The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 122 Georgia Southern.
Previewing Georgia Southern’s Offense for 2014:
When Jeff Monken left for Army, Georgia Southern elected to move away from the triple-option offense in hiring Willie Fritz, who took Sam Houston State to the FCS title game in 2011 and ’12. Though Fritz will keep elements of the same scheme to fit the personnel he’s inheriting, Georgia Southern will look much more like a spread-option team. The Eagles will throw between 15 and 25 times per game as opposed to the 79 total passes returning quarterback Kevin Ellison attempted last year.
“The guys we have here definitely can run our system,” Fritz says. “Ellison has shown me a lot, and he can throw the football. I see a lot of ability out on the perimeter for a team that hadn’t thrown the ball very much, and we’ve got some excellent players along the offensive line. The unknown is our running back position.”
Though there’s never an easy transition from FCS to FBS, the Eagles have enough size and experience up front to compete offensively right away. Besides Ellison, Georgia Southern returns a trio of two-year senior starters on its offensive line and a pair of receivers in Zach Walker and BJ Johnson. Fritz also is high on the abilities of 6'2", 255-pound junior Nardo Govan, who is moving from fullback to tight end.
Though Ellison is only a sophomore, his proven ability as a runner (127 attempts for 886 yards and eight touchdowns) will make the Eagles tough to defend if he can pick up the new offense quickly.
Previewing Georgia Southern’s Defense for 2014:
The only coaching holdover from Monken’s staff is defensive coordinator Jack Curtis, whose unit was solid but not spectacular last season. Though the Eagles return five starters, they are going to be undersized and not particularly deep, especially up front. That’s not a great combination as they transition to a tougher FBS schedule.
Fritz knows they have two capable linebackers in Edwin Jackson and Antwione Williams, but whether Georgia Southern can find more capable backers will determine whether they play more 4-3 or 4-2-5. The defensive backfield should be a strength as starting safeties Matt Dobson and Deion Stanley return after combining for five interceptions last season. Senior cornerback Valdon Cooper has “big-time ability,” according to Fritz, but he needs to play more consistently.
Georgia Southern only generated 12 total turnovers last season, including a mere two fumble recoveries, so improving those numbers will be paramount to its defensive success in 2014.
Previewing Georgia Southern’s Specialists for 2014:
Fritz plans to tweak Georgia Southern’s coverage and return schemes, and he’ll also have three placekickers to evaluate in the fall. Sophomore Younghoe Koo made 5-of-6 field goals last season, while junior Alex Hanks handled kickoffs but was the primary placekicker in 2012. Connor Tierney also returns after going 14-for-14 on extra points but 0-for-2 on field goals.
In an otherwise average 2013 season, Georgia Southern received significant attention on Nov. 23 for beating Florida, 26–20, in its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent. Though some at Georgia Southern might have seen that performance as validation for the school’s decision to move up to FBS, there are still significant challenges ahead. It will also be a new experience for Fritz, who has moved up the ladder from junior colleges to Division II Central Missouri, where he went 97–47, to his wildly successful run at Sam Houston State.
Though the Eagles had a solid structure in place before making the move, there are plenty of unknowns. “Instead of slaying one dragon a year,” Fritz says, “we’ve got to do it with great consistency. We’ve got to get a lot better.”