Since the turn of the century, 14 teams have joined the Football Bowl Subdivision, née Division 1-A, but few have been as successful as one of 2014’s entrants, Georgia Southern.
The Eagles, who are first-year members of both the FBS and Sun Belt Conference, are 5-2 on the season and perfect in conference play. They’re an offensive juggernaut (second in the nation in yards per play against FBS opponents) and, without a doubt, the top team in the Sun Belt (ESPN puts their chances of winning the Belt at 79.9 percent.)
But this isn’t some cupcake team beating up on the rest of the financially strapped — they’re playing well against the big boys, too. The Eagles’ two losses — on the road to N.C. State and Georgia Tech —came by a combined total of five points.
In all, Georgia Southern is one win away from bowl eligibility in their first year in FBS, though they won’t be able to participate in a postseason game this year because of NCAA transition-program rules.
And that’s a shame. Georgia Southern is one of the nation’s most exciting teams to watch, but without a postseason game, it’s unlikely that anyone will spend more than five minutes with them this season. The Eagles have only one mid-week game remaining this season (against lowly Troy), and their next intriguing game — Nov. 15 at Navy — lands on a rivalry weekend chalk-full of great match ups.
But if your team is on a bye, or the game you’re watching is a blowout, make an effort to watch the Eagles play. They’re a testament to good coaching, smart players and how to build a successful mid-major program in the era of autonomy.
The Eagles’ success in 2014 really shouldn’t be surprising — Georgia Southern is arguably the best program in the history of the second division. The Eagles won a record six FCS championships after resurrecting the football program in 1981. They’ve also had success winning at the FBS level — last November, they beat Florida 26-20 in The Swamp in something resembling dominating fashion.
But the Eagles’ success this season is surprising.
Historically, Georgia Southern has won with a flexbone (triple-option) offense. Georgia Tech and Navy are the only two teams to exclusively run the option in the FBS in recent years, and both can trace their offense to Paul Johnson’s first collegiate job in Statesboro.
Johnson won four national championships at Georgia Southern — two as offensive coordinator, two as head coach. In the years following his departure to Navy, the Eagles strayed from the system that brought them so much success. Brian VanGorder removed the flexbone in his one year in Statesboro, and while Chris Hatcher’s basketball on grass offense "The Hatch Attack" had tremendous success at nearby Valdosta State, it was a mostly a dud at Southern. The program became average.
The Eagles returned to the flexbone in 2010 with the hiring of former Johnson assistant Jeff Monken, and success returned. But there’s not too many coaches in Johnson's coaching tree — the only living tree with a flexbone foundation — and when Monken left for Army last offseason and was replaced with Sam Houston State’s Willie Fritz, there was fear in Statesboro that the VanGorder era had returned.
It goes without saying, but Georgia Southern doesn't recruit superstars. They don’t have the biggest stadium (though the facilities have improved drastically in the move to FBS), and they don’t have much name recognition outside of Georgia and North Florida.
What Georgia Southern has is a philosophy — an identity — and it's one that gives them unique position in a crowded recruiting marketplace.
In the era of the five-wide spread option, coaches seem more keen to recruit an excellent athlete and mold them into a football player. That’s an adopted basketball tactic. Georgia Southern would rather sign a tough son of a bitch that does one or two things really well.
That’s the beauty of the flexbone — you don’t need to have the biggest, strongest or fastest players. It's assignment football — and if you recruit players smart enough and tough enough, you can have consistent success, regardless of competition. It’s college football’s tried-and-true equalizer.
Fritz, who ran a spread rushing attack at Sam Houston State, was asked about his offensive plan at his introductory press conference, and his response did little to quell fears.
"We're a triple-option type team," Fritz said. "[But] We do it a different way than you have been doing it here.
Turns out that different might be better. The Eagles have maintained their flexbone identity under Fritz, even if they don’t set up in the formation much anymore.
The Eagles remain a run-first team, averaging 52.71 rushes per game so far this season, but their base formation features a roving H-Back (played by James Dean and Nardo Govan) — it’s a look that resembles the zone-read attack that Gus Malzhan ran at Auburn late last season.
So far, the success is shown in the box scores. Georgia Southern leads the FBS in rushing (372 yards per game) but the new formations give the Eagles a chance when trailing in games, as evidenced against Georgia Tech, where Kevin Ellison threw for 164 yards, including big gains of 43, 68 that set up and scored a touchdown, respectively, in a comeback bid that fell short.
If Ellison had remained in the contest (he was sidelined after sustaining a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter), it could be argued that Southern would have won that game.
In the era of Power Five autonomy, there’s plenty to be learned from Georgia Southern’s success. The Eagles have an identity — something that’s sorely lacking amongst Group of Five schools.
Like other mid-majors, Georgia Southern isn’t going to steal players from the dozens of Power Five schools that recruit Georgia and North Florida, but they can recruit to their system, which values toughness and smarts over 40-yard dash times. They know what they’re looking for in a recruit, and that allows them to cut through the fray.
Flailing FBS teams like UMass, UConn, Idaho, Hawaii, FIU, Kent Sate and Ball State could find inspiration in Georgia Southern’s success. And if you ask Purdue, Illinois or Indiana fans if they’d like to have Georgia Tech’s 47 wins and six bowls over the last six years, you could bet they’d take it.
They can likely have it — but it might not come from the next "offensive genius" but rather from an old-school look.