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GoDaddy Bowl Preview and Prediction: Bowling Green vs. Georgia Southern

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

The 2015 GoDaddy Bowl matchup between Bowling Green and Georgia Southern features contrasting, yet exciting styles of play and two teams looking to finish the season on a high note with an interim coach on the sidelines. Last year’s GoDaddy Bowl featured 107 points between Toledo and Arkansas State, and another high-scoring game should be anticipated on Wednesday night when the Falcons and Eagles meet in Mobile, Ala.

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The Falcons used an explosive passing attack to finish the regular season with a 10-3 record, a MAC Championship and wins over Purdue and Maryland in non-conference action. However, coach Dino Babers left for Syracuse after the MAC title game, leaving defensive coordinator Brian Ward as the team’s interim coach. Ward is joining Babers’ staff at Syracuse following Wednesday night’s game. Texas Tech assistant Mike Jinks was tapped to replace Babers and will take over full-time control of the team following the GoDaddy Bowl.

Led by a prolific rushing attack, Georgia Southern has been on a fast track through the FBS ranks. Willie Fritz guided Georgia Southern to a 17-7 record over the last two seasons, but he accepted the head coaching job at Tulane in early December. Wednesday night’s appearance in the GoDaddy Bowl is the program’s first postseason contest at this level, and running backs coach Dell McGee will call the shots as the interim coach against the Falcons.

This is the first matchup between Georgia Southern and Bowling Green. The Falcons have made two previous appearances in the GoDaddy Bowl, including a 52-35 victory over Memphis in 2004.

GoDaddy Bowl: Georgia Southern (8-4) vs. Bowling Green (10-3)

Mobile, Ala.

Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Bowling Green -7.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. Bowling Green’s Passing Attack

Even though Babers left for Syracuse, the Falcons won’t abandon their plan of attack on offense. Quarterback Matt Johnson is the catalyst behind a passing attack that ranks third nationally, averaging 376.1 yards per game through the air. Johnson threw for 43 scores and 4,700 yards this year and tossed only eight interceptions. The senior is surrounded by a deep group of skill players, including receivers Roger Lewis (82 catches), Gehrig Dieter, Ryan Burbrink and Ronnie Moore. Running back Travis Greene is a key piece of the passing attack (27 receptions), and the shifty and explosive senior rusher also has 1,220 rushing yards and 14 scores this season. Johnson is an effective distributor on short passes in this offense, but the Falcons aren’t afraid to take shots downfield. Bowling Green ranked fourth nationally by recording 47 plays of 30 or more yards. Can Georgia Southern’s pass defense find a way to contain Johnson and Bowling Green’s skill players? The Eagles allowed 19 passing touchdowns this season and 70th nationally in pass efficiency defense. In the regular season finale against Georgia State, Georgia Southern’s secondary surrendered 346 yards and three passing scores. With a pass rush that’s only generated 21 sacks in 2015, the Eagles’ defensive backfield may not have much help from its front four. Even if Georgia Southern gives up yardage to Johnson, it has to limit the big plays allowed. Simply, 10-yard completions can't become 50-yard touchdowns.

Related: Predictions for Every 2015-16 College Football Bowl Game

2. Georgia Southern’s Ground Game

The clear strength of Georgia Southern’s offense is its ground attack. Anchored by quarterback Kevin Ellison and running back Matt Breida, the Eagles average 355.6 rushing yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry. And to further illustrate how much this offense leans with its ground game, Georgia Southern averages 55 rushing plays per game, compared to just 11 passes. Fritz and his staff maintained the triple-option attack used under former coach Jeff Monken and implemented some spread-option principles over the last two seasons. Running back Matt Breida (1,540 yards and 16 scores) is the team’s leading rusher, but L.A. Ramsby (772 yards), Wesley Fields (607) and quarterbacks Kevin Ellison (642) and Favian Upshaw (384) also contribute to the ground game. Bowling Green ranked fifth in the MAC this season by limiting opponents to 161.6 yards per game. However, this unit won’t have nose tackle Mike Minns for this game, as the junior was suspended in December after an off-field incident. Considering the firepower on Bowling Green’s sideline, Georgia Southern’s best defense might be its offense and a ball-control approach. Breida and Ellison should have their share of success, but the Falcons want to force this offense into third-and-long situations. 

3. Turnover Margin and Third-Down Conversions

It’s no secret what both teams want to do. Georgia Southern wants to utilize its ground attack, limit the possessions by Bowling Green’s offense and keep third downs in manageable short-yardage situations. Quarterback Kevin Ellison wasn’t prolific as a passer this season and completed only 44 percent of his throws. It’s critical for the Falcons to force Georgia Southern into third-and-long situations and make Ellison and his receivers win one-on-one battles downfield. Also, turnover margin is critical for both teams. With both offenses expected to have their way against the defenses, stealing a possession or two with a turnover could be enough for one team to swing this game in its favor. Bowling Green excelled on third downs this season, converting 51.02 percent of its attempts and ranked as one of the best nationally in turnover margin (+14). Georgia Southern was plus-four in turnover margin and connected on 40.24 percent of third-down attempts. Close games usually come down to one or two small areas in the stat sheet. Keep an eye on how both teams perform on third-down attempts and the yardage needed to convert. Additionally, the turnover margin is critical. The Falcons can’t afford to allow the Eagles several long-scoring drives, while the offense has to avoid three-and-out situations.

Final Analysis

If you like offense and contrasting styles of play, then the GoDaddy Bowl matchup is a must-see matchup. While Bowling Green and Georgia Southern are opposite in terms of approach, both teams are effective in lighting up the scoreboard. The Falcons want to push the tempo, score quickly and keep Georgia Southern in third-and-long situations on offense. The keys to victory for the Eagles are simple – establish the run, keep Bowling Green’s explosive offense on the sidelines, limit the big plays of Johnson and his receivers, while staying out of third-and-long situations. Which style of play will win out? If Georgia Southern gets its ground game on track, wins the battle up front and in time of possession, it’s a bad sign for the Falcons. If Bowling Green jumps to an early lead and forces the Eagles out of their comfort zone, that’s a huge edge in the favor of the Falcons. The guess here is both teams have their moments controlling the tempo and land a few big plays on offense. The difference should be Johnson and the explosive Bowling Green receivers, as the Falcons take to the air to score the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

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Prediction: Bowling Green 38, Georgia Southern 34

(Credit to BGSU athletics for top photo of QB Matt Johnson)