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2014 Georgia Southern Season Review: Sun Belt Champions

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When you start the season picked in the lower half of your conference and finish undefeated in conference play, you've had a pretty danged good year.

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Georgia Southern is a team with a winning tradition. I realize FCS Championships mean nothing at the FBS level, as does Georgia Southern's history as an FCS juggernaut. But that's not going to stop Georgia Southern fans from expecting the best right off the bat. Forgive us if we're a little brash, we're just used to winning. And we intend to keep doing it at the next level, too.

Those were the words I closed Georgia Southern's introduction with back in August. I had a suspicion Georgia Southern would do better than the prognosticators predicted before the season started, but I did not believe Georgia Southern would do what they did. The offensive line was experienced, but the skill players were unknowns, and no one knew just how Georgia Southern would adapt to first-year head coach Willie Fritz's Fritzkrieg offense.

The adaptation was about as smooth as anyone could have predicted. It began with Matt Brieda announcing himself to the nation with a 60+ yard touchdown run to open scoring against North Carolina State. It ended with Matt Dobson jarring the ball loose on a sure touchdown pass to take the lead by Louisiana-Monroe.

The journey was filled with ups and downs, excitement and utter heart break. It was quite the ride to say the least.

The Schedule

I expected Georgia Southern to finish about 7-5 or 6-6. This is what I had in mind at the beginning of the year

Definite Wins: Savannah State, New Mexico State, Idaho, Georgia State

Possible Wins: Appalachian State, Troy, Texas State

Probable Losses: South Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe, Navy

Definite Losses: North Carolina State, Georgia Tech

As you can see, I had a higher opinion than many to start the season. I thought the absolute best case "never going to actually happen" scenario was 10-2. I thought we would more than likely lose to USA, ULM, Navy, and at least one of of the "Possible Wins" category.

The results were much different. The only losses were to ACC Division Champ Georgia Tech, ACC bowl-eligible NCSU, and bowl-eligible Navy. Not bad. Not bad at all. Pretty danged good, actually. Here's a look at the full schedule and links to my reviews or recaps of the games:

North Carolina State L 23-24
SAVANNAH STATE W 83-9
Georgia Tech L 38-42
South Alabama W 28-6
APPALACHIAN STATE W 34-14
New Mexico State W 36-28
IDAHO W 47-24
Georgia State W 69-31
TROY W 42-10
Texas State W 28-25
Navy L 19-52
LOUISIANA-MONROE W 22-16

If you watched those games, you know the only game that was a definite loss was the Navy game. Sure, Georgia Southern could easily have lost one or two of those Sun Belt games, but the only actual loss that was a bad loss was at Navy. Georgia Southern really should have defeated NCSU and GT. Those losses were by a combined five points and due to two very key fumbles.

The Team

Now let's look at how things went

The Offense

The offense was a juggernaut that was only rarely even slowed down. No one held the Eagles under 200 yards rushing this season. They averaged 381.1 yards rushing per game for the #1 average in FBS. They didn't throw the ball much, but when they needed to they were able to. Quarterbacks Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw ran the Fritzkrieg as if they were born to run it.

Offensive MVP: RB, Matt Breida. Breida burst onto the scene with his touchdown run against North Carolina State in the opening game of the season and never let go. He carried the ball 171 times for 1485 yards. That's a staggering 8.7 yards per carry. Breida was a home run threat every time he touched the ball.

The Defense

I had a lot of questions about the defense going into this season. They impressed me, overall. They kept most pass plays in front of them and did not allow much to happen to them on the ground against teams who don't run the triple option. The red zone defense against the pass was particularly effective for the majority of the season. Where the defense seemed to struggle was with the long pass. Louisiana-Monroe's two touchdowns in the season finale were outside of the red zone, as were all but one of Georgia State's touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: S, Matt Dobson. Dobson finished tied for the most interceptions on the team with three, and two of those were returned for touchdowns. Additionally, he finished third in total tackles and forced one fumble according to cfbstats.com. Not bad for a converted quarterback.

