MOBILE, Ala. – The South Alabama Jaguars are relying on a boost from both experience and painful memories they'd rather not repeat.
Equally important, they finally have a chance to compete for a bowl game and Sun Belt Conference title. The Jaguars went 2-11 last season during their FBS transitional year but now they're full-fledged Sun Belt members.
Coach Joey Jones believes they're better for going through the tough times. Now, they've got to prove it.
"Obviously with it being brand-new, people are voting us way down in the polls and I would, too," Jones said. "We're brand-new and we've got to earn our way up the ladder. But it's exciting to know that we played some of these teams last year. I'm real excited to see how this team has grown.
"I've seen more than any other year in this program, a growth not only from the physical standpoint but also from the mental standpoint. I'm real eager to see how they respond to this season."
The Jaguars had 19 seniors on their two-deep entering preseason camp, far more than they're accustomed to. Jones said that has translated into better leadership.
They also have plenty of motivation from last season's record.
"That ate me up every day," cornerback Darrius Morrow said. "When we first got back into spring ball, we made a point of emphasis that every time that we wanted to slack or we wanted to give in or we wanted to make an excuse we always (said), '2-11.' That's always in the back of our heads. It's kind of embedded in us now."
Five things to watch as South Alabama competes for a bowl game and the Sun Belt title for the first time:
1. MOVING UP: A program that didn't start playing football until 2009 was competitive in at least half of its losses last season. The Jaguars will visit Tennessee and Navy this season, but the main measuring stick will be how they measure up against Sun Belt opponents. South Alabama's only league win last season came in double overtime over Florida Atlantic.
2. QUARTERBACK: Ross Metheny started 10 games last season after transferring from Virginia but is facing competition from Alcorn State transfer Brandon Bridge. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Bridge started in 2010 as a freshman at the Southwestern Athletic Conference school, passing for 2,086 yards and rushing for 601 yards. He left the team six games into the 2011 season after his playing time and production declined. Bridge sat out the 2012 season.
3. NEW DEFENSE: Kevin Sherrer took over as defensive coordinator after Bill Clark became head coach at Jacksonville State. Sherrer worked for three years as Alabama's director of player development. Before that, he spent three years as defensive coordinator at state prep powerhouse Hoover High School. Morrow said he's brought new unity to the defense, along with fresh schemes. Sherrer must replace the Sun Belt's leading tackler, linebacker Jake Johnson. Defensive end Alex Page is a preseason all-conference pick after recording six sacks.
4. RUNNING GAME: The Jaguars are seeking a replacement to leading rusher Demetre Baker, who was dismissed from the team in April. Junior college transfer Jay Jones had already emerged from the spring atop the depth chart, while fellow JUCO product Cris Dinham is also among the contenders for carries. South Alabama averaged just 3.3 yards per carry as a team last season.
5. OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: The Jaguars were solid defensively last season but struggled on offense. They ranked last in the Sun Belt in total and scoring offense, averaging 333.4 yards and 18.5 points per game. Leading receiver Jereme Jones returns, along with Bryant Lavender and preseason All-Sun Belt tight end Wes Saxton.
Predicted finish in Sun Belt: Seventh.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/