Tennessee sits at 5-5 on the season with just two regular-season contests and a possible bowl game remaining. The Vols will host the South Alabama Jaguars this weekend before the finale against Vanderbilt.
If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t know much about South Alabama.
No worries! I talked to Joe Londergan, the Co-Managing Editor of Underdog Dynasty — SB Nation’s home for all things G5 (Group of Five — the American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt) and FCS related — to find about more about this relatively new football program.
1) Vols fans probably don’t know much about South Alabama. Got a crash course for us?
Sure thing. It’s definitely understandable that fans who primarily watch the SEC and the rest of the P5 wouldn’t know much about the Jaguars. In addition to only having a football team since 2009, the Jaguars have been to two bowl games and lost both. Their most recent postseason appearance was in 2016. That 2016 season also marked the only time that South Alabama has ever beaten a Power Five opponent with a 21-20 victory over Mississippi State.
Current head coach Kane Wommack is in his first season after taking over for Steve Campbell and has the Jaguars up to 5-5 on the year. While the Jags have The Jags started 3-0, but started hitting some snags after their third game. This past weekend, they were downed 31-7 by Appalachian State and shut out in the second half.
2) Per a quick Google, I see a name I recognize, and some other Vols fans might, too: former South Carolina QB Jake Bentley. But he’s injured...? So we won’t see him Saturday?
Short answer: Probably not.
Long answer: Bentley tore his MCL against Troy on November 6. However, he actually practiced in a limited capacity on Tuesday and the coaching staff hasn’t ruled out a return for him this season. Given this is Bentley’s last ride with college football, I feel like he will do everything he can to get back out there at least one more time. But when asked if Bentley would play this week, Wommack’s exact words according to AL.com were “I don’t know. He’s a lot further along than where we thought he’d be.”
In all likelihood, you’ll continue to see sophomore Desmond Trotter as South Alabama’s QB1 this week, who assumed the role when Bentley went down. Trotter has completed 42 of 72 this year for 380 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He has also rushed for one touchdown this year.
3) A name I’ve seen a few times now after poking around on the South Alabama football internet is Wy’Kevious Thomas. The big DL is just a RS freshman according to the South Alabama football site, but he leads the Jaguars in a few key, defensive categories. You figure that’s where the Vols’ OL focus will be?
While Thomas is technically a redshirt freshman, he’s in his second year with that classification thanks to the extra year of eligibility thanks to the rule the NCAA implemented with the COVID-19 outbreak last year.
At 6’2”, 305 pounds, Thomas is definitely an imposing presence on that line of scrimmage. He’s big, he’s crazy strong, and Wommack thinks very highly of his character and his leadership abilities. Keep an eye on him the next few years.
Also, Vols fans may want to keep their eyes on a talented defensive back for South Alabama in senior safety Tre Young. Young and junior cornerback Darrell Luter Jr have four interceptions each this season and Luter Jr has broken up an additional 13 passes, which is the most in the SBC. However, Luter most likely won’t play due to a knee injury that he suffered last week.
4) Thomas is going to be wearing No. 5 for Saturday’s game. What’s the significance there?
The Jags give that No. 5 jersey to a different player each week in honor of former running back Anthony Mostella, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2010, shortly after the football program completed their inaugural season and just a few weeks after his 22nd birthday. By all accounts, Mostella was the picture of what then-head coach Joey Jones wanted the young men he coached to be: leaders of high character on and off the field. That tradition has stuck with the program over the past decade and Thomas is the honoree of the week.
5) South Alabama’s coach, Kane Wommack, also has some SEC ties, having played for Arkansas and coached with Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss. He’s also got a reasonably impressive defensive pedigree at his past stops at Eastern Illinois, Indiana and in a previous stint at South Alabama as the DC. It’s just his first season as the HC with the Jaguars, but what do you see for Wommack’s future?
I think that South Alabama fans and stakeholders have to be encouraged by Wommack’s start here. Five wins this year is already the most the team has had since 2016 when they finished 6-7 - and that was two head coaches ago. After this weeked, the Jags finish the season with a game against an 8-2 Coastal Carolina team that is still in contention for the league title, so the Chants are not going to take that game off. I say that to note that it’s my feeling that USA has probably had their last victory of the year. Even so, I think you have to let Wommack keep building.
To your point, Wommack knows a thing or two about defense. The Jags’ defense leads the Sun Belt in total defense, allowing 320.4 yards per game. In particular, they’re really tough against the run allowing a Sun Belt low of 119 yards per game on the ground. Defending the pass has been a different story, but it’s a start.
Wommack has the chance to really elevate this young program in the next few years, especially when you factor in the notion that Louisiana head coach Billy Napier is toward the top of the list for several schools looking for a head coach. The Cajuns have run the table in the West division of the Sun Belt the last few years. If that happens, Wommack could capitalize and help his team get to the top of a division that also includes Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Arkansas State.
6) These usually end in predictions of some form or fashion — both teams are 5-5, but the Vols currently sit at around four TD favorites. How do you see the game playing out?
I’m definitely not expecting a South Alabama win here. That being said, the Jaguars have surprised some folks along the way to that 5-5 record. I think that USA will struggle early as the offense continues to figure things out and adjust to how the Vols play defense.
I do think that by the second half, they’ll be in a better spot and finish inside that predicted four score margin. The Jags aren’t an incredible team, but they aren’t Tennessee Tech either.