The Jaguars faced another FBS newcomer in the season opener, falling to Texas- San Antonio on Sept. 1, 33-31. After beating FCS foe Nicholls State on Sept. 8 (9-3), they went on to drop four in a row.
The team earned its first Sun Belt win on Oct. 20, beating Florida Atlantic in double-overtime, 37-34. Although it closed out the season with five straight defeats, it showed improvement down the stretch, with three of those losses coming by 10 points or less.
South Alabama's transition phase into the FBS is now complete, as it will be eligible for postseason play in 2013.
"Playing for a bowl this year just gives us so much more motivation," defensive lineman Romelle Jones said. "It just gives us that little bit extra to think about and you feel it all in your heart and in your mind when you think about it."
OFFENSE: The good news for the South Alabama offense is that it will have one of the most experienced units in the conference with eight returning starters. However, that group only managed to muster up 18.5 ppg and 333.4 ypg a season ago.
Ross Metheny began the 2012 campaign as the second-string quarterback but took over as the starter by mid-October. Although his final numbers were modest at best (.548 completion percentage, 2,148 yards, 12 TDs, 12 interceptions), he saved his strongest performance for the end of the season by throwing for 360 yards and two touchdowns against Louisiana on Nov. 24.
The Jaguars' three top receivers are back in the mix for 2013, and improved chemistry with their quarterback should mean better seasons for Jereme Jones (513 yards, seven TDs), Corey Besteda (430 yards, two TDs) and Bryant Lavender (378 yards).
Last year's leading rusher Demetre Baker was dismissed from the team in April, meaning the starting running back gig will be an open competition between Kendall Houston and junior college transfer Jay Jones. The team also welcomes back three starting offensive linemen as well, as well as tight end Greg Hollinger (22 rec, 321 yards).
DEFENSE: The Jaguars' defense experienced some growing pains adapting to the improved level of competition last year, allowing nearly 30 ppg. It was, however, one of the more impressive units in the league in terms of total defense (382.9 ypg) and it returns nine starters.
All four starting defensive linemen are back, and although the team only had 24 sacks a season ago, another year of seasoning should be helpful for pass- rushers Alex Page (11.5 TFL, six sacks) and Pat Moore (nine TFL, 4.5 sacks).
The loss of linebacker Jake Johnson (131 tackles, 15 TFL) will be a lot to overcome, but Enrique Williams (105 tackles) and Clifton Crews (49 tackles) should be able to anchor a strong linebacking corps.
In the secondary, Tyrell Pearson is a big play waiting to happen, coming up with four picks in 2012 to go with 11 pass break-ups.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Redshirt freshman Aleem Sunanon will be the team's kicker, replacing Michael Chapuseaux (20-of-27 on field goal attempts). Scott Garber (39.6 avg) returns as the punter.
T.J. Glover had nearly 800 combined kickoff and punt return yards in 2012 and he is expected to be the primary return man once again.
OUTLOOK: As expected, the first year of South Alabama's foray into the FBS was a rough one, but it was far from a laughing stock and became rather competitive by season's end, and now that its transition is complete -- giving it full postseason eligibility -- the team can start to look forward to bigger and better things.
"There's a lot of excitement in there (the locker room) -- that we can climb that ladder in the Sun Belt, that we can get to a bowl game -- that's the two goals we have," head coach Joey Jones said. "Bottom line, that's what we're striving for."
With plenty of returning talent from last year's squad, an improvement upon their two-win campaign is to be expected, but even with the Jaguars inching closer to the .500 mark, the squad simply isn't talented enough to compete with the Sun Belt's best.