"Does South Alabama have a ceiling?"
This is the question I keep asking myself when mulling over recent(ish) the FBS upstart South Alabama Jaguars, who by very nature of that reality probably shouldn't be defined by ceilings and floors at the moment.
And yet, I can't stop asking myself that question. If you go by their recent results, you might start to see something resembling a ceiling of, let's say, 6-6? They likely can do better than that at some point, but for now the new program shine's off of USA football. They had a better than expected start to their FBS tenure with some solid defenses and a 2014 bowl bid, but a disappointing 5-7 campaign last season brought more questions than answers.
If you squint a little, you can see an infrastructure and a blueprint for success. But you might also see some early cracks in the foundation and, with a few missteps, a long road into the wilderness.
- They're right in the heart of SEC recruiting country, and a few high-caliber prospects will always slip through the cracks of the bigger schools.
- Mobile is a solid draw for recognizable P5 opponents, as both Mississippi State and NC State have played road games at USA.
- A shiny new on campus stadium may be in the works soon. Once that happens, you can probably bump USA up a few spots in the conference in terms of overall desirability.
- Unlike, say, UAB, their administration is playing for keeps and has no qualms about supporting the program.
- Ladd-Peebles Stadium is, to put it lightly, in the bottom tier of facilities in the Sun Belt. Until the new stadium is completely, facilities will be a liability for USA.
- USA's hitting the lull that often happens to brand new programs after all of the original players graduate at once, and the UAB pipeline was a one time jolt that didn't produce as well as expected. Can they sustain their initial levels of success, or are they in for a rough patch?
- There's very little history to sell to recruits and fans, and attendance has been fairly low outside of games against marquee opponents.
- Almost every Sun Belt school has to deal with P5 behemoths sucking away fans, but competing against Alabama and Auburn for eyeballs is particularly taxing.
Making the case for why USA should be lower than 8th: Nic Lewis, Managing Editor
I think this is a major knock, and I can speak from experience as a current Mobile resident. The main reason that attendance struggles is because USA is a 7 year old football team and therefore isn't even old enough to have a generation of fans who had USA as a choice to root for. I can count on my hands and feet the number of locals that give a crap about this team beyond current students and faculty, plus alumni that never moved away. And not even all of those folks can be bothered to show.
Additionally, games like Mississippi State and NC State are a godsend, because they cancel out crap like watching Idaho in the rain. This is a mediocre team in a mediocre conference with a lukewarm fanbase, playing their football in a stadium that will be the worst in FBS once Legion Field is imploded and is located in the second-shadiest neighborhood in town.
That's way too many negatives to have four teams ranked below you. My wife has been to two games with me there, and she wants to join me on my trip to see LSU play next season because, and I quote, she "[hasn't] been to a real college football game yet in [her] life."
If you were playing NCAA football in an online dynasty...
You choose the South Alabama job because you like the challenge of building up a brand new, pop-out-of-the-box program with no history. Or perhaps you wanted to play a perennial underdog with the chance of snagging talented prospects that get overlooked by the big FBS powers but want to stay close to home. You dig their workmanlike attitude of toughness and want to play some smash-mouth football in the Sun Belt. You also don't mind occasionally getting kicked in the face.
If you choose this job in real life...
You're not afraid of taking on a job with no history and have enough local ties to snag the 39th commit that Nick Saban tries to pull the grayshirt bait-and-switch on at the last second. You're patient and are happy to take the long view in program building, because you know there is potential for a solid payoff in the end. Which could perhaps include an SEC gig, eventually.
Give this job a few years and USA could be a top 5 Sun Belt position. Right now there's more potential than substance, although the bowl game in Year 2 of FBS was a solid achievement (even if it was mostly based on geography). Things seem to be on a downward trend at the moment, and the next 2-3 years will likely determine if USA can make a permanent leap forward or if they'll languish in mediocrity for the forseeable future.
Right now the intangibles between FBS upstarts Georgia State and South Alabama are fairly similar; they have lots of potential and great recruiting bases to draw from, but also have small fanbases and facilities working against them. Georgia State has a larger media market they can tap into, but South Alabama's program infrastructure has been stronger overall (last year being the exception) during each school's FBS transition. A new on-campus stadium also seems like a more attractive option long term than a re-purposed Turner Field.
For those reasons, USA gets the nod as a more attractive job, but I could be convinced otherwise.
Best jobs in the Sun Belt countdown:
8. South Alabama