The State of the Program Entering I-A
In 2009, South Alabama football team became a reality for the first time. With former Division III Birmingham-Southern head coach Joey Jones taking the reins in Mobile, the Jaguars rolled their way through an undefeated first season. Throughout their schedule, consisting of seven games against college prep programs and military academies, South Alabama outscored their opposition 321-41.
The winning ways would continue in 2010 as the team increased the level of difficulty in its schedule. Surviving three games at the end of October and the beginning of November that would be settled by less than a touchdown, South Alabama rolled to a 10-0 finish in their second season and extended the school’s all-time record to 17-0.
The Jaguars would win the first two games of their 2011 season as well, the winning streak extending to 19 games before a trip to Raleigh erased any illusions about the program. Against NC State, the first I-A team they would ever face, South Alabama was overmatched as they suffered the first loss in school history 35-13. They would fall again the following Saturday at Kent State, sitting at 2-2 in the standings at the beginning of October.
Wins over UT-San Antonio and Tennessee-Martin restored South Alabama to a winning record, but a 27-20 overtime loss at Georgia State on October 22 would force Jones’ charges to endure another growing pain. Easy victories over Division II Henderson State and I-AA Mississippi Valley State guaranteed the Jaguars a winning season ahead of their season finale on the road against Cal Poly.
The showdown in San Luis Obispo on November 19 quickly devolved into a blowout. The Jaguars had no answer on defense for the Mustangs’ option attack, and the home team romped to a 41-10 win thanks to 226 total rushing yards. Though South Alabama would enjoy the advantage in time of possession, the Cal Poly defense held quarterback C.J. Bennett and the Jaguar offense under 300 total yards on the day.
The defeat in the last game of the year would provide a better measure of South Alabama’s position as an aspiring member of the upper division than the 19-game winning streak that kicked off the program’s history. Still seeking their first win over an opponent from the FBS ranks, Jones’ Jaguars brought a 23-4 record from their first three seasons to the next challenge.
The First Season
Hosting a familiar foe in the first I-A game in both schools’ history, South Alabama and UT-San Antonio battled in a back-and-forth affair that came down to the final seconds on the first day of September. The Jaguars would take the lead twice in the fourth quarter, pulling ahead the second time on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Bennett to Jereme Jones that put the home team ahead 31-30 with 2:46 remaining. But Eric Soza and the Roadrunners would efficiently work their way into position for Sean Ianno to boot a 51-yard field goal as time expired to steal the victory.
South Alabama would knock off I-AA Nicholls State at home on the following Saturday, but road trips to NC State and Mississippi State would set back the Jaguars. September would come to a close as Jones’ squad fell to new state and Sun Belt rival Troy 31-10. After the first month of South Alabama’s I-A history, they had already lost as many games as they had suffered in their first three years of play and were mired in futility at 1-4.
After a bye week, South Alabama took back to the road for another conference tilt. Against Arkansas State, the Jaguars took a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter, though by halftime the Red Wolves had taken a 14-13 lead into the locker room. Keeping the game close throughout, South Alabama couldn’t find enough offense to come back in the 36-29 defeat.
Returning to their home turf at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the Jaguars finally earned their first victory over another I-A team on October 20. Welcoming Florida Atlantic to Mobile, South Alabama knocked off the Owls 37-34 in two overtimes for the only Sun Belt victory they’d earn in 2012. Soon the high note of the win would fade, as Jones and his crew took beatings from their new Sun Belt foes week after week.
Louisiana-Monroe had the honors first, dismissing the Jaguars 38-24 on the last Saturday of October. FIU came to Mobile on November 3 and returned to Miami 28-20 winners. The visit to North Texas the following weekend resulted in a 24-14 loss for South Alabama, and things would get no better on November 17 as Middle Tennessee came to Ladd-Peebles Stadium and knocked off the Jaguars 20-12.
The last Sun Belt game of the season would deal South Alabama their most lopsided defeat of the season. Gaining 538 total yards of offense, the Ragin’ Cajuns pummeled the Jaguars 52-30 in the penultimate game of South Alabama’s season. Facing one final out-of-conference test, the Jaguars were rewarded for their efforts in 2012 with a final trip to Hawaii to close out the regular season. Welcoming South Alabama on the first day of December, the Warriors were hardly in a giving mood as they held the visitors to 166 total yards of offense in a 23-7 Hawaii victory.
And so the fourth season of South Alabama football history, its first as a provisional I-A member, came to a merciful end on a Pacific autumn evening. Nearly quadrupling their all-time accumulated losses in a single year, the Jaguars slumped their way to a 2-11 finish as the learning curve steeped dramatically in 2012.
Outlook for the Future
The Jaguars are aiming high as they look forward to their future as a mid-major in the top level of the college game. With future out-of-conference games scheduled over the next five seasons against Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia, NC State, Nebraska, LSU, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State, South Alabama is certainly taking the opportunity to challenge itself and to grow from the experiences.
They enter 2013 as a full FBS member, eligible to compete for the Sun Belt title and to earn a bowl bid. Jones and his team will hope that 2013 and beyond look more like their first two years as a program rather than their third and fourth years of existence, as they settle into their league and begin the attempt to siphon from the teeming pool of talent in the southeastern United States.