When Georgia Southern head coach Chad Lunsford put an exclamation mark on his first season in Statesboro, one has to wonder how long he enjoyed the 23-21 Camellia Bowl win over Eastern Michigan before reality set in that his next opponent would be the LSU Tigers. Both LSU and Georgia Southern were surprise teams during the 2018 season, surpassing preseason expectations. The march towards another 10-win season, or better, for both squads begins on Saturday, Aug. 31, in Baton Rouge.
The transformation for the Eagles from 2017 to last season was just short of miraculous. The Eagles hired Lunsford from within after a 2-10 season (2-6 Sun Belt Conference), then soared under his direction to a 10-3 (6-2) season. Lunsford stuck with the triple-option attack, producing 266 yards per game on the ground, good for seventh in the nation. The defense showed marked improvement, limiting teams to 53 fewer yards per game and finishing as the Sun Belt’s third-best unit.
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron worked wonders of his own in Baton Rouge — a 10-3 record (5-3 SEC) that included five wins over ranked teams, four of them top-10 teams (Miami, Auburn, Georgia and UCF). The offense battled through injuries in the trenches but overall showed improvement thanks to the leadership of transfer quarterback Joe Burrow (Ohio State). Burrow was more the game manager in coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense, but he hit his stride over the final three games of the season, averaging 349 yards per game, including a season-high 394 yards with four passing touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
Georgia Southern at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: LSU -27.5
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Most college football defenses are accustomed to seeing one of two offenses: the spread or a pro-style set. When teams like Georgia Southern take the field running a triple-option, that presents problems. LSU was good against the run last season, capping teams at 139 yards per contest, but the Eagles blocking schemes may take a few series to figure out. In nine of GSU’s games last season, the team rushed for 276 yards or more, going over the 300-yard plateau six times.
The leader of GSU’s offense is third-year starting quarterback Shai Werts. Werts covered 908 yards on the ground with a team-high 15 rushing scores. The team must replace 1,000-yard rusher Wesley Fields in the backfield. The expected rotation to help Werts is Logan Wright and Wesley Kennedy. While the ground game was among the best in the nation, the passing game — not so much. Werts completed 60 percent of his passes but averaged only nine pass attempts per game.
To prepare for this game, one can easily guess that LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda went over last season’s Georgia Southern/Clemson game tape. The eventual national champs won 38-7 holding the mighty rushing game of the Eagles to a season-low 80 yards. LSU is talented up front, which may be too much for an Eagles squad that returns just two starters on the offensive line.
When LSU Has the Ball
The overview of the offensive game plan for LSU has to be pretty simple: Run it down the Eagles’ throats and take advantage of leverages on the outside when needed. After spring practices wrapped for LSU, one of the strengths of the team was the offensive line with four starters back, which should make running the ball against the Eagles far easier. But the problem that plagued the team in 2018 has reemerged, and that is injuries. Freshman Kardell Thomas was expected to start for left guard transfer Garrett Brumfield, but Thomas is now out for the season (ankle). Two other question marks on the line are Damien Lewis and Chasen Hines. Hines, who was penciled in as the starter at left guard, is considered doubtful this week with hopes of coming back in Week 2. Lewis, returning at right guard, is considered a game-time decision.
The defense for Georgia Southern was a solid Sun Belt group aided by the ground-and-pound approach on offense eating up the game clock, but that fell apart against a Power 5 team. Clemson used its offensive line for 309 yards on the ground and got 286 in the passing attack. Even with the injuries, LSU should be able to come close to Clemson’s 595 total yards of offense. Worth noting: The Eagles are in transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Scot Sloan. Expect the growing pains of this transition to show early in the game.
After starting the 2018 season with five different offensive lineups in five games, LSU should go deep into the roster to keep players healthy for the following game against the Texas Longhorns. Leading returning rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire may see limited touches (hamstring), making room for two Class of 2019 running backs, five-star John Emery Jr. and four-star back Tyrion Davis, to get some needed collegiate touches that could pay off in conference play.
One great thing about the adversity LSU faced last season: The team and coaching staff have been through tough obstacles before and came out the other side as one of the top teams in the nation. The offense may be vanilla with underclassmen getting reps late in the game, but the goal is to be fresh and save any new tricks for the Longhorns next week.
In the first meeting between the two programs, LSU adds another season-opening win to the resume.
Prediction: LSU 42, Georgia Southern 18
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.