speedster T.J. Glover will serve as the team's primary kickoff and punt return man.
OUTLOOK: After dominating FCS competition in 2009 and 2010, South Alabama took a step back in '11 as it began to prepare for its transition to the FBS. It's sure to be a very difficult challenge, especially in year one, but Jones is confident he has a group of players that are ready to step up and make the most of this opportunity.
"I don't want to cut our kids short on what we're doing," Jones said. "We're going to play to win. Knowing that, we have a difficult schedule and we've got to step up each week."
The bar has been set very low for the Jags, since it isn't yet known if they have the talent to keep up with their Sun Belt brethren, but with low expectations come less pressure.
"I think our kids will play with a chip on our shoulder this year," Jones continued. "Every week, we've got to prove something. Anybody we beat will be a big deal."
The Jaguars start the season off with a few familiar foes from their FCS days in Texas-San Antonio and Nicholls State before being thrust into hostile road games at NC State and Mississippi State. They then take on eight Sun Belt opponents before ending the season at Hawaii.
The offense will struggle to move the ball, which will ultimately end up hurting the defense. The team is sure to be in for a rough season, but if it can steal a game or two against conference opponents, it will be considered a successful first foray into the FBS.