The Fastest Team in College Football
By Steve Barnes
In the South, college football teams are known for their speed. But no other team in the South or the nation can claim to be as fast as South Alabama.
When the Jaguars kick off Thursday against Southern Utah, they will have gone from having no football program to Football Bowl Subdivision status faster than any other college football team. In just five seasons, the team has made it to the big time.
Now members of the Sun Belt Conference, the Mobile, Ala., school launched its football endeavor by hiring coach Joey Jones in 2008. Jones, a former wide receiver at Alabama and a product of Mobile's Murphy High School, literally built the program from nothing. When he started, the Jags didn't have a kicking tee or chinstrap, much less any players. Jones did not have to look far to stock his roster.
On the USA preseason roster, 14 players hail from Mobile. The city long has been noted for the athletes it has produced, including baseball's Hank Aaron, the entire outfield of the 1969 New York Mets and Boston pitcher Jake Peavy. The city has not been shy about producing football players either, like JaMarcus Russell, Sherman Williams, D.J. Fluker and current Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
The roster also includes seven players from nearby Pensacola, Fla., which gives South Alabama a decided "home-field advantage" when it comes to recruiting. Beyond that, USA has become Transfer U.
Twenty players have made it to Mobile via the junior college route, while the Jaguars have picked up two transfers from Alabama and others from Virginia, Louisiana-Monroe and Alcorn State.
The players are partly attracted to the school because of the facilities they can enjoy. The football fieldhouse encompasses 49,000 square feet of territory. The weight room takes up 8,000 square feet. The Jaguars also play their home games in Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The 40,000-seat venue also hosts the Senior Bowl and the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Since USA started playing in 2009, it has gone 25-15 and steadily grown.
In the inaugural year, the Jaguars weren't classified by the NCAA and could only offer 40-50 scholarships. In 2010, the team had 70-80 scholarships available and it made the most of its resources. South Alabama won its first 17 games as a program playing non-scholarship teams, and teams from the Football Championship Subdivision, NCAA Division II, III, NAIA and prep school teams.
The transition to FBS status took two years and the higher competition saw the wins drop off, but the Jaguars went 8-15. Last season was the final year of the transition and USA visited Mississippi State and North Carolina State. Jones also had a reward for the players who could not compete in 2013 because of running out of eligibility by playing on the school's first four teams. The final game of the season featured a road game at the University of Hawaii.
This season, USA will play a full Sun Belt schedule, be eligible for a bowl and play out-of-conference games at Tulane, Tennessee and Navy.
Playing such competition is not a one-year thing. In the future, South Alabama will play at South Carolina, Ole Miss, Nebraska, LSU and Southern Mississippi. The Jaguars will also host North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Tulane and USM.
With the recruits and transfers USA attracts, along with its facilities and exposure of playing established programs, the Jaguars might be well on their way to establishing another speed record — fastest team to ever go from no team to a bowl game.