The Georgia Southern Eagles and South Alabama Jaguars will meet in Mobile on Thursday night in a Sun Belt Conference game that could have major bowl implications.
The Eagles, who responded to the firing of head coach Chad Lunsford with a 59-33 victory over Arkansas State two weeks ago, lost 27-24 to Troy on Saturday to fall to 2-4 overall and 1-2 in conference play.
South Alabama posted a 3-0 non-conference record under first-year head coach Kane Wommack, but the Jags have lost two straight to Sun Belt rivals, including last week's 33-31 four-overtime heartbreaker against Texas State.
Georgia Southern at South Alabama
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: South Alabama -3
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Georgia Southern often ranks among the nation's best in rushing offense, and this year is no different. The Eagles have averaged 253.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 7 in the country and second in the Sun Belt. Six players have at least 100 yards on the ground, led by running back Logan Wright's 481 on 66 carries — an average of 7.29 per carry. Wright shares the team lead with five rushing touchdowns with Gerald Green, whose 327 yards make him the team's second-leading rusher. Jalen White (210), Tulane transfer Amare Jones (119), quarterback Justin Tomlin (116), and J.D. King (109, 1 TD), who recently recovered from a knee injury he suffered in 2020, have all contributed to the rushing attack this season. White is the only player among the second tier of runners to appear in every game this season. Jones and King have battled injuries, and Tomlin was unavailable for the first two weeks due to academics, but all three should be in uniform this week to give Southern its deepest group of ball carriers this year.
Tomlin is the starter and has completed 49.4 percent of his passes for a team-high 458 yards, but he is one of four players who have played quality snaps behind center. He has also been intercepted four times in four games — three of them in the loss to Troy last week. True freshman Cam Ransom has played in each game and has thrown for 242 yards with the team's lone passing touchdown, a 17-yarder to tight end Chase Hancock in the 30-25 season-opening win over Gardner-Webb. Jones, primarily a running back who also plays quarterback and receiver, is 4-for-7 for 45 yards, and Sam Kenerson, a former quarterback who has moved to receiver full-time, is 2-for-3 for 20 yards and an interception. And while the Eagles don't throw often, they do spread the ball around: 13 players have caught at least one pass, led by Khaleb Hood's 16 receptions for 175 yards.
When South Alabama Has the Ball
The Jaguars have one of the best receivers in college football in Jalen Tolbert, a surefire future pro and potential high NFL draft pick. Tolbert leads the Sun Belt and ranks No. 8 nationally with 108.8 receiving yards per game, having caught 25 passes for 544 yards for an impressive 21.76 average. However, Tolbert and quarterback Jake Bentley connected on their lone touchdown last week against Texas State. Bentley, a transfer from Utah who began his career at South Carolina, has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 1,116 yards and four touchdowns with only two interceptions for the Jags. His average of 7.5 yards per pass attempt ranks third in the Sun Belt.
Bentley isn't much of a runner, but he has scored twice on the ground, which gives South Alabama four players with multiple rushing touchdowns and five who have reached the end zone. Kareem Walker, another well-traveled transfer, still leads the team with 208 yards and four scores on 53 carries despite missing the last two games due to injury. Terrion Avery (156 yds., 1 TD), Bryan Hill (149, 3), and AJ Phillips (74, 2) have stepped up with Walker out, and Phillips — whose production all came in the Texas State game after missing the beginning of the season — could be the top back again if Walker can't go.
Georgia Southern has great raw rushing numbers, and the Eagles have posted a solid 0.152 EPA per rush in non-garbage plays against FBS opponents (No. 21 nationally, according to cfb-graphs.com), but the unit has struggled with consistency. Southern ranks 112th in offensive success rate (37.8 percent) and 92nd in rushing success rate (40.58 percent), according to collegefootballdata.com, as well as 94th in average line yards (2.44) and 108th in standard down line yards (2.71), via Football Outsiders. The offense is also largely one-dimensional, which could benefit South Alabama.
Defense has been the brightest spot for the Jaguars. Opponents have managed 20.0 points and 310.8 total yards per game, as well as 4.86 yards per play, all of which rank third in the Sun Belt and among the top 30 in FBS. South Alabama is even better in advanced stats, including No. 6 in defensive success rate (32.1 percent), No. 19 in points allowed per drive (1.44 in non-garbage time against FBS opponents, as calculated by Brian Fremeau), and No. 20 in EPA/play (-0.042). Meanwhile, Georgia Southern ranks 76th in defensive success rate (43.4 percent), 101st in points allowed per drive (2.67), and 65th in EPA/play (0.084), as well as 119th in yards per play (7.14) and 120th in yards per pass attempt (9.4), against FBS opponents.
Georgia Southern can be tough to stop, but Wommack is a well-respected defensive mind, and his South Alabama defense is off to a great start. If Bentley and Tolbert find their rhythm, the Jags should cruise. To snap a two-game losing streak with a fourth victory, and several winnable games remaining on the schedule, would put USA in a strong position to make a bowl game in Wommack's debut season.
Prediction: South Alabama 31, Georgia Southern 21
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