In the eyes of South Alabama fans, this is rivalry week. The Jags host Troy for a nationally televised game on ESPNU Friday night. Since their history on the football field only goes back two years, it's really a rivalry waiting to happen. This year, it's also a story of two programs going in opposite directions.
Troy, once the "top dog" of the Sun Belt Conference, has fallen on tough times. The Trojan head coach Larry Blakeney announced that, after he finishes his 24th season at the helm of the Trojan football team, he will retire. He is the second-longest tenured head coach in FBS football behind Frank Beamer and is one of only a few coaches who has led a team from Division II to FBS (Division I-A). Blakeney has 176 wins at Troy, which ties him for third place with his college coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan. He won or shared five consecutive Sun Belt Conference titles from 2006-2010 and the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium is named after him.
However the Trojans have not had a winning season since 2010 and started the 2014 season 0-5, including a loss to FCS Abilene Christian. They defeated New Mexico State the week after Blakeney's retirement announcement, but were handed the worst home loss since 1961 at the hands of FBS newcomer Appalachian State just last Saturday.
On the other hand South Alabama is in their sixth season of football, the second season as full FBS members, and seems to be one of the programs on the rise in the Sun Belt.
When South Alabama head coach Joey Jones began choosing staff, one of his first hires was Brian Turner. Turner was an assistant coach under Blakeney at Troy from 2003 through 2007, but also served as recruiting coordinator. Jones hired Turner to fill the same position on the USA staff seven years ago.
South Alabama was able to recruit players the first two years with the enticement they could play four seasons plus what would be their redshirt season since the team was unclassified. They began play in 2009 by scheduling whomever they could entice to play an unclassified football program, namely military institutes and junior colleges, and went undefeated in the seven-game season.
In 2010 USA stepped up their schedule with NAIA, Division II and a couple FCS schools playing an undefeated 10-0. In 2011 classified as an FCS transitional team, they went 6-4 while adding FBS schools to the schedule.
The Jaguars began transition from FCS to FBS with a 2-11 season in 2012 including a 2OT win over Florida Atlantic, the Jags first FBS win. They improved to 6-6 (4-3 SBC) and a four way tie for third place in the conference their first season as full FBS and Sun Belt Conference members in 2013.
Prior to the 2014 season, the Jaguars were picked to finish third in the conference and currently sit in fourth place with a 4-2 (3-1 SBC) record. Their only losses are to current AP and USA Today poll #1 Mississippi State and Georgia Southern, who is currently unbeaten in conference play.
While building the program, one of the goals was to overtake Troy.
The Trojans were considered one of the best teams in the state, behind Alabama and Auburn of course. People knew Troy's motto of ‘anybody, anytime, anywhere'. Blakeney and his Trojans upset then #17 ranked Missouri 24-14 in a 2004 ESPN2 Thursday night game. Then in 2007 they upset Oklahoma State.
In the eyes of South Alabama students, alums, and fans, Troy is the team to beat. However the Jaguars did not find that recipe their first two meetings. The Jags lost 31-10 in a cold, wet, dreary game in 2012. Last year the Jaguars came back from a 24-7 third quarter deficit to take the lead 33-27 with :48 seconds to go. Then, Troy's Corey Robinson hefted a 20-yard touchdown to Eric Thomas with :07 left to give the Trojans the win.
It was apparent during the 2013 game that South Alabama has closed the gap between the two schools.
This game has more meaning to fans than the other conference games so far this season. Yes, wins over Idaho, Appalachian State and Georgia State were good, but fans want to finally get that coveted win over the team off of highway 231 southeast of Montgomery. Maybe it's just one win closer to being bowl eligible or another conference win trying to keep up with Georgia Southern, but a win in this game will be a little sweeter to some fans.
One of the definitions for rivalry is "competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field." I believe after this game is over, it will be apparent that South Alabama has overtaken Troy and a "true rivalry" will be born.