If you're looking for a silver lining as we wait for teams from the Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West (other than Air Force) to kick off the 2020 college football season for the first time, consider the higher national profile given to the Sun Belt during the last seven weeks.
After knocking off No. 21 Louisiana to move to 4-0, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers moved into the national rankings for the first time ever, in just the fourth FBS season for the program. Their reward? A date with the Georgia Southern Eagles, who enter 3-1 overall following a 41-0 victory against UMass a week ago, and 1-1 in conference play with the lone blemish a 20-18 last-second loss to the previously ranked Ragin' Cajuns.
Georgia Southern at No. 25 Coastal Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24, at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Coastal Carolina -6.5
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
As usual, the Eagles rank among the national leaders in rushing offense with an average of 281.3 yards per game. Only Air Force, Virginia Tech and Army have gained more on the ground per game, respectively. Running back J.D. King leads the way with 423 yards and he's tied with Wesley Kennedy III for the team lead with three touchdowns. Kennedy ranks third on the squad with 199 rushing yards and leads the unit with an explosive 7.4 yards per attempt. Logan Wright is the fourth Georgia Southern player with more than 100 rushing yards, having gained 125 with one touchdown.
Quarterback Shai Werts makes the offense go. In addition to 297 rushing yards and two scores on 44 attempts (an average of 6.8 per carry), Werts has completed 33 of 56 pass attempts (58.9 percent) for 464 yards (8.3 per pass attempt) and five touchdowns with just one interception. Last week, Werts tied his career high with three TD passes. The four-year starter has accumulated a 31:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his career, including a 24:2 mark since 2018.
Thanks to Werts' passing ability, which helps keep opposing defenses honest, the Eagles rank among the top 20 nationally in yards per play (6.42). Even better, the Georgia Southern offense ranks No. 5 in the country with 0.240 expected points added per play, according to CFB-Graphs.com, which includes all stats from non-garbage-time plays against FBS opponents. The Eagles have also managed a 51.3 percent success rate in those situations — second in the country behind only Alabama.
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
Coastal Carolina also likes to run the football and does so using a creative option attack. The Chanticleers have averaged 201.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 20 nationally. But the balanced attack has averaged 432.7 total yards per contest, which ranks No. 25 in the country, and 6.55 yards per play, which ranks 14th overall. Coastal Carolina ranks 12th in EPA per play (0.165) and ninth in success rate (46.9 percent).
Redshirt freshman Grayson McCall beat out two veteran quarterbacks for the starting role and has quickly emerged as one of the best signal-callers in the Sun Belt. In four starts, McCall has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 930 yards and 11 touchdowns with just one interception. His 10.7 yards per pass attempt ranks third nationally behind a pair of early Heisman Trophy candidates: Alabama's Mac Jones and Zach Wilson from BYU. A capable runner as well, McCall has added 184 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
The Chants also have four different players with at least 100 rushing yards. CJ Marable leads the team with 263 yards and four touchdowns, and his 10 receptions (good for 66 yards and two TDs) rank second for the unit. Reese White (158 yards, 1 TD) and Shermari Jones (121 yards, 2 TD) provide great depth at the position. Jaivon Heiligh has emerged as McCall's favorite target, and he leads the team with 20 receptions, 327 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Isaiah Likely, who missed last week's game against Louisiana and is questionable to play Saturday, has averaged a whopping 30.7 yards on seven receptions, three of which have resulted in touchdowns. Kameron Brown has also been a big-play threat, averaging 20.6 yards per catch on his seven receptions, including a touchdown.
Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina have both found success with modern ball-control, option-oriented offenses. The Eagles lead the nation in time of possession (35:12.75), and the Chanticleers rank sixth (33:54.50), which helps limit the exposure of two decent but susceptible defenses.
Thanks in part to its offensive style and pace, Georgia Southern ranks a solid 23rd nationally in total defense (356.0 ypg) but sits 47th on the FBS leaderboard in yards allowed per play (5.88) and 65th on EPA per play defensively (0.112). Coastal Carolina has allowed 376.8 total yards per contest and 5.67 yards per play, which rank No. 30 and No. 28, respectively, and similarly are 33rd nationally in EPA per play defensively (-.003).
The biggest difference has been how each has fared against the run. The Chanticleers are giving up 163.8 rushing yards per game while Georgia Southern has held opponents to 120.8. Both are averaging around the same in terms of yards per carry (Coastal Carolina is giving up 4.8 vs. Georgia Southern's 4.6), but the Eagles have done a better job limiting scoring opportunities (1.732 per drive, 15th in FBS) compared to the Chants (2.266, 38th).
The margin is slim, and Coastal Carolina is riding high with its first national ranking. But the Eagles (who have beaten a ranked Sun Belt opponent in each of the last two years) have done a better job overall defensively, which could provide the edge needed to pull off another upset.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 30, Coastal Carolina 29
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
(CJ Marable photo courtesy of Coastal Carolina Athletics)