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Georgia Southern Football Preview 2015: Are the Eagles Going Back to Back?

2014 was a dream season for Georgia Southern as the FBS debutantes swept the Sun Belt and won a conference title. Now it's time to prove it wasn't a fluke.

Todd Bennett/Getty Images

That's the plan.

2014 Recap: As every Georgia Southern fan knows (and has let the world know), the Eagles were one badass football team in 2014. Picked to finish ninth in the Sun Belt after moving up a division, they went unbeaten and have yet to lose a conference game as an FBS member.

The strength of Georgia Southern's ground game was matched only by the diversity of its components. Head Coach Willie Fritz used not only multiple running backs, but a Steve Spurrier-esque two quarterbacks as well. Three Eagles gained at least 650 yards on the ground and the oldest of them will be a junior in 2015.

Playing away from the spotlight, the defense turned in a nice performance as well, allowing just 23.4 points per game. Before we ahead of ourselves, a few reference points:

2014 record: 9-3 (8-0) Sun Belt Champions

Schedule: Here.

Preseason 2015 FPI Ranking: 60th

Preseason AP Poll Ranking: 48th (tied with Florida and North Carolina)

Returning Starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

Offensive Outlook: Looking at 2015, there's the optimist's OMG and the pessimist's OMG. The optimist's is "OMG! We return our entire backfield!" while the pessimist's is "OMG! We lost four starters on the offensive line!"

The positive outlook is easy to understand. Top quarterback/running back tandem Kevin Ellison and Matt Breida (1,485 yards, 8.7 per carry) make up one of the most dangerous backfields in the country for an offense that scored 55 rushing touchdowns and rushed for 4,769 yards one year ago. Ellison, especially in the early goings, was just as dangerous through the air. Georgia Tech fans still wake in a cold sweat from nightmares of his long bombs.

When backups Favian Upshaw and LA Ramsby took the field the offense didn't miss a beat.

Regarding the O-Line, that dilemma can be broken down into two more lines of thinking. The positive is to remember Georgia Southern learned a whole new offense, including new blocking schemes, prior to last season and did just fine. The new starters should know the offense quite well and most saw action in 2014.

The negative? Defenses also know the Fritzkrieg better than they did a year ago. This is backed by a somewhat disturbing trend line. The Eagles churned out the wins late in 2014, but did so with a little less firepower. Southern averaged 519.3 yards on offense through the first nine games of the year, which fell to 395 YPG in the season's final three contests.

Of course, let's not forget Georgia Southern also turned in the nation's top ground game, outrushing every other FBS team by at least 39 yards per game. A slight dip in performance won't be anything to panic about.

Passing the ball is another question (and no, the question isn't "is that allowed at Georgia Southern?"). It's widely known Fritz wants to create more of a balance between running and throwing. As lethal as the ground offense is, the Eagles are downright deadly with the threat of a long ball in the mix.

On paper, Ellison was more balanced than you might realize, with 167 rushes to 132 attempted passes. He also crept over the 1,000-yard mark through the air to accompany his 1,108 rushing yards. But passing yards trended downward as Georgia Southern posted 192 against NC State and 245 against Georgia Tech in September, then only 73 and 41 against Navy and Texas State late in the year.

Southern returns top receiver B.J. Johnson, but lost Zach Walker and Kentrellis Showers, the No. 2 and 3 targets.
Eagle fans will be eager to see if knew wrinkles emerge in the air attack.

Defensive Outlook: Defense was the unsung hero of Georgia Southern's championship run. Lost in the hype was the defense allowing just 19 rushing touchdowns all year, fewest in the Sun Belt, with 24 sacks and 66 tackles for loss. Defensive Coordinator Jack Curtis, whose tenure at Southern dates to the Jeff Monken era, cobbled together a workable stopping unit that did what it takes to preserve some close victories.

Secondary has been a soft spot at Georgia Southern for as long as I can remember, and last year in many ways was no exception. The Eagles gave up more than 250 yards seven times in 2014, 18th highest nationally. Free safety Matt Dobson almost single-handedly saved wins over Texas State and ULM with a pick six and a vicious end zone hit, respectively. He'll be needed again if the Eagles hope to come out on top of the Sun Belt. Fellow Senior Antonio Glover will play a huge role as well.

Fritz brought in a talented group of secondary players this offseason, including six three-star defensive backs, but it would be asking a lot of any true Freshman to make big contributions right away. More experience returns up front for a defensive unit looking to keep the good times rolling.

That Schedule Tho: If you're not aware that Southern doesn't play Louisiana-Lafayette or Arkansas State for the second straight year, go talk to a Louisiana-Lafayette or Arkansas State fan. The conference schedule sets up nicely for the Eagles save for a Thursday night road test against the dreaded goat huMountaineers of Appalachian State.

Texas State and South Alabama are home games, Troy and ULM should be improved but not there yet and Idaho, New Mexico State and Georgia State are in the oven at your local bakery.

A brutal non-conference slate features only one easy win in The Citadel, and even they gave the Eagles fits back in the Southern Conference days. Western Michigan should be by far the best team coming to Paulson Stadium in 2015. The Broncos play for a rising star of a coach (PJ Fleck is 34, making us all feel old/unaccomplished) and will be quite dangerous on Sept. 12.

On the other hand, there's no reason to think Georgia Southern can't open with a win at West Virginia. Though the defense must play lights out, WVU isn't known for preventing points when the other team has the ball. One prognosticator already likes Southern's chances.

Georgia may still be a bridge too far even with a new offensive coordinator and quarterback.

Intangibles/Other Stuff: Southern carries a well-earned swagger and confidence into 2015. In a single season the Eagles went from newcomer to conference bully and now pace around with a target on their back.The real X factor though? It's the swampy, mosquito-laden waters of Beautiful Eagle Creek, which spreads its magic to all who enter (don't ask, it just works OK).

Prediction: With skill players coming back from a championship team, a second-year coach further establishing his system, another conference-leading class of recruits, a favorable schedule and college football's greatest fanbase behind them, I see another conference crown in the mix, a first-ever bowl bid and potentially some icing in the form of non-con wins.

In other words: Yea, we're going baaaack to back.