Premature Preview 2012: South Alabama

Previously: Jackson State, Auburn, Troy

We continue our weekly series with MSU’s fourth game of 2012, and it’ll be the third non-SEC contest. This might be the patsiest of the patsies State has scheduled this fall, as South Alabama is still technically not a Division I-A program. It’s considered a transitional team, though, so this will count as a I-A opponent for MSU.

USA is entering its fourth year of existence and will be considered a full-fledged I-A member in 2013. It’s playing 12 of its 13 games this fall against I-A competition – opponents include N.C. State, Hawaii and a lot of schools from the Sun Belt Conference, which South Alabama will be joining.

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South Alabama Jaguars (Sept. 22, in Starkville)

Conference: None (joining Sun Belt)

2011 record: 6-4

Final ranking: Not ranked

Coach: Joey Jones (23-4, three years)

Returning starters: 15 (5 offense, 9 defense, 1 specialist)

Last meeting: First meeting

On the Web: usajaguars.com

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As South Alabama has built up its program, it’s won a lot of games along the way. The Jaguars beat UT Martin last season, 33-30, as well as Mississippi Valley State, 35-3. In 2010, USA went 10-0 against a schedule featuring the likes of Nicholls State, Kentucky Wesleyan, Missouri S&T and Georgia State.

South Alabama runs a multiple spread offense, led by quarterback C.J. Bennett. As a freshman he completed 54.9 percent of his passes for 1,640 yards, seven touchdowns and 17 interceptions. That does not appear to be where South Alabama’s strength is located on offense.

The running game was solid, and leading rusher Kendall Houston is back after totaling 575 yards and eight touchdowns. He split time with now-departed Demetre Baker (514 yards, nine TDs). The Jags averaged 154.5 rushing yards per game, so there’s obviously room for improvement there.

The offensive line returns two starters, including 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Melvin Meggs. He actually has two years’ experience already, because of a rule that allows players on unclassified teams to play their redshirt year without losing a year of eligibility.

Defensively, South Alabama runs a 3-4 and returns not only a lot of starters, but a lot of depth. USA gave up 309.7 yards and 21.7 points per game last season. In four of its wins, the opponent was held to 10 points or less.

South Alabama returns its top three tacklers from last year, including inside linebackers Jake Johnson (83 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Enrique Williams (62, 4.5, 1.5). Safety Charles Harris (81 tackles, one interception) leads the secondary.

The Jaguars aren’t especially big up front, where juniors Romelle Jones (7.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Montavious Williams (5.0 TFL) anchor things.

This is a game you’d expect MSU to win handily, but I get the feeling South Alabama won’t roll over. This will be the Jaguars’ second consecutive road game, playing at N.C. State the previous week. For MSU, this prefaces a trip to Kentucky.