Sun Belt counterparts face off in Lafayette
The Sun Belt Conference has been the toast of the early college football season. On Saturday in Lafayette, two of the Sun Belt's most high-profile programs face off.
Billy Napier is fast establishing his own legacy as part of the illustrious Nick Saban coaching tree, and the 2020 Ragin' Cajuns might be his best squad yet. A rout of Iowa State to open the season put last year's Sun Belt runners-up in the spotlight, and with reigning champion Appalachian State losing last week, Louisiana ostensibly becomes the league's flag-bearer.
Georgia Southern returns to action one week after a canceled non-conference date with FAU, the result of COVID-19 testing. The Eagles, winners of 17 games the past two seasons combined, narrowly escaped their season opener against FCS member Campbell with a staggering 33 players scratched from the lineup.
Georgia Southern at Louisiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -13.5
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Dating back to legendary head coach Erk Russell's historic tenure, Georgia Southern has always been at its best when committed to some form of the option. Russell built a Div. I-AA dynasty running the triple option, which Paul Johnson continued. Jeff Monken restored it after a disastrous deviation last decade, then Willie Fritz and Bob DeBesse implemented a modernized spin on the system.
Chad Lunsford took over as head coach midway through the 2017 campaign, and the Eagles solidified their option identity. Shai Werts, who runs the show at quarterback, put up 155 rushing yards with a touchdown against Campbell. He's the primary playmaker the Louisiana defense must account for on Saturday, but hardly the only. J.D. King, who had 74 yards and a score two weeks ago, went for more than 800 yards on the ground in 2019.
Beyond the ball carriers, part of what makes defending the option such a headache is the unique blocking. Louisiana must adjust to this style on a short turnaround after going to overtime last week with another Sun Belt opponent, Georgia State.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Louisiana reinvigorated its program in the early 2010s with an exciting, high-scoring brand of football under then-head coach Mark Hudspeth. Napier's hire restored some of the pizzazz that faded later in Hudspeth's tenure, and last season, the Ragin' Cajuns ranked No. 10 nationally in scoring offense (37.9 points per game).
Louisiana operates with a balanced run-pass approach. The Cajuns usually can lean on running back Elijah Mitchell, who last week against Georgia State averaged more than a first down per touch and scored two touchdowns, but he will miss Saturday's game because of COVID-19. Quarterback Levi Lewis flourished in 2019, setting a program record with 3,050 passing yards and 26 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He's halfway to that interception total in 2020 and his completion rate has dipped through two games, presumably a byproduct of the unusual spring.
Preventing Lewis from finding his rhythm will be paramount for Georgia Southern's defense, otherwise a more spread-out look to contain him will only open the field for Mitchell to cook.
After its thumping of Iowa State, Louisiana was riding high. The Georgia State win played out as the quintessential letdown game; for the Ragin' Cajuns to rally and win in overtime could be a significant milestone in the rest of their 2020.
Georgia Southern's COVID-19 woes add a peculiar dimension that could play a role in Saturday's contest. Should depth remain an issue, ball control becomes even more important than usual for an offense already reliant on that element.
Prediction: Louisiana 38, Georgia Southern 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.