Arkansas State and Georgia Southern entered 2016 as two of the top teams in the Sun Belt, but both programs enter October still looking to put all of the pieces together in an effort to challenge Appalachian State for the conference title. This Wednesday night matchup is part of a two-game midweek series for the Sun Belt in October. Next Wednesday, Appalachian State visits UL Lafayette.
After an 0-4 start, Arkansas State enters this matchup with a sense of urgency. A bowl bid is still within reach, but the Red Wolves play four out of their last five games on the road, including trips to Troy and UL Lafayette. The margin for error is pretty small for coach Blake Anderson’s team. Arkansas State has been one of the Sun Belt’s top programs in recent years, but the offense has struggled to get on track, and the defense is allowing 6.3 yards per play.
Georgia Southern’s fortunes through the first month of the season fared better than Arkansas State. New coach Tyson Summers has this program off to a 3-1 start, with the only loss coming at Western Michigan on Sept. 24. The Eagles are already 2-0 in league play, defeating South Alabama 24-9 and ULM 23-21. Following Wednesday’s matchup against Arkansas State, Georgia Southern steps out of conference play to take on Georgia Tech on Oct. 15 and takes on Appalachian State on Oct. 27.
This is the first meeting between Arkansas State and Georgia Southern on the FBS level and as Sun Belt foes. These two teams met in 1986 as FCS members, with the Eagles winning 48-21.
Georgia Southern at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Georgia Southern -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas State’s Offense
Arkansas State is surprisingly off to a slow start on offense. The Red Wolves finished second in the conference in scoring in 2014 and led the league with an average of 40 points per game last fall. Through four contests, Arkansas State is averaging only 16.8 points a contest. The numbers are a little better in the per-play mark, with the Red Wolves posting 5.4 yards per play each snap. Strength of schedule has played somewhat of a role in those numbers, as Arkansas State has played Toledo, Auburn and Utah State. The Red Wolves have also lost seven turnovers (a minus-three overall margin) and rank last in the Sun Belt in third-down offense. Coach Blake Anderson also entered the year with uncertainty at quarterback, as Chad Voytik and Justice Hansen received snaps in each of the first three games. Hansen provided the offense with a spark against Utah State and earned the starting nod in the loss to Central Arkansas. Hansen does not provide much in the rushing department, but he’s completed 58.1 percent of his throws and tossed four scores. With over a week to prepare for this game, what type of tweaks will Anderson and coordinator Buster Faulkner make for Hansen? Additionally, Arkansas State needs more from its ground game (2.3 ypc) and offensive line (15 sacks allowed). Georgia Southern’s defense is strong up front but is vulnerable against the pass. Will Hansen have enough time to stand in the pocket and utilize a talented receiving corps?
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2. Georgia Southern’s Ground Attack
It’s no secret Georgia Southern brings one of the nation’s most prolific ground attacks to Jonesboro on Wednesday night. The Eagles led the nation in rushing from 2014-15 under previous coach Willie Fritz, and new coach Tyson Summers isn’t deviating too far from that plan, as the Eagles rank fourth nationally at 317.8 rushing yards per game. However, Summers and the new staff are tweaking the offense a bit to work on the passing game. Even though Georgia Southern wants to improve the aerial assault, the strength of this offense is still its ground game. The key cog in this area is running back Matt Breida. The senior finished second in the Sun Belt with 1,608 yards last fall and averaged a whopping 7.9 yards per carry. Breida is still looking to find his rhythm this year, as he’s third on the team with 237 yards through four games. Quarterback Favian Upshaw (254) leads the Eagles, with Wesley Fields (252) a close second. Kevin Ellison will also see time under center, but Upshaw is expected to play a majority of the snaps. Despite having two of the Sun Belt’s projected top defensive linemen this preseason (Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Dee Liner), Arkansas State ranks eighth in the Sun Belt against the run. With weapons like Breida, Fields and Ellison or Upshaw under center, Georgia Southern’s ground attack is another tough test for the Red Wolves’ front seven.
3. Turnover Margin and Third-Down Conversions
Both teams have struggled with turnover margin in 2016 and ranked on opposite ends of the spectrum on third-down conversions. And with a tight game expected, these areas could decide who wins on Wednesday night. Arkansas State checks in at minus-three in turnover margin (worst in the Sun Belt), while Georgia Southern is minus-two. The Eagles have lost eight turnovers, and the Red Wolves have surrendered seven. Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen tossed two picks in his start against Central Arkansas, while Georgia Southern lost four turnovers in its loss against Western Michigan. Third downs have been a different story. The Eagles lead the Sun Belt with a 52.6 conversion rate, and the Red Wolves are last at 24.6. If Arkansas State wants to crack the win column on Wednesday, it cannot afford a negative turnover margin and a 25 percent conversion rate.
The additional time to prepare and homefield atmosphere should help Arkansas State rebound from a slow start. However, the Red Wolves have a few challenges that will be tough to overcome. Georgia Southern’s ground attack isn’t firing on all cylinders but is still one of the best in the nation. If the Eagles win the battle up front and control the clock, the Red Wolves are headed to an 0-5 start. Arkansas State needs a mistake-free game from Hansen, along with better play on the offensive line. If Hansen has time to throw, he should be able to make plays on Georgia Southern’s secondary. Expect a tight game, with the Eagles’ ground attack doing just enough to leave Jonesboro with a 3-0 mark in Sun Belt play.