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The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 1, 2:00 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Ladd Peebles Stadium (40,646) -- Mobile, Alabama. Television: ESPN3.com. Home Record: UTSA 0-0, USA 0-0. Away Record: UTSA 0-0, USA 0-0. Neutral Record: UTSA 0-0, USA 0-0. Conference Record: UTSA 0-0, USA 0-0. Series Record: South Alabama leads, 1-0.
GAME NOTES: This past offseason, four teams graduated from the FCS ranks to the FBS, and on Saturday afternoon two of them will face each other in the 2012 season opener when the South Alabama Jaguars entertain the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners in Mobile.
The game was originally scheduled to be played on Thursday night, but was moved to Saturday due to the potential impact of Hurricane Isaac on the area.
Considering it was the first year of the football program, UTSA put together a solid 2011 campaign behind two-time National Coach of the Year Larry Coker. Operating as an FCS Independent, the Roadrunners went 4-6, winning all four of their games at home in the Alamodome. The season finished especially strong for the start-up program, winning two of their final three games against Georgia State (17-14 in OT) and Minot State (49-7).
After going a combined 17-0 in its first two seasons in the FCS in 2009 and 2010, South Alabama increased the difficulty of its schedule in 2011 in preparation for the move to the Sun Belt Conference. The result was mostly positive for Joey Jones' program, going 6-4 with signature wins over Lamar (30-8), Henderson State (28-3) and Mississippi Valley State (35-3). The Jaguars were unbeaten at Ladd Peebles Stadium until they fell to Cal Poly in the season finale, 41-10.
These two teams met last season on Oct. 8 in a hard-fought battle at the Alamodome, with the Jags coming out on top in double-overtime, 30-27.
UTSA is sure to endure some growing pains in its one and only year in the Western Athletic Conference, but there is plenty of room for optimism as it returns all 11 starters on offense from its inaugural season.
Leading the unit will be junior quarterback Eric Soza, who will be asked to operate the team's spread offense. Soza was decent in 2011, completing 56 percent of his passes for 2,148 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The spread attack allows Soza to distribute the ball all over the field - 19 different receivers caught a pass a year ago - although Kam Jones (39 rec, 578 yds, 2 TDs) and Brandon Freeman (30 rec, 419 yds, 4 TDs) figure to be the primary beneficiaries once again this fall.
Much like the aerial attack, the running game relied on several different contributors in 2011. The Roadrunners became especially reliant on the ground game in the red zone, compiling 16 rushing touchdowns. Evans Okotcha led the team in rushing despite gaining just 326 yards, but his 6.5 yards per carry average suggests that he's capable of big things every time he touches the ball. A cohesive offensive line with a year of experience playing together will also be beneficial to both the running game and to Soza staying upright.
Similar to the offense, the UTSA defense remains mostly intact from a season ago, returning 10 of 11 starters. The unit was active in 2011, forcing 21 turnovers in 10 games, and it will need to continue to create big plays if it wants to be successful against a higher level of competition.
The secondary is the strength of the defense. The Roadrunners had four different players notch two interceptions, including safety Nic Johnson (59 tackles, 9 TFL, 3 fumble recoveries) and cornerback Darrien Starling (35 tackles, 1 blocked kick).
The front seven for UTSA was also effective a season ago, led by linebackers Brandon Reeves (69 tackles, 6 sacks) and Steven Kurfehs (61 tackles, 2 INTs), and perhaps its best playmaker, defensive end Marlon Smith (40 tackles, 10 TFL, 8 sacks, 1 forced fumble).
South Alabama boasted a modest offense in 2011, as its 24.4 points per game would have placed in the bottom half of the Sun Belt rankings, but those numbers came against FCS competition, so it will need to step up its game in its first season as an FBS program.
Quarterback C.J. Bennett started as a freshman in 2011 and he experienced more than a few bumps in the road, completing just 54.9 percent of his passes for 1,640 yards with a very poor touchdown-to-interception ratio (7-to-17). Growth is usually expected from the freshman to sophomore campaign, but the fact that he has to face faster and more talented defenses this season may alter his learning curve.
Bennett could have a difficult time getting the ball to his receivers, but at least he knows he can count on a couple of reliable returning pass-catchers in Bryant Lavender (28 rec, 370 yds) and Jereme Jones (205 yds, 2 TDs).
The strength of the Jaguars offense should once again be the ground game. The impressive duo of Kendall Houston (558 yds, 8 TDs) and Demetre Baker (491 yds, 9 TDs) return to the backfield and are expected to have a heavy workload, slowing the tempo and taking pressure off Bennett.
The USA defense returns eight starters and has a good chance at seeing success right away. The unit allowed just 309.7 yards per game in 2011, 16th in the FCS.
Middle linebacker Jake Johnson will once again quarterback the defense and he hopes to improve upon a 83-tackle campaign.
A couple of hard-hitting safeties - Charles Harris (81 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) and B.J. Scott (48 tackles, 4 pass breakups) - also help control the middle of the field. Getting pressure on the quarterback may be an issue for the unit, as starting ends Desmond LaVelle and Romelle Jones combined for just 2 sacks last season.
This matchup makes for an familiar transition to FBS competition for both teams before having to play more difficult opponents in the coming weeks and months. Both teams have shown success in the FCS, and it remains to be seen just how well they respond to this next level of competition, but for one day at least, things will remain relatively the same for both programs. USA took care of business against UTSA on the road last season, so it should have little problem defeating the Roadrunners in front of its home crowd this time around.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Alabama 24, Texas-San Antonio 14
08/31 10:31:13 ET