Rushel Shell and the Mountaineers open their 2015 campaign at home against the Southern Eagles from the Sun Belt Conference
Coming off a 9-3 record in its first season at the FBS level Georgia Southern is looking to solidify its existence on the big stage. Only two years removed from beating the Florida Gators in Gainesville the Eagles will look to complete yet another upset victory in Morgantown this Saturday. Anchored by one of the most potent rushing attacks in the nation the Eagles will look to dominate the line of scrimmage much like they were able to do last season. However, inexperience on the offensive line could lead to potential problems in the run game.
West Virginia comes into the season with the most depth on the team since joining the Big 12. Rated by many to be a dark horse in the Big 12 this season, the Mountaineers are expected to easily handle the outmatched Eagles.
With a defense that is expected to be one of the top in the country the Mountaineers still have questions remaining on the offensive side of the ball though. Starting quarterback Skyler Howard will be looking to an inexperienced receiving corps to get downfield while relying on an experienced backfield to possibly carry most of the load.
Georgia Southern at West Virginia
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ROOT Sports
Spread: West Virginia -20
Three Things to Watch
1. Mountaineers' Defensive Front vs. Eagles' Rushing Attack
Georgia Southern loses five seniors from last season's offensive line that led the way to 381.1 rushing yards per game. The Mountaineers were ranked 63rd in the nation against the run last season. Favian Upshaw will get the start for the Eagles at quarterback after it was announced that starter Kevin Ellison would be ineligible for the first two games of the season. Despite the late change, Eagles head coach Willie Fritz has stated there would be no change in the game plan. Upshaw is possibly the fastest athlete on the team and could potentially be the best passer as well. Despite being the better passer Upshaw will have to contend with a West Virginia secondary that is easily one of the best in the country.
While the Mountaineers have experience along their defensive front their productivity against the run has been suspect at times. Georgia Southern junior Matt Breida finished last season with 1,485 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 8.7 yards per carry. With the speed of Breida and Upshaw the Mountaineers will have their hands full.
Georgia Southern will have to rely on the running game to score. Fortunately for the Eagles that has not been a problem recently. Will the Mountaineer defense be able to contain a potent rushing attack or will Upshaw and the Eagles have to resort to spreading the field to keep up? Between Ellison and Upshaw the Eagles only attempted 155 passes in 2014.
2. Will Skyler Howard Solidify Himself as the Starter?
Howard is entering his first full season as West Virginia's starting quarterback after replacing departed Clint Trickett. While Howard has attributes that makes him dangerous on the ground questions still remain regarding his accuracy. Georgia Southern will show a 4-2-5 defense against the Mountaineers if the defense is able to shut down the running game. Will Howard be able to get the ball downfield to a receiving corps that is young and inexperienced?
Speaking of the Mountaineers' pass catchers, head coach Dana Holgorsen announced earlier this week that true freshman Jovon Durante and redshirt sophomore Shelton Gibson would be getting the starts at outside receivers. Durante will be playing in his first collegiate game and Gibson only totaled four receptions last season for 60 yards, two of which came against Towson early in the season. With highly talented redshirt freshman William Crest sitting at No. 2 on the depth chart Howard may have to shine against Georgia Southern to solidify his spot.
3. Will The Mountaineers Rely on Their Run Game?
The Mountaineers have some new faces on the offensive line in Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch at right guard and redshirt freshman Yodny Cajuste at left tackle. Redshirt junior Tyler Orlosky is possibly one of the best centers in the nation while left guard Adam Pankey and right tackle Marquis Lucas round out the front five. Despite a new look up front the Mountaineers have experience in the backfield in Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood. Both backs have the ability to get to the second level of any defense quickly. If Howard is unable to get into a passing rhythm West Virginia may rely heavily on its rushing attack that showed signs of explosiveness last season.
The Mountaineers will have to deal with a Georgia Southern defensive front that returns nine contributors from last season, including senior linebacker Antwoine Williams, who was second on the team in tackles. The Eagles' losses last season came mostly at the hands of teams that predominantly ran the ball (NC State, Georgia Tech, Navy). Will the Mountaineers be able to wear down a defense that although experienced has been susceptible to the run?
This is far from an opening “tune-up” game for West Virginia. The Eagles will present an offensive scheme that the Mountaineer defense is not accustomed to seeing and has proved to be successful. This game may be closer than many would think and could come down to West Virginia simply wearing down a Georgia Southern team that is simply not as deep.
Don’t expect the Mountaineers to give up many big plays through the air, as their secondary should have little trouble defending the Eagles' receiving corps. This game will be won in the trenches and will come down to which line dominates. To that end, the lack of experience on the Eagles' offensive line may prove problematic against a Mountaineer defense that likes to be aggressive. Despite their best efforts the Eagles will simply be outmatched in this game. Depth and experience will eventually provide the Mountaineers what they need to open the 2015 season with — a victory.
Prediction: West Virginia 34, Georgia Southern 17
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.