USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
There are 4,779,475 people living in Alabama, per the 2010 United States Census, and five Football Bowl Subdivision programs within the Yellowhammer State's borders, meaning there's an FBS school for every 955,949 Alabamans. That assumes each Alabaman identifies as a fan of college football, which seems like a safe assumption.
It's likewise safe to assume that only a small percentage of this football-crazed state identifies with South Alabama, if for three reasons in particular: one, the university only opened its doors in 1964, 133 years after the state's flagship university did the same; two, the school boasts a current enrollment of 15,311 students, the fewest of these five in-state FBS schools; and three – and this most of all – the Jaguars began play in 2009, by which time the Crimson Tide had claimed 12 of their 15 national championships.
But USA knows how to butter its bread in Alabama, which is nothing if not overly accepting and embracing of college football – and more welcoming and supporting than any when it comes to winning college football.
That's what the Jaguars have done, by and large, since opening for business five years ago. The 2009 team went 7-0, feasting on regional military academies and prep schools. The 2010 version went 10-0, topping a handful of Football Championship Subdivision foes. After a sluggish debut in the transition to the FBS – a two-win finish in 2012 – USA leapt to 6-6 last fall, coming within one win of a share of the Sun Belt Conference title.
The result: South Alabama is making noise even in a state loaded to the gills with football, college football, and is beginning to carve out a niche as one of the up-and-coming, non-major programs in the Southeast. There's more than enough wins in this state to go around, right?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Let's remember that while USA has reached the 85-scholarship barometer, this program is still identifying, recruiting and developing talent – the program is getting there, though it's not quite at the point where it can be held up against the league's best. This year might not go well, but the pieces are in place for continued development over the next 12 games.
In a nutshell: Four of USA's six wins came against bowl-eligible competition: Tulane, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette. Four of the Jaguars' six losses came by two points or less – two points or less: Southern Utah, Troy, Texas State and Arkansas State. A fifth defeat, at Tennessee, came by a touchdown – though the Volunteers did lead 31-7 early in the second half. During the final three weeks of the regular season, the Jaguars handled Georgia State, the Warhawks and the Ragin' Cajuns by a combined score of 104-39; USA took a 30-0 halftime lead against a banged-up ULL team eying the outright SBC title. The Jaguars tripled their win total, came within a point of a shared Sun Belt championship, exceeded all preseason expectations, raised the bar for 2014 and created a name for themselves in and out of the conference.
High point: Topping the Cajuns in the finale. Between ULL, Tulane and WKU, the Jaguars topped a trio of bowl teams.
Low point: All those single-digit losses. USA would've topped Southern Utah at any point after the first Saturday of the season, I imagine. But the worst was Arkansas State, a 17-16 letdown that handed the Red Wolves yet another shared or outright conference championship. What USA should take from that game: You can't win the Sun Belt without first beating ASU.
Tidbit: South Alabama was one of 14 teams to increase its win total by four or more from 2012 to 2013, joining Boston College (2-10 to 7-6), Duke (6-7 to 10-4), Michigan State (7-6 to 13-1), Iowa (4-8 to 8-5), Marshall (5-7 to 10-4), Tulane (2-10 to 7-6), Buffalo (4-8 to 8-5), Akron (1-11 to 5-7), Colorado State (4-8 to 8-6), UNLV (2-11 to 7-6), Missouri (5-7 to 12-2), Auburn (3-9 to 12-2) and North Texas (4-8 to 9-4).
Tidbit (coaching edition): Only three members of South Alabama's staff have been along for the ride for each of the program's seven years of existence, dating back to its initial formation in 2007, counting Joey Jones himself. The others are tight ends coach John Turner and defensive tackles coach Brian Turner. Another four members of Jones' staff are in their second or third year, including offensive coordinator Robert Matthews, while three new names join the program in 2014: inside linebackers coach Mike Adams, wide receivers coach Tim Bowens and running backs coach Robby Brown.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Jacksonville Jaguars greats
1. Tony Boselli
2. Fred Taylor
3. Mark Brunell
4. Jimmy Smith
5. Maurice Jones-Drew
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: There are many things to like about South Alabama – as you might suspect from this preseason ranking – but none make me giggle as much as the potential up front, where USA returns not only four starters but blends in a fifth experienced hand, Melvin Meggs, after the junior missed all of last season due to injury. Meggs, a multiple-year starter before going down last offseason, will step right back into a starting role at right guard; that shifts senior Shaun Artz to center, where he'll battle sophomore Joseph Scelfo in the competition to replace Matt Calcagnini. Rounding out the interior is senior left guard Drew Dearman, a steadily productive run-game presence who should battle for all-conference honors. But the line is at its top level on the edges, where both junior Cody May and senior Ucambre Williams rank among the league's best. Here's the story, in my eyes: USA has all-conference linemen at left tackle, left guard, right guard and right tackle. Well, that's pretty damn impressive. My optimism stems in significant part from the quality of this line.
