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2014 MSU Football Opponent Preview: South Alabama

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Three games into the season, Mississippi State will walk into a bit of a trap game in Mobile. Can the Bulldogs escape with a win and likely 3-0 start heading into conference play?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
trap game1

noun

noun: trap game; plural noun: trap games

1. a game found in a college football season that pits your team against a lesser, upset-minded opponent the week before a bigger game.

Make no mistake: When the Bulldogs travel to Mobile on September 13th, that is the exact type of game that will be waiting for them.  A feisty, senior-laden South Alabama Jaguars will be waiting for them, and with nothing to lose, MSU is likely to get the upstart Jags' best shot that afternoon at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.  The game also falls one week before MSU starts conference play -- against a team that we haven't beaten since before Y2K -- which completes the definition of the trap game. Now enough scary story talk here; let's take a look at what the Jags feature this season, and let's take a brief look at the third game of the season.

2013 - Year in review

2013 for the Jaguars was similar to Mississippi State's in that it was up and down with a near .500 finish and a strong push at the end.  The Jags torched Mark Hudspeth's ULL squad 30-8 to close out the season (ULL was without their starting QB), much in the way that State took Rice behind the woodshed to close out the season.  There were some close, wish-I-had-that-back losses (24-31 loss to Tennessee, 16-17 loss to Arkansas State), and there were three straight 30+ points scored, 20+ point margin of victory wins to close out the season.  Overall, you could count 2013 as a strong season for USA, and with pretty much everyone back except QB Ross Metheny, 2014 should be more of the same.

2014 Outlook

When I said pretty much everyone except the QB was returning for S. Alabama in 2014, I meant it: The Jags return the starting RB, top three WRs, starting TE, all five starting O-Linemen, and six of seven top playmakers in their secondary.  The defensive line will be an area of concern: they lose their top three in tackles and tackles for loss from last year.  And the linebacking corps loses three of its four top contributors as well.  But there should be enough in the secondary and especially on offense to make South Alabama a player for the Sun Belt title.

Here's SBNation's Bill Connelly on the offense in his big South Alabama preview:

If the quarterback situation is resolved, there might not be another obvious, unanswered question for this offense. The top three rushers all return, as do the top four pass targets and five linemen with extensive starting experience.

The run game could still stand to improve a bit; short-yardage execution was woeful (USA was 126th in Power Success Rate, which certainly helps to explain the Jaguars' drive-finishing issues), and none of the returning leading rushers showed much in the way of explosiveness. Jay Jones was efficient, getting at least five yards downfield on over 40 percent of his carries, but if Kaleb Blanchard, the gem of the 2013 recruiting class, is ready, he could pretty easily surpass Kendall Houston and Cris Dinham for playing time.

It's difficult to find too many weaknesses with the receiving corps, however. Shavarez Smith is one of the best home run threats in the mid-major ranks, while tight end Wes Saxton and Danny Woodson II, a former Alabama signee, make for a hell of a possession duo. The offensive tackles are both returning all-conference performers as well. This offense is ready to roll ... as long as there's a quarterback around to drive.

That sounds really promising for a team that's just heading into its third year of FBS participation.  But that QB position is a big IF; it could swing the Jags completely in one direction or the other in 2014.  The good news is that whoever takes over under center, they will be doing so behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation.  The Jags return a combined 113 starts on the OL, and the two guys who have the least starts between them -- RT Chris May and LT Ucambre Williams -- were 1st and 2nd team all-Sun Belt last season, respectively.

On defense, the key will be replacing big contributors in the front seven.  Alex Page, Romelle Jones, and Enrique Williams are all gone, leaving Maleki Harris to lead the charge for a defense that was second in its conference in 2013.

3 Factors

It's a trap!

It seems so simple to avoid, yet the threat is real and imminent.  South Alabama fans are pumped about hosting an SEC school at home as an upstart FBS program.  They're not a bad football team, and they'll have an opening weekend off week and somewhat of a warm up game (at Kent State) to prepare. MSU's two opening games aren't exactly a good bit more difficult, but you can't tell me that Joey Jones hasn't had his team prepping at least some for MSU over the summer with the Bulldogs coming second on the schedule this fall.

The temptation to look ahead is so enticing for MSU: fans and players alike.  State hasn't beaten LSU since 1999, and the Tigers, although never really "down", are looking to replace a lot of big pieces, including breaking in a brand new quarterback.  MSU players will undoubtedly look ahead to some extent; the question is, will they do so enough to bite them in the butt against a decent South Alabama team.  We certainly hope not.

Don't repeat 2012

2012's 30-10 win over South Alabama was just about as ugly as a 30-10 win can be.  MSU essentially went through the motions, and was out-gained by a USA team that turned it over three times and couldn't capitalize when it had the chance.  The final score didn't tell the full story, and although MSU DID come out with the win, it wasn't as convincing as it could (and should) have been.  At the time, South Alabama was in its first year as an FBS team, but that didn't mean they played like a newbie.  They took their best shot, and those that were there can attest that it resulted in what felt like a much closer game than the final score would indicate.  MSU cannot afford to go through the motions with the Jaguars again, because the results may not be as favorable the second go-round.

RUN THE DANG BALL

While the Jaguars ranked a respectable 56th in the country in 2013 in rushing defense (160 ypg), they were 104th in runs of 10 yards or more given up.  I feel like MSU's running backs -- sans LaDarius Perkins now -- aren't getting as much respect as they should going into this season.  Pit Josh Robinson, Ashton Shumpert, Nick Griffin and Dak Prescott behind a veteran OL and against a front seven that is replacing a lot of contributors in just the second game of the season and I like State's chances.  Mullen should (and probably will) stick to the ground as the bread and butter against the Jaguars and work the left, right and middle until the levee breaks /Zeppelin guitar riff here.