Bowl eligibility on the line for South Alabama

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SATURDAY ON ASN: South Alabama at Idaho, 3:30 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

This Saturday on ASN, South Alabama (5-5) visits the Kibbie Dome to take on Idaho (6-4) with bowl eligibility on the line for the Jaguars in a key Sun Belt matchup. The outcome could determine who plays in ASN’s bowl game — the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on Dec. 30 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.

South Alabama announced Sunday that it received approval from the NCAA to count two wins against FCS schools toward its bowl eligibility this season. The Jags were to play LSU this past Saturday, but that matchup was cancelled so the Tigers could play Florida in a game originally postponed by Hurricane Matthew.

Instead, USA faced FCS Presbyterian, which was to play Florida this weekend.  The Jags won, 31-7.  The Jags had already gotten its one win over FCS Nicholls earlier in September.

The Sun Belt has five bowl tie-ins, but currently only four teams are bowl eligible: Arkansas State, Troy, Appalachian State and Idaho. The Vandals are bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.  South Alabama and Louisiana are the only remaining Sun Belt teams that could still reach the six-wins needed to gain bowl eligibility.

However, getting that sixth win could be a tough test for the Jags. While South Alabama has impressive wins over Mississippi State and San Diego State, the Jags are 1-3 on the road and only 1-5 vs. Sun Belt opponents. It’s only conference win was its 13-10 victory over Georgia State.

South Alabama was originally picked  seventh in the Sun Belt just ahead of the Vandals in preseason and although they’ve gone 1-1 vs. AP Top 25 teams compared with 0-2 vs. AP Top 25 for Idaho, the Jags have struggled this year against Sun Belt competition. On defense, the Jags lost three starters before the season kicked off, but those injuries have taken its toll on South Alabama.

Idaho is riding a hot streak, winning four of its last five games. The Vandals have been led by a dominating defense and resurgent offense. Three of its four wins in the streak have come on the road. The Vandals haven’t played a home game in the Kibbie Dome since its 55-23 victory over New Mexico State on Oct 15.

In their last game, Idaho had its best defensive game of the season, holding Texas State to -18 yards rushing. The Vandals defense racked up 8 tackles for loss, including four sacks vs. the Bobcats. That ranks as its fewest rushing yards by an opponent in school history.

South Alabama leads the series with Idaho 2-0, winning 34-10 in Moscow in 2014 and 42-45 last season, scoring 24 fourth quarter points and rushing for 286 yards.

Idaho and South Alabama appear similar in many offensive stats categories, rushing and passing yards per game and scoring. Idaho junior QB Matt Linehan is third in the Sun Belt in total passing yards, and fourth in passing efficiency (129.4). South Alabama sophomore QB Dallas Davis is right behind Linehan in passing efficiency (125.7).

Idaho’s RB Aaron Duckworth and South Alabama’s RB Xavier Johnson have 568 and 550 yards, respectively. Johnson has been more of scoring threat, rushing for seven touchdowns and catching one. The Jags’ senior tight end Gerald Everett ranks second in the Sun Belt in receiving with 643 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. The Vandals senior DT Tueni Lupeamanu is also now an offensive scoring threat in the red zone after scoring 2 rushing touchdowns vs. Texas State.

Despite the offensive statistical similarities and its injuries, South Alabama has a better defense than Idaho. The Jags pass defense ranks first in the Sun Belt, as they allow only 172.2 passing yards per game. In total defense, South Alabama allows opponents 373.8 YPG vs. 412.7 for Idaho. South Alabama senior DE Randy Allen is second in the Sun Belt with 8.5 sacks on the season, but Idaho’s junior DE Aikeem Coleman is third in Sun Belt with 8.0 sacks.

Both Idaho and South Alabama have special players on special teams. Idaho senior PK Austin Rehkow leads the FBS with 2.2 field goals per game and leads the Sun Belt in scoring and ranks eighth nationally with .917 field goal percentage. Meanwhile, South Alabama senior P Brandon McKee is good at flipping the field, and he leads the Sun Belt in net punting, averaging 45.1 yards per punt.

If the Vandals defense can keep up its current pace, Idaho could win a close one. That said, South Alabama will be hungry to get its sixth win and gain bowl eligibility. If the Jags defense can limit Linehan’s productivity, they could sneak out of Moscow with the win. Last season, Linehan threw for 317 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the Jags. Look for South Alabama to improve its record against the Vandals to 3-0 and win 27-21 in a well-matched game.


Above: South Alabama’s Dallas Davis. (Courtesy Bobby McDuffie/South Alabama Athletic Media Relations)