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Veteran journalist Creg Stephenson shares his thoughts on the Mississippi State opener against South Alabama.

Mississippi State will kickoff the 2016 football season on Saturday when South Alabama comes to town with a major upset in mind. The Bulldogs are a considerable favorite in the contest, but Coach Joey Jones and his Jaguars are not travelling to Starkville just to lay down and take it. Veteran journalist Creg Stephenson joins us this week and shares his thoughts about South Alabama from The Other Huddle.

South Alabama has been bit especially hard by the injury bug along the defensive front during fall camp. A trio of talented players have already seen their 2016 campaign come to a close before even taking a snap.

"The Jaguars lost three of their four defensive line starters to serious injury before the season started," Stephenson shared. "Defensive end Jimmie Gipson is out for the second straight year, a torn Achilles last year and a torn ACL this year. Nose tackle Tre Alford also tore his ACL in summer workouts. Defensive end Dewayne Alford tore his Achilles during the summer.

“South Alabama is now starting a junior-college transfer, Zach Befort, at nose tackle. They also brought in two graduate transfers: defensive end Finesse Middleton (Louisville) and nose tackle Sir Calvin Wallace (North Texas). However, they’ll need some holdover players to take a step forward. Two guys who have had good camps are defensive end Randy Allen, a senior, and defensive tackle Sean Grayer, a sophomore who played extensively last year.” 

The Bulldogs made the trip to Mobile, Alabama in 2014. Dak Prescott and the future #1 Mississippi State squad knocked off the Jags 35-3. Despite that setback, South Alabama put together a solid season and found themselves in the post season. Expectations were high in 2015, but the Jags were unable to maintain their winning ways.

“I think most people would agree that 2015 was a slight step back," Stephenson said. "USA went to its first bowl game in 2014, but was not able to keep that momentum going last year. The one loss that was particularly galling was at Texas State, which finished 3-9.

“Head coach Joey Jones overhauled the defensive staff during the off-season, most notably bringing in coordinator Kane Wommack from East Illinois. He’s the son of Ole Miss DC Dave Wommack and has installed a similar attacking 4-2-5 scheme. The Jaguars should be solid in the back 7, but the key is going to be getting pressure on the quarterback. They were awful at that last year.

“There is optimism around the program this year, though it will be interesting to see how long that lasts. The early schedule — at Mississippi State, conference games against Georgia Southern and UL-Lafayette, plus defending Mountain West champion San Diego State in the first five weeks — is brutal.”

The Jaguar offense returns its' two top ground gainers from a season ago, Xavier Johnson and Tyreis Thomas. While the offense looks to break in a new starter at quarterback, Coach Joey Jones has some veterans who should be able shoulder much of the early load offensively on the ground.

“Johnson is a typical spread offense back, a little undersized but very fast and versatile. He’s also a capable receiver who can play the slot if need be, as well as an excellent kick returner," Stephenson shared. "Thomas is a little bigger, but possesses many of the same traits. The third back, Dami Ayoola, is pretty dependable. South Alabama uses All-Sun Belt tight end Gerald Everett as its goal line and short yardage back. He’s 6-4, 240 and difficult to tackle.”

Calling the cadence for the Jaguar offense will be Dallas Davis who appeared in six games last season. The 6-2, 215 pound sophomore was 11 of 23 for 108 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception in limited action a season ago. 

“He’s a decent athlete, but largely unproven," Stephenson said. "He got into a few games late in the year last season, and had mixed results. But he’s clearly the best quarterback USA has on its roster and has the confidence of his teammates.

“Quarterback was a major problem area for South Alabama last year. Starter Cody Clements transferred in from UAB, but was never totally healthy and had shoulder surgery immediately after the season. He was a turnover machine at times, and took unnecessary chances with the deep ball. If Davis can simply limit mistakes, he’ll be ahead of the game.”

South Alabama is hopeful that a bowl game is part of the Jaguar holiday plans. The schedule gets off on the road against an SEC team in transition. Should the Jags hold serve at home in the early portion of the schedule, a winning season seems to be a real possibility. 

“I think South Alabama will be better on defense, and I’m really not sure what to expect from Mississippi State offensively," Stephenson said. "Therefore, I don’t see the game being an absolute blowout, but I’d be surprised if USA is able to score enough points. I’m predicting about a 27-10 game.

“It’s going to be touch and go in terms of making a bowl game. As I mentioned, the early schedule is very difficult. If South Alabama can get through that stretch at 3-3, they should be elated. USA also plays at defending conference champion Arkansas State and at LSU later in the year. The Jaguars play their final three conference games against bottom dwellers UL-Monroe, Idaho and New Mexico State, which means they could finish on a strong note and sneak into a bowl.”

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