South Alabama-Bowling Green Preview
If reaching the first bowl game in the program's very short history isn't exciting enough, South Alabama has the added incentive of playing in its home state.
No new FBS team has made it to a bowl game faster than the Jaguars, who will make the short trip north to Montgomery for a matchup with Bowling Green in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday night.
South Alabama (6-6) reached a bowl in only its sixth season of competition and third at the FBS level, surpassing the previous mark held by Florida Atlantic, which did it in its seventh year overall and third in FBS play. The Jaguars did not receive a bowl invite last season despite becoming eligible with a 6-6 record.
"I'm so proud of our players and the sacrifices they've made to have this moment," coach Joey Jones said. "These guys have four or five years to play and I want to make it as special as I can for them, because these guys have made it special for me. I really appreciate what they've done to get us here."
Jones' team reached the postseason despite a poor finish, averaging 19.0 points during a closing 1-4 stretch that culminated with 79 points allowed in back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Navy. The Jaguars' victory in that stretch came over fellow Sun Belt school Texas State - one of their two against teams with winning records.
They'll be facing a far more experienced opponent in Bowling Green (7-6), which has reached a bowl in a school-record three straight and five of the last eight seasons. The Falcons, though, have lost their last four since beating Memphis in the 2004 GMAC Bowl.
"It's always an accomplishment playing in a bowl game," defensive lineman Charlie Walker said. "We don't pay too much attention to last year, the year before that when we lost. The main focus is on getting the win this year."
The final stretch of the season was also a struggle for Bowling Green, which suffered three consecutive losses, including a 51-17 defeat to Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference championship game.
"It's nice for these seniors to have one more opportunity to put the shoulder pads on," coach Dino Babers said. "This is a nice opportunity, a special deal for the seniors to play one more time. It also gives the underclassmen a chance to develop for 2015."
A 45-42 win over Big Ten opponent Indiana on Sept. 13 was arguably the best by any MAC team this season, but the Falcons were brought back to earth the following week with a 68-17 loss to then-No. 19 Wisconsin.
"We have a ton of respect for what they have done,'' Jones said. "Playing in the championship game this year against Northern Illinois lets us know what kind of team Bowling Green has and that's a very, very good one.''
Limiting opponents has been a problem for Bowling Green, which surrendered over 40 points six times and ranks 101st nationally in scoring defense, allowing 33.9 per game.
That may not be too much of an issue against a Jaguars team that ranks 113th offensively with 20.2 points per contest and 87th with 372.8 yards a game.
Still, South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge can be a tough matchup for any defense. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior is on the radar of many scouts with the prototypical build and athleticism that NFL teams covet. He completed only 51.9 percent of his passes in 10 games but threw 11 touchdowns and two interceptions over the final six.
The Jaguars rely more on the ground game, with five players - including Bridge - carrying at least 65 times. Kendall Houston had a team-best 652 yards and Xavier Johnson averaged 5.6 per carry.
Bowling Green features one of the nation's quickest offenses, averaging 29.8 points and 427.8 yards. The Falcons set this year's season high for an FBS team when they ran 113 plays from scrimmage against Indiana. Of their 43 touchdown drives, 27 took less than 120 seconds.
Running back Travis Greene and freshman receiver Roger Lewis are two of the standouts on that unit. Greene finished sixth in the MAC with 908 yards and averaged 5.7 per carry, while Lewis was fourth in the conference with 69 receptions - including 16 against Indiana - and 956 yards.
These teams share Kent State as a common opponent this season. South Alabama beat the Golden Flashes 23-13 in its season opener, while Bowling Green was a 30-20 winner against them Nov. 12.