Georgia Southern: New Division, New League, New Coach
(This is the second in a series previewing the Sun Belt Conference and the non conference opponents of the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Today: Georgia Southern…Note: The Cajuns and Eagles will not play each other in 2014 and 2015.)
When you think of FCS programs that have had consistent success, one of the first names that comes to mind is Georgia Southern.
And, with good reason.
Six. National. Championships.
No FCS school has won as many football titles as the Eagles, who make the jump this year to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference.
Now the Eagles goal is to become relevant in their new league as soon as possible. And, they think they’ve hired the coach that can get that done.
Willie Fritz takes over for Jeff Monken as the new head coach at Georgia Southern, after the option-oriented Monken agreed to take over at Army. Fritz comes from Sam Houston State, where he led the Bearkats to two appearances in the FCS Championship game, compiling a 40-15 record in four seasons.
Georgia Southern has traditionally run the flexbone offense, but will switch to more of a spread option formation in 2014 under Fritz. They’ll still be primarily a running team, but you’ll see them run more pistol and spread than they have in the past.
Offensively, quarterback Kevin Ellison returns for his sophomore season. He ran for nearly 900 yards a year ago and will still run it plenty this year. But he has some capability as a passer and will be expected to throw it more than he did a year ago. FIU Transfer, sophomore Favian Upshaw is the backup.
Running the football is important at Georgia Southern and the Eagles return three of their top four running backs. But Fritz will have running back by committee and the committee will include a couple of freshmen, Chaz Thornton and Ryan Peterson.
The offensive line is a question mark on this team. Teams that run the flexbone usually have smaller, quicker linemen, and although the Eagles return plenty of experience, this unit is small by FBS standards. They’ll also be adjusting to zone blocking schemes, so this unit will be a work in progress. The receivers have been good open field blockers in the past, but now will be expected to do something new…catch the football. Georgia Southern only threw the football 102 times in the entire 2012 season. The wide receiver unit returns intact and will get a lot more chances to get their names on the stat sheet.
On defense, Georgia Southern has questions up front on a squad that allowed 160 rushing yards per game. End Rashad Williams and NT Johnathon Battle return as starters. At linebacker, Edwin Jackson is the team’s leading tackler a year ago and he’ll get some immediate help from a couple of JC transfers. The secondary has three of four starters returning led by linebacker Valdon Cooper.
The biggest question mark on special teams is at place kicker where Alex Hanks and Younghoo Koo had problems with consistency. No such problems with punter Ryan Nowicki who can be a weapon for the Eagles.
SCHEDULE: Georgia Southern has only five home games this season, with road games out of conference at NC State, Georgia Tech and Navy. The interesting fact in conference play is Georgia Southern avoids both Louisiana and Arkansas State. They get Troy and ULM in Statesboro.
The hiring of Fritz appears to be a solid one, although the veteran coach has never coached an FBS team, even as an assistant. Georgia Southern’s change in offensive philosophy could lead to some growing pains early in the season as the players get a learning curve. The size of the offensive line is a particular concern. Still, the Eagles, after a win at Florida a year ago, won’t be intimidated by the schedule they play this season. The step up in class might make it tough to duplicate the seven wins they had a year ago, but a break even season isn’t out of the question. That would be a pretty good first year in the Sun Belt.