Editor's note: Florida Atlantic and Georgia Southern announced on Friday morning that this game has been postponed because of positive COVID-19 cases impacting FAU's roster. The schools are working together in hopes of rescheduling the game for a later date.
Despite canceling a practice early this week, Florida Atlantic remains set to begin its 2020 season and the Willie Taggart era on Saturday.
The Owls tied a program record last season with 11 victories and their second Conference USA title in three years. The first challenge for 2020 will be a road date with Georgia Southern.
A former FCS power, Georgia Southern has put together consecutive winning seasons as it enters its seventh season in the Sun Belt. The Eagles finished 7-6 a season ago. With a roster somewhat depleted by COVID-19, Georgia Southern slipped past FCS Campbell in the opener, 27-26.
This will be the first-ever match-up between the schools.
Florida Atlantic at Georgia Southern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida Atlantic -1.5
When Florida Atlantic Has the Ball
With Chris Robison's unexpected departure, Florida Atlantic turns to redshirt junior Nick Tronti at quarterback. Tronti saw limited reps last season for Lane Kiffin, but Taggart has raved about the signal-caller this offseason. Tronti will have a loaded stable of backs, headlined by last season's leading rusher Malcolm Davidson. Davidson rushed for 711 yards and nine touchdowns last season, but Larry McCammon and BJ Emmons are both very good.
Where FAU has question marks is in the pass-catching positions. Tight end Harrison Bryant is off to the NFL and Jon Raine unexpectedly transferred in the offseason. Deangelo Antoine, who was the Owls' top wide receiver in 2019, is gone as well. The Owls will rely heavily on transfers like T.J. Chase, D'Marcus Adams and Aaron Young. Among returning players, John Mitchell was the top receiver last season for an FAU team that led Conference USA in total and scoring offense.
Georgia Southern finished third in total and scoring defense last season in the Sun Belt, but gave up 369 yards against Campbell in the opener. Despite a disappointing effort in the opener, senior defensive end Raymond Johnson III was outstanding. Johnson tallied three tackles for loss and two sacks.
Rashad Byrd and Reynard Ellis make for a talented duo at linebacker. The two combined for 170 tackles last season. Junior safety Kenderick Duncan Jr. headlines the Georgia Southern secondary. The Eagles ranked just eighth in the Sun Belt last season when it came to pass defense. No team in the conference allowed more touchdown passes in 2019. The Camels finished with 237 passing yards on 8.8 yards per attempt last week against Georgia Southern.
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
The offense for Georgia Southern doesn't do well statistically, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The Eagles ranked just ninth in the Sun Belt in total offense and eighth in scoring offense. Georgia Southern does virtually all of its damage on the ground with its triple-option attack. The Eagles finished with 284 rushing yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry in the opener against Campbell.
Quarterback Shai Werts and running backs Wesley Kennedy III and J.D. King all return after each rushed for more than 700 yards in 2019. Kennedy was among 33 players who did not suit up in the opener due to COVID-19. Werts ran for 155 yards and a touchdown in the win over Campbell. Georgia Southern ranked seventh nationally in rushing yards per game last season at more than 250 yards per contest.
As is the case on offense, there will be a number of key pieces missing on defense for Florida Atlantic in 2020. The largest void will come at linebacker where the Owls will have to replace both Rashad Smith and Akileis Leroy. Smith led the team with 109 tackles last season while Leroy was the Swiss Army Knife for FAU. Leroy tallied 101 tackles, a team-high 7.5 sacks, three interceptions, and five forced fumbles.
Another large void comes in the secondary. Cornerback Meiko Dotson, who led the nation with nine interceptions last season, is now in Tallahassee at Florida State. Despite the attrition, the Owls are experienced up front and in the secondary. Senior safety Zyon Gilbert, who tallied 48 stops a year ago, is the leading returning tackler.
Both teams will have players out related to COVID-19, but the number seems to be larger for the Eagles. Georgia Southern will have the advantage of playing a home game, but the FAU defensive line will make enough plays to force Georgia Southern into passing situations. The Owls' deep stable of backs will be tough for the Eagles to tackle for four quarters.
Prediction: Florida Atlantic 24, Georgia Southern 17
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.