Non-conference games can make or break a football season. Go undefeated all you want in conference play; if you can’t do it against other teams, it could very well mean nothing. This holds especially true for Group of Five teams whose competition can often appear lackluster.
For the Georgia Southern Eagles, that means they need to impress in their four non-Sun Belt matchups.
Gardner-Webb (Big South)
Southern opens their season at home against an FCS opponent for the fourth time since the Eagles moved to the Sun Belt. The past three times, the Eagles have won each game by an average margin of 28 points.
This game was intentionally scheduled to be a softball for Georgia Southern and there is no reason to think it will not be.
Florida Atlantic (C-USA)
Southern hosted FAU last season and trampled the Owls 20-3 in Statesboro. This time around, the Eagles are going down to Boca Raton but the result could very well be the same.
The 2020 Florida Atlantic Owls ran a historically bad offense, the worst since the Owls moved from the Sun Belt to C-USA. Ten starters are returning so there will be an uptick from the 325 yards per game.
Despite a mediocre-at-best offense, the Owls allowed just 17 points per game and led C-USA in sacks. Like the offense, most defensive starters are returning. In the words of CFN’s Pete Fiutak, “[FAU] should be among the best statistical defenses among the Group of Five programs.”
Despite a season-long defensive ground dominance, FAU allowed 269 rushing yards against the Eagles last season. Having now already seen Southern’s option offense, FAU will be more aptly prepared, but the Eagles will still likely win due to a dominant ground presence.
If there’s a time to commit to the run game, it’ll be in week three at Arkansas. The Razorbacks allowed 195 rushing yards per game last season, third worst in the SEC.
The magic number for Southern is 205. Arkansas was 1-4 last season when opponents rushed for at least 205 yards while Southern was 8-1 when they ran for at least that same number.
Southern has ran for 205 yards or more on SEC opponents twice before. They ran for 227 against UGA in 2015 and 267 against Ole Miss in 2016, but lost both matchups.
The Eagles have only ever toppled one SEC team: Florida in 2013. It is unlikely Arkansas becomes number two, but if it happens, it will be because of Southern trampling the Razorbacks on the ground.
While its other non-conference games come in the first three weeks, Georgia Southern hosts BYU in week 12. That time last season, the Cougars were 18th in the AP Poll.
The only leg up the Eagles have over BYU is that it is their home game. Since the Eagles became an FBS team they are 12-1 at home against non-conference opponents. None of those opponents were ever the likes of BYU, but looking purely at history, Southern should win.
However, football games are not dictated by history. They are dictated by the two teams on the field. BYU is one of the strongest programs in the NCAA while Southern is an above average Group of Five team. This game will be a heavy Cougar win.