(This is the seventh in a series previewing the Sun Belt Conference, as well as Louisiana’s non conference opponents for 2014.  Today:  South Alabama.  The Jaguars are the Cajuns’ Homecoming opponent November 1st at 4pm.)

Last year, South Alabama, playing in only its second season as an FBS school, won its final three games to finish bowl eligible at 6-6.  That wasn’t good enough to get them into a bowl but still was a major step forward after going 2-11 the year before.

And, it was t-h-a-t close to being oh, so much better.

Four of USA’s six losses were by a grand total of five points.  They lost to Tennessee by a touchdown.  Only Navy easily handled the Jaguars.  South Alabama got a little notoriety by finishing 6-6.  Imagine if the ball had bounced their way and they finished 10-2.

Those wins in the last three contests are something this coaching staff is pointing to as the Jaguars prepare for their third year in the Sun Belt Conference.  Head coach Joey Jones has to feel like this edition of the Jaguars can take another step and play a 13th game this year.

The optimism abounds even though USA has to replace second team all league quarterback Ross Metheny, who threw for fifteen touchdowns and rushed for ten more.  Combined, he had 3,224 yards of offense.  Senior Brandon Bridge, who played in nine games and came up big against Troy, throwing for over 250 yards.  The former Alcorn State player has great size at 6-5, 220 and is capable of running the football as well.

That’s really the only offensive question mark.  The Jags return leading rusher Jay Jones, who netted 737 yards and over five yards per carry a year ago.  Terrance Timmons adds some experience there as well.

When Bridge throws, it will be to one of the top three receiving corps in the Sun Belt.  The Jaguars return their top four receivers, who combined for 166 receptions last season and 13 touchdowns.  Tight End Wes Saxton was the first team All-SBC at that position and he’s back.  Add Alabama transfer Marvin Shinn who played for the Tide in 2012 and there’s an awful lot of talent there.

The offensive line is solid.  Tackle Chris May was first team all-SBC and his counterpart Ucambre Williams was a second team selection.  They lose center Matt Calcaginni, but Melvin Meggs, who missed last year with an injury, is back, giving the OL a ton of experience.

The big questions for South Alabama are on defense, specifically up front, where the Jaguars  suffered heavy losses, including nearly 25 sacks.  JUCO All American Jimmie Gipson will help ease the pain and Jessie Kelley who played a lot at the nose a year ago, will help out as well.

There are shoes to fill at linebacker as well.  Maleki Harris returns after finishing fourth on the team in tackles and having seven pass breakups last year.  Four junior college transfers will provide depth.  Three seniors from the defensive backfield have departed, but three starters return.  The best of the bunch is corner Qudarius Ford, who was second on the team in tackles last year.

After a difficult start last year, redshirt freshman Aleem Sunanon nailed his final 12 field goal attempts and finished 8-10 from 40+ yards.  He’s not the strongest leg on kickoffs, with only five touchbacks last season.  USA is replacing its punter, but their return game is solid with the return of T.J. Glover, who averaged 25 yards per kick return and nearly six yards per attempt in the punt return game.

The schedule is interesting in that the Jaguars open with two non conference games…and close with two non conference games.  USA hosts Mississippi State on September 13 and we’ll get an idea just how good this team is, at least early in the season.  In league play,  USA does not play ULM or New Mexico State and they have to travel to Jonesboro and Lafayette in consecutive weeks.  They also have the long trip to Idaho and face App State in Boone.

OUTLOOK:  This has got to be a confident team heading into the season after their finish a year ago.  Whether or not Bridge can be consistent enough to be the team leader at quarterback is a question mark, but the rest of the offense is not.  And, the receiving corps will cover up some of Bridge’s sins.  The Jaguars have a chance to be a very good, if not very explosive offensive football team.

The question here is on the defensive side.  South Alabama lost a lot of aggression on their defense and there’s not a ton of FBS experience in the front seven.  This team is going to rely somewhat on junior college players to help fill the holes on defense and, as we all know, that can be a hit or miss proposition.  Having to face ASU and UL on the road will be tough, but both those games are in November.  If the defense doesn’t take a major step back, this team will play in a bowl game and will contend for the Sun Belt title.