When Georgia Southern and South Alabama meet on Thursday night in Mobile, one team will come away with its first Sun Belt win of the season while the other will head into its "super bye" — the coming weekend plus the bye week that follows for both teams — and look to rebound before resuming its conference slate.
The Eagles enter with just one win in four games this season, though they have been competitive in their two losses since a season-opening 55-3 loss at LSU. After an eight-point win against FCS opponent Maine, the Eagles went on the road to Minnesota and lost 35-32 to the Golden Gophers before falling 37-24 to conference foe Louisiana. The Jaguars, likewise, were within shouting distance of Nebraska in what ended as a 14-point Week 1 win for the Cornhuskers before beating FCS Jackson State 37-14, but they scored just nine points combined in two games against Memphis and in-state foe UAB before losing 30-17 at ULM last week.
Georgia Southern is perfect in five meetings against its neighbors to the west, in a series that started in 2014 and has been contested every year since. The Jaguars have yet to score more than 13 points in any game against the Eagles in the matchup's short history, and have only surpassed that mark twice in five games in 2019. Meanwhile, the Eagles have scored at least 24 in each of the five meetings, including a 52-0 rout in 2017.
Georgia Southern at South Alabama
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia Southern -11.5
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Shai Werts returned last week against Louisiana after a shoulder injury suffered against LSU forced him to miss two games. Werts did what he could but ultimately came up short against the Ragin' Cajuns, leading the Eagles in rushing with 93 yards on 21 carries while completing 6-of-12 pass attempts for just 37 yards.
Not many teams can say their rushing offense is four times as prolific as its passing attack, but triple option-minded Georgia Southern is one of those rare programs. The Eagles have averaged just 49.8 passing yards per game — the second-lowest output in the FBS, ahead of only Army (48.5) — through the month of September, compared to 201.8 rushing yards per game. Outside of Werts, Logan Wright and J.D. King averaged just over five yards per carry on 24 total rushes and a touchdown apiece, a slight step down after averaging nearly 5.4 yards per rush on 13 attempts against Minnesota.
Defensively, South Alabama held its own early in the game against ULM, but the Warhawks were simply too much down the stretch, scoring 23 of the game's final 33 points. The Jaguars allowed some big plays on key third- and fourth-down situations of which the Warhawks gladly took advantage, so limiting those against Georgia Southern — who will likely go for it if faced with 4th-and-short — will be crucial for the Jaguars to have a shot at the win.
When South Alabama Has the Ball
Like Georgia Southern's Werts, Cephus Johnson is certainly a dual-threat at quarterback for South Alabama. In the loss at ULM, Johnson only passed for 114 yards but ran for another 72 with a pair of scores on the ground, though an interception in the end zone thwarted some momentum.
Johnson's backfield mate Tra Minter continued his quest for a 1,000-yard campaign with a 19-carry, 150-yard game, though he was held out of the end zone for the third consecutive game. Despite missing the large majority of the Memphis game and only rushing eight times against UAB, he now sits in the top 25 in the nation in rushing yards (432, 8.0 ypc) in 2019 and poses a serious threat to break loose every time he touches the ball.
The Eagles feature an opportunistic defense that has already returned two fumbles for touchdowns in 2019. With a steady and methodical option-based offense, any sort of momentum that the defense can provide is a welcome addition. Add that to the top-50 rushing defense that the Eagles currently claim — allowing just under 136 yards per game — and this Georgia Southern team looks to be on the brink of finding its rhythm.
An extra-long break follows the game, so a win would be crucial for momentum while a loss would leave a lot of time to examine what went wrong. With just two wins combined in seven games thus far, the Eagles and Jaguars could both desperately use some positive momentum.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 25, South Alabama 18
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.