The transition into the FBS is over for the Georgia Southern Eagles. Conference title? Check. Back-to-back nine-win seasons? Check. First bowl win? Check.
Now it’s time to see if new head coach Tyson Summers can carry on what was built by Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz over the last three years.
This is a tough team to preview because of the new coaching staff. We’ll know infinitely more about this team just a month from now and much of what’s written here will self-destruct once we all see the product on the field.
We know the talent is there, it’s just a matter of utilizing it to its full potential. First up, let’s look at last year.
2015 Recap: The Eagles took a baby step back between 2014 and 2015. The win total was the same both years (9), but the number in the loss column jumped from three to four and the qualify of those losses went down.
In 2014 there were last-gasp defeats to NC State and Georgia Tech, plus a blowout loss to a good Navy team. 2015? Big losses to West Virginia and App State, a very respectable defeat to Georgia and perhaps the worst loss in school history to cap off the regular season.
Thank God for the bowl game.
Georgia Southern beat down the Bowling Green Falcons in an epic come-from-behind victory, led by an out-of-body experience from quarterback Favian Upshaw. It was the third year in a row GS ended the season on a euphoric note, and it left Eagle Nation smiling as the calendar rolled into 2016.
2015 Record: 9-4
Sept. 3 - vs. Savannah State
Sept. 10 - @ South Alabama
Sept. 17 - vs. UL Monroe
Sept. 24 - @ Western Michigan
Oct. 5 - @ Arkansas State
Oct. 15 - @ Georgia Tech
Oct. 22 - @ New Mexico State
Oct. 27 - vs. Appalachian State
Nov. 5 - @ Ole Miss
Nov. 10 - vs. UL Lafayette
Nov. 19 - @ Georgia State
Dec. 3 - @ Troy
Preseason 2016 FPI Ranking: No. 86
Haisten: Ah yes, the big question every time a new coach pulls into Statesboro. What’cha doin’ with the offense, coach? Tyson Summers was in town for the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named disaster in 2006, and he got the question out of the way at his opening press conference:
The option is here to stay and it will be run out of the gun.
However, his co-offensive coordinators, former Valdosta State head coach David Dean and former Valdosta high school coach Rance Gillespie, both have more of a passing background than Eagle fans are used to.
Make no mistake, a passing offense is needed, or at least the threat of it. Southern had 10 interceptions through the air to four touchdowns last year. Just 43 percent of pass attempts were completed. Selling out to stop the run wasn’t a bold strategy against the Eagles, it was old hat.
A second dimension to the offense will make it deadly, and GS’s two highest-rated recruits, Darion Anderson and Michael Jackson, were both wide receivers. Can they make a difference in year one? I hope so.
The running game is expected to continue its decades-old domination. Southern sports Matt Breida, LA Ramsby and Wesley Fields at running back, along with Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw at quarterback. Any of these five can do amazing things in the open field and I’m not even sure who I’d prefer because all of them are so good.
Last year’s offense was boom and bust, playing lights out in the nine wins and stumbling in the dark through the four losses. The good news is the offensive line boasts more experience now, and virtually all of the skill position threats return.
Brian: The focal point of the season will be the progression of the defense under Summers. As I’ve mentioned before, the UCF defense of 2014 was an absolute monster when he served as defensive coordinator. It will be interesting to see how the GS defense looks coming out of summer practices, and how it produces throughout the season.
The line will presumably start three veterans in Jonathan Battle, Darrius Sapp and Bernard Dawson, who have seen significant playing time over the past few years. Incoming freshman Traver Vliem was highly touted out of the state of Texas, and may see time as a rotational lineman getting his feet wet.
As far as the linebackers go, Antwione Williams is the only starter lost from a year ago, having been drafted to the Detroit Lions. Ironhead Gallon is listed as a linebacker on Georgia Southern’s roster, and may be asked to fill the leadership role left open by Williams. Freshman Tori Delesline was a three-star recruit according to 24/7 Sports, and should get some experience this season.
The secondary is largely gone from a year ago, having to replace senior safeties Matt Dobson and D.J. White. Former head coach Willie Fritz’s first (and only) real recruiting class prepared the Eagles for this, as safeties Jay Bowdry and Joshua Moon have great size for the position. At corner, Christian Matthew has been moved from his previously listed safety spot and has size you’d expect from a Seattle Seahawks cornerback (6’3”, 175 lbs). At this point, we have to assume that senior Darius Jones Jr. will start, as GS only lists two corners older than sophomore.
Again, we don’t know what to expect from the defense this upcoming season, but with a new defensive-oriented head coach, the unit should make positive strides in 2016.
That Schedule Tho: Haisten: Southern’s schedule is absolutely brutal. Only five games are at home, and only three of those are on a Saturday. This is more or less normal for a Group of Five program, but it’s the placement of those games that hurts.
After playing two of the first three in Statesboro, Southern will go 40 days between home games (UL Monroe Sept. 17 - App State Oct. 27). This means five of the first seven contests are on the road, including dates in Michigan, Alabama, Arkansas (on a Wednesday) and New Mexico.
When all of that ends, App State comes to town on a Thursday night just five days after the NMSU game. Tough stuff.
Brian: Let’s get the OOC games out of the way first. There’s very little chance the Eagles beat Ole Miss, obviously. A trip to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech is a coin flip with the Yellow Jackets taking a major step back from the 2014 Orange Bowl victory. I say they beat GT in a shootout and avenge the loss from two years ago. I think the team defeats Western Michigan for the second season in a row, and Savannah State should be an easy W.
Inside conference play, the only two teams standing in the way of another Sun Belt championship for GS are Arkansas State and Appalachian State. With the way the games have worked out (home team wins) against App, I say we pick up the win at Our House. Arkansas St. is a different story. Their team has looked explosive for the past few seasons I’ve been watching them, and a Wednesday night in Jonesboro has the potential for an Eagles loss, unless the team shows it can be dominant defensively.
Season Prediction: 10-2 with losses on the road at Ole Miss and Arkansas State.
Haisten: I’m not quite as optimistic as Brian. The crazy schedule alone can turn a couple of would-be wins into losses. Western Michigan is rowing the boat harder and harder under P.J. Fleck. App State is coming off an 11-2 season and Southern traded Idaho and Texas State (easy wins) for Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette (not so easy).
That said, we’re Georgia Southern and winning is what we do. I say the Eagles finish 8-4, picking up a ninth win in the bowl game.