The Jaguars' backfield will get some help from the new starting quarterback – whether that's one of the two options we'll touch on below – but is fine on its own, thanks to a returning quarter of experienced rushers. It's a four-headed group, yeah, but there's a leader: Jay Jones (737 yards) should do a strong portion of the heavy lifting, as was the case a year ago. His primary backup could be junior Terrance Timmons, who turned in a very strong spring, but there should still be touches for seniors Cris Dinham (234 yards) and Kendall Houston (207 yards), Jones' reserves last fall. Houston is an asset near the goal line, though that hasn't translated to any degree of effectiveness in short-yardage situations outside the red zone.
The Jaguars are blessed with the Sun Belt's best tight end, senior Wes Saxton (50 receptions for 635 yards), and five wide receivers worthy of varying degree of commendation: Shavarez Smith (50 for 940), Danny Woodson II (26 for 439), Jeremé Jones (40 for 457), T.J. Glover and Marvin Shinn. Smith's an excellent Sun Belt receiver, likely among the league's top two or three at the position heading into the fall; he's superb at shaking free of defensive backs after the first 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, a skill coaches can't teach. Woodson and Jones are solid complementary targets, each quietly stepping forward when given the opportunity. Glover, meanwhile, used a strong offseason to grab a larger role in the rotation. Then there's Shinn, the former Alabama transfer with Smith-like size – Shinn is listed at 210 pounds, so he might be a bit bigger – and the athletic credentials to be a smashing success. The receivers are nice, but you'll really enjoy watching Saxton go to work.
Defense: There are some substantial gaps to fill along the front seven of USA's improved but still worrisome defense, one perhaps best defined as multiple within the basic framework of a 4-3 set. The front four, for example, uses two interior linemen flanked by two hybrid-style ends – think Alabama, kind of – a personnel grouping that can cause havoc on passing downs but also get mauled at times on early downs, it should be said. The front will build around senior nose tackle Jesse Kelly (34 tackles, 6.5 for loss), the lone returning starter, and senior tackle Jerome McClain (34 tackles, 4.5 for loss), a former reserve very ready for a move into the starting lineup. USA hopes JUCO transfer Bryson Johnson can quickly grasp the defense and add depth, if not grab starter's snaps; he's an unknown, but Johnson has the frame to make an immediate impact in this rotation. I'm far more concerned about the edges: USA must replace Pat Moore and Alex Page with some combination of Theo Rice, JUCO transfer Jimmie Gipson and a handful of unknown underclassmen, and I sense a decline in pass-rush production. In total, the four departed seniors from last year's line rotation accounted for 64.5% of USA's 38.0 sacks – a total that led the Sun Belt by a substantial margin.
The front seven as a whole is a bit worrisome, in my mind, though not without potential. At linebacker, for example, USA returns senior Maleki Harris (63 tackles, 8.5 for loss) on the strong side and adds a JUCO transfer, Demarius Rancifer – he started his career at Kentucky – to the competition to replace Enrique Williams in the middle. For now, Rancifer will be chasing senior Desmond LaVelle, the post-spring starter at the position. Creating additional depth on the second level should be high on the Jaguars' list of priorities heading into fall camp.
This defense would be onto something if it could combine last year's pass rush with this season's secondary. Consider: USA was prone to lapses in the backfield last fall, allowing 14 passing plays of 40 or more yards, but this could be tied back to the group's overall youth; a year later, the Jaguars are set to start three seniors in the secondary, including both cornerbacks. If not quite in Arkansas State's class, the Jaguars' cornerback duo of Qudarius Ford (76 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Montell Garner (60 tackles, 3 interceptions) is among the best in the Sun Belt – and the Jaguars are confident in reserves Anthony Harris and Antonio Carver, with the latter again set to serve as the team's nickel back. Perhaps the only slight surprise has been the play of sophomore strong safety Roman Buchanan, who will replace Charles Watson and join senior free safety Terrell Brigham (65 tackles) in the starting lineup. Another player to watch: JUCO transfer Nigel Green is going to log major minutes somewhere in the secondary.
Special teams: South Alabama's found a keeper in sophomore kicker Aleem Sunanon, who made 18-of-23 field goal tries as a rookie. I'd bet on a freshman joining him at punter, seeing that USA inked a pair of specialists, Zac Henry and Corliss Waitman, in February's class. Glover does the heavy lifting in the return game, and he does it well.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: As expected, Brandon Bridge exited spring drills as the favorite to replace Ross Metheny, the former Virginia transfer who excelled as a senior at drastically limiting his mental missteps – trimming his interceptions nearly in half, accomplishing the top item on USA's to-do list entering the regular season. Bridge served as the backup last fall, playing in nine games and making 66 attempts, most in the year's first half; Bridge's most impactful performance came in a reserve role at Troy, where he hit on 11-of-20 attempts for 235 yards in that one-point defeat. So this was no surprise: Bridge was the starter, followed by sophomore Trey Fetner, followed by redshirt freshman Grant Powell. A recent addition may renew the competition. This week, USA brought in South Florida transfer Matt Floyd – eligible immediately – with the hopes of bolstering depth at the position, if not giving Bridge a run for the starting job during fall camp. I wouldn't go as far as to say Floyd will be the starter – he was unimpressive with the Bulls – but his dual-threat ability could add another dimension to the offense; Floyd could fill a role in certain packages, spelling Bridge and adding another weapon on the ground.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
November: Let's just go with the entire month, because USA's hopes of a bowl bid or some degree of conference contention hinges on how it closes against a deadly five-game slate. It begins with road dates with Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State, the top two teams in the Sun Belt, before coming back home for Texas State; the Jaguars then go to South Carolina before closing the season in Mobile against Navy. I think a sixth or seventh win comes in November – depending on how well USA fares in the early going – but this will be a tough stretch for this team to handle.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: I think this team can win the Sun Belt. Five reasons: one, confidence; two, athleticism; three, the burst on offense; four, the potential on defense; and five, the impressive quality of the starting 22. Confidence shouldn't be an issue for USA, which closed last season with a flourish before leaping into a successful offseason – so far, at least. After netting six wins last fall, this team has set the baseline for 2014 at seven or more wins and a top-three finish in the Sun Belt. The Jaguars' athleticism is evident nearly across the board, but at the skill positions in particular. This is a talented team; this is a confident team. Put those assets in concert and you have a very dangerous team – perhaps one capable of moving ahead of Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State in the race of the conference title.
I'm going to peg USA in third, but it's a fairly close competition. My only issue on offense is the quarterback, but even that comes with a tinge of positivity: USA will surround the new starter – let's say it's Bridge – with an absolutely outstanding line, a deep and experienced receiver corps and a steady backfield, though the Jaguars' running backs aren't overly impressive. All Bridge would need to do, in short, is take care of business – like Metheny last fall, after cutting down on his mistakes. On defense, I simply wonder if the Jaguars can come close to replicating last year's pass rush. If so, this group has the increased experience in the secondary to make things difficult on the league's best offenses.
I'm saying seven wins during the regular season, perhaps eight, and a somewhat close race to the finish line with the Cajuns and Red Wolves. ULL seems beastly; ASU again changes coaches but must be viewed as a very realistic contender for eight-plus wins and a shared or outright conference championship. If USA does win this thing – and I'm really thinking they could go 6-2 in the SBC, if not 7-1 – it'll be on the backs of this superb offensive front, strong receiver corps and deeper defense. If the Jaguars finish lower than third, it'll be as a result of subpar quarterback play, weak run defense and a paltry pass rush. There are some things to address, but don't sleep on South Alabama's ability to make a run at the SBC crown.
Dream season: South Alabama goes 9-3, losing to the two SEC foes and Navy, and nets the Sun Belt title.
Nightmare season: The Jaguars aren't ready: 4-8, 2-6 in the SBC.
Who's No. 71? This program is 9-10 since last earning a national ranking.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014