The South Alabama Jaguars stayed perfect in Sun Belt play last week with a 38-14 victory over ULM. The Jags (3-2, 2-0 Sun Belt) now sit alone atop the West Division, but the competition will be tougher moving forward, beginning with a nationally televised game against the Georgia Southern Eagles in Statesboro on Thursday night.
Georgia Southern fell to 3-2 overall and 1-2 in the Sun Belt following a 28-14 loss to Coastal Carolina. The Eagles have dropped into a tie with Georgia State at the bottom of the East Division standings. However, both losses were to teams ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time, and though South Alabama will offer another tough test, Georgia Southern has an opportunity to get back into the win column.
South Alabama at Georgia Southern
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia Southern -5.5
When South Alabama Has the Ball
South Alabama quarterback Desmond Trotter missed one game earlier this season due to injury and has seldom looked 100 percent healthy while dealing with a shoulder issue. Nevertheless, Trotter put together his best performance of the year last week, completing 8-of-12 attempts for 184 yards and three touchdowns — an incredible 15.3 yards per attempt. Overall, the sophomore has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 744 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions — none since the opener against Southern Miss. Backup Chance Lovertich has appeared in all five games this season and has completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 607 yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions. Lovertich has averaged 7.8 yards per pass.
Trotter's 10.8 yards per pass attempt ranks fifth nationally, and some of the credit should go to the wide receiver duo of Kawaan Baker and Jalen Tolbert. Baker, who leads the team with 27 receptions and six touchdowns, earned conference player of the week honors after he caught six passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns against ULM. He ranks fourth in the league in receiving yards (443), just two spots behind Tolbert, who has accumulated 486 yards and four touchdowns on 26 receptions. Tolbert ranks second in the Sun Belt with 18.7 yards per catch. Jalen Wayne (15 receptions, 222 yards, TD) is a solid third option, and running back Carlos Davis (7, 72) pitches in as well. Davis carries a heavy workload for the Jags on the ground with 443 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 97 carries. Trotter ranks second on the team with 82 rushing yards and one score on 29 attempts.
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Georgia Southern ranks second in the Sun Belt and No. 13 nationally in both rushing offense (248.8 ypg) and yards per carry (5.46). Running back J.D. King ranks third in the conference with 98.0 rushing yards per contest, but his 490 total yards sits atop the leaderboard. King has scored four touchdowns on 87 carries and has averaged 5.6 yards per attempt. Wesley Kennedy III, the lightning to King's thunder, has gained 206 yards and scored three touchdowns on just 31 carries — an average of 6.7 yards per carry that ranks third in the Sun Belt.
Quarterback Shai Werts also is an explosive runner, having gained 333 yards with two touchdowns on 60 carries (5.6 per attempt). However, Werts was held to just 36 yards on a season-high 16 carries (including four sacks) in the loss to Coastal Carolina — a season-low 2.3 yards per attempt. Werts was banged up and sidelined momentarily against the Chanticleers but returned to the game and finished with a season-high 20 pass attempts. He completed just seven of them for 94 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) and was intercepted twice. On the season, Werts has completed 40 of 76 pass attempts (52.6 percent) for 558 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions.
South Alabama has an explosive passing attack, and Georgia Southern has continued a long tradition of running the ball effectively. Both units are more balanced than it may seem on the surface, though both have also battled inconsistency this season.
Defensively, the Eagles rank third in the Sun Belt and 32nd in the country with 361.2 yards per game allowed, though that number is a bit misleading since the unit has surrendered 5.8 yards per play, which ranks 58th. Those numbers have been bolstered by a shutout performance against UMass in which Georgia Southern allowed just 191 total yards and 3.6 yards per snap. The Eagles have fared worse against the pass than the run, which doesn't bode well against South Alabama.
However, digging a little deeper we see Georgia Southern has played very well on early downs, holding FBS opponents to an average of 5.5 yards per play, and a 31.2 percent success rate according to cfb-graphs.com, which filters out garbage time. As a result, opponents have faced an average distance of 8.8 yards to go on third down against the Eagles — sixth in the country. Keeping that number high will be key against a South Alabama offense that has converted 49.3 percent of its third-down opportunities.
The Jags have been consistently worse on defense, having allowed 6.1 yards per play and 408 total yards per game. South Alabama has been better stopping the run, having surrendered 134.0 rushing yards per contest and 3.9 yards per carry, though early downs performance has been modest, allowing 6.4 yards per play (33rd) and a 38.9 percent success rate (49th), along with an average distance of 6.8 yards to go on third down (59th). Unless the Jags can do a better job throwing Georgia Southern off schedule, the Eagles should run well enough to win.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 31, South Alabama 24
(Kawaan Baker photo by Scott Donaldson/South Alabama Strategic Communications)