South Alabama has wasted no time earning respect in the Sun Belt Conference.
The Jaguars, in their second season as full-fledged league members, are picked to finish third and a bowl bid isn't a big stretch for the fledgling FBS program.
"We raise our expectations every year," South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. "Two years ago we played a Division I schedule even though we weren't a Division I team yet, but we wanted to play teams like that. Last year was our first year in Division I and we fared fairly well, but we want to do better so our guys' expectations are higher just like any team's are."
South Alabama was 6-6 last season and a 4-3 league mark was good for a third-place tie after finishing on a three-game win streak.
The Jaguars must replace quarterback Ross Metheny, who was a threat both passing and running. His successor, Brandon Bridge, played in nine games and completed 29 of 66 passes for 398 yards and a touchdown while being intercepted twice.
Bridge will have the protection of preseason All-Sun Belt offensive tackles Chris May and Ucambre Williams.
Here are five things to watch for in South Alabama's season:
BRIDGE'S PERFORMANCE: Jones praised Bridge's preparation, saying he "worked his tail off in the spring and summer. He really cares about it and being a great quarterback. He's watched more film than anybody on this football team. The proof is in the pudding. You have to go get the job done, but the bottom line is he is doing the right things now necessary to be a great football player."
TOUGH SCHEDULE: The Jaguars host both Mississippi State (Sept. 13) and Navy (Nov. 28) while visiting South Carolina on Nov. 22. "We've been working our way up as the years have gone by," Jones said. "Right now I believe our schedule is probably the toughest in the Sun Belt, that's what some publications are saying, but we don't care about that."
SECONDARY: Four of the defense's six returning starters are defensive backs, led by 5-foot-9 cornerback Qudarius Ford, who had 76 tackles and two interceptions.. "I don't think he knows that he's 'Q' Ford," defensive coordinator Travis Pearson said. "I think he thinks he's King Kong. That's what he plays like, but I'm not going to tell him."
CATCHING PASSES: Bridge will have no shortage of targets, led by tight end Wes Saxton and wide receiver Shavarez Smith. Both had 50 catches last season, Saxton for 635 yards and Smith for 940. South Alabama's receivers also include Alabama transfers Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson.
CLOSE GAMES: The Jaguars' next step might be to start pulling out more close games. They had three losses by one point and a fourth by a two-point margin last season. To Jones, "that's the difference between a great team and an average team. We have to find ways to make those plays at the end of games."