Questions Asked And Answered

Back before the beginning of the football season, I had three questions that were really bugging me about Georgia Southern's offense for 2014. Let's see if those were effectively answered...

1) Who will play quarterback? Yep. That was answered. Kevin Ellison was the primary quarterback, but Favian Upshaw did get in a good number of reps, as well. He typically played the third series of the game and often the third series of each half. Ellison had a great season running the offense, and Georgia Southern was able to stay confident all season long that if Ellison went down, Upshaw was more than capable of stepping in.

2) Who will play running back? Georgia Southern always has a great running back. I mentioned that in the preseason article, and it's definitely true. That proved to be the case this season, as well. Matt Breida and Alfred "LA" Ramsby were projected to be the primary rushers, and they very much were. Breida is my offensive MVP. Ramsby took two or three games to really come on strong, but that's to be expected for a freshman. Ramsby adjusted quickly and became an excellent power back and counter to Breida's speed.

3) How will the kicking game perform?  HHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGG. It's been way too long since Georgia Southern has had a consistent kicking game, and it's cost the Eagles way too much over the past few seasons. Thankfully the kicking woes didn't really cost the Eagles a game, this year. It was just terribly inconsistent.

Going Forward

Georgia Southern returns a ton of talent for next season's team, but there will also be some big losses, as well. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. I'm merely going off looking at the roster and pointing out the names that stand out to me the most.

Defense

Key Losses: CB Valdon Cooper; DL Justice Ejike; LB Edwin Jackson; S Deion Stanley;

Key Returnees: S Matt Dobson; LB Deshawntee Gallon; LB Antwione Williams; DL Jonathan Battle, Jr; DL Jay Ellison; DE Ryan George

Losing Cooper, Ejike, and Jackson hurts, but I think we can replace them. Stanley is someone who made some fantastic plays but also got beat way too many times. We'll still miss his experience, though. The defensive line will return a lot of talent, and I think the front seven will be able to get some good pressure on the QBs next season.

Offense

Key Losses: Virtually the Entire OL Manrey Saint-AmourRaymond KlugeyLogan DavesGarret Frye; RB Devin Scott; WR Kentrellis Showers; WR Zach Walker

Key Returnees: WR BJ Johnson; WR Derek Keaton; WR Montay Crockett; TE Nardo Govan; TE James Dean; RB Matt Breida; RB LA Ramsby; QB Kevin Ellison; QB Favian Upshaw; OL Darien Foreman

That's a lot of experienced beef that's not returning for next season. This was an offensive line that has played together for four years and is the reason Georgia Southern boasts the number one rushing attack in the nation. It's going to be hard to replace the experience, there. Elsewhere, Georgia Southern returns enough skill position players that as long as the offensive line comes together, the offense should just continue rolling.

Conclusion

What a year. I most definitely did not see this coming back when Georgia Southern kicked off against North Carolina State. There were so many unknowns out there. What we got was an amazing ride.

I feel so bad that these seniors did not get to finish with a bowl game. I understand that rules are rules and we agreed to them, but it really is a horrible system. It was a rule designed primarily for basketball. What it resulted in was a group of seniors this season who spent their final two years at Georgia Southern playing only for the love of the game rather than post-season opportunities.

And play they did. Every senior on this Georgia Southern team deserved one more game in the Blue and White. They played hard. They gave everything they had. They played on a team with less scholarships than their competition and yet they still blasted through their Sun Belt schedule unscathed.

You know why? Because runts try harder. Coach Erk Russell said it, and this team proved it. This was a team full of players recruited for FCS football. They were runts as far as FBS teams were concerned. They proved that they were worthy of being there and then some.

Folks, you just can't beat that, and you just can't beat Georgia Southern. And you ain't seen nothing, yet.

HAIL SOUTHERN.