In their fifth season of football, the South Alabama Jaguars became bowl-eligible for the first time in 2013, finishing the year 6-6 and 4-3 in the Sun Belt. Despite hitting six wins, however, the Jaguars were not invited to a bowl game as one of five bowl-eligible teams from the beleaguered Sun Belt conference to stay at home last postseason.
The team will be hoping to build on their success from 2013 and put together a resume that can’t be ignored when the bowl bids are handed out this time around. South Alabama will have to replace their top offensive playmaker from last season first, however, if they hope to even match their six wins from last season. Can the Jaguars keep building a winner under head coach Joey Jones this fall?
The key for the Jaguars this season will be to find a replacement for quarterback Ross Metheny. During his senior season in 2013, Metheny led the Jags’ offense, accounting for 3,235 total yards and 25 total touchdowns. His successor isn’t immediately clear in 2014, either. Senior Brandon Bridge challenged Metheny last August before falling into the backup role, but completed just 43.9 percent of his passes in nine games with one touchdown and two interceptions.
While nobody else on the South Alabama roster has completed a pass at the college level, junior Trey Fetner was used in a Wildcat role at times and rushed for a touchdown in 2013. If Bridge doesn’t assume control of the position completely in fall camp, it will be interesting to see if Fetner or redshirt freshman Brett Sheehan can challenge for playing time.
However the quarterback situation pans out, they’ll be supported by the return of just about every skill player of note from the 2013 season. Leading rusher Jay Jones is back for his senior season after rushing for 737 yards on 143 attempts with five touchdowns. The team returns three receivers who had at least 40 receptions last season, led by Shavarez Smith who averaged 18.80 yards per catch last season, racking up 940 yards and scoring six touchdowns. The entire offensive line is also back with a pair of All-Sun Belt tackles.
In short, the only question about the South Alabama offense in 2014 is who will be playing quarterback.
Defensively, on the other hand, South Alabama must deal with a great deal of turnover in 2014. The active, undersized, and fast front seven from last season will have to replace six of the nine rotational players on the line and four of six at linebacker.
The team will have to rely heavily on nose tackles Jesse Kelley and Jerome McClain, who showed flashes of playmaking ability when given the opportunity, and linebacker Maleki Harris, a dynamic defensive presence near the line and in pass coverage, to hold things together.
In the secondary, the team returns plenty of experience in 2014 but has questions about how much talent that veteran group has against the pass. The biggest issue for the Jaguars last year was allowing big pass plays. Without the talent of the front seven to help create pressure and sacks, that could become an even bigger issue for the Jaguars this fall.
The team will try and infuse some new blood into the rotation with three-star Juco transfer Nigel Green and three of the top incoming freshman from the 2014 class being cornerbacks. How quickly that new talent finds the field could determine how strong the back end of the defense ends up being.
What could help South Alabama as they try to fill holes on the defense and at quarterback is their soft schedule. Outside of non-conference games against the Mississippi State Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks, there aren’t many for-sure losses on the Jaguars’ schedule.
The non-conference schedule is rounded out with games against the Kent State Golden Flashes (4-8 in 2013) and Navy Midshipmen (9-4). In conference play, the Jaguars miss the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks as the Sun Belt adds former FCS teams Appalachian State Mountaineers and Georgia Southern Eagles (transitioning this fall to FBS), as well as Sun Belt newcomer the Idaho Vandals (1-11 in 2013).
If the Jaguars can find an answer at quarterback and fill their defensive holes, South Alabama could be in the mix for the Sun Belt title in 2014. Look for the Jaguars to win six to eight games this season and then hope they score a bid to a bowl game.