Few teams have transitioned from playing in the FCS to the FBS as well as Georgia Southern.
In their first two seasons playing on college football’s toughest stage, the Eagles are 18-7 and they won the Sun Belt Conference Championship in 2014. However, last year a pair of in-conference losses to Appalachian State and Georgia State kept them from repeating as conference champions.
Can Georgia Southern Handle Coaching Changes as Well?
Year three comes with Georgia Southern’s biggest challenges yet. Willie Fritz left the Eagles after the end of the regular season leaving Southern to search for a new head coach. The school settled on Tyson Summers, who was defensive coordinator at Colorado State last year and spent the previous three seasons at Central Florida. Both teams were among the nations best defensively in 2014 and 2015.
Last year’s defense was prone to getting beat up on at times. They allowed 23.3 points per game, but in both conference losses they were blown out. Appalachian State beat them 31-13 and Georgia State won 34-7. Being an option team, the Eagles rely heavily on shutting down teams early, so their offense can score early points and shorten the game by staying on the ground.
Fixing the Defense
Summers needs to replace all four starters from last year’s defensive backfield as well as linebacker Antwoine Williams. With the rest of the front seven intact, playing dominant in the trenches will help the young defensive backs adjust.
Senior Bernard Dawson leads the Eagles defensive line and will line up on the left and right. He has 68 tackles, seven sacks, and twelve tackles for a loss in two years as a starter.
Senior Deshawntee “Ironhead” Gallon finished second on the team with 81 tackles a year ago. He also blocked two kicks in each of Georgia Southern’s last two seasons.
Ukeme Eligwe Hits the Field
The defense receives a huge boost with Ukeme Eligwe. He appeared frequently at both defensive end and linebacker for Florida State in their 2013 national title season. An injury sidelined him in 2014, where he transferred to Georgia Southern and sat out last year per NCAA rules.
The coaching changes bring very few alterations of Georgia Southern’s offensive style. New offensive coordinators Rance Gillespie [also quarterbacks coach] and David Dean [also wide receivers coach] will continue to run the spread option like the last coaching staff did with a ton of success. The three catalysts of that success, Matt Breida, L.A Ramsby, and Kevin Ellison, all return to lead the Eagle’s offense.
Breida rushed for 1,608 yards with 17 touchdowns in 2015 and 1,485 yards with 17 touchdowns in 2014. He received First Team All-Sun Belt both years and he was the conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2014.
Ramsby had 816 yards with 13 touchdowns last year and 691 yards with 12 touchdowns in 2014. He earned honorable mention on the All-Sun Belt Team in 2015 and was recognized on the All-Sun Belt Newcomer Team in 2014.
Ellison rushed for 712 yards with eight touchdowns a year ago, but when needed to pass the ball he rarely came through for the Eagles. Ellison only completed 40 of his 89 pass attempts for 597 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions.
Fellow senior Favian Upshaw was even more unreliable last year. He only completed 19 of 48 passes for 227 yards and five interceptions.
Both quarterbacks have a better passing mentor this year, however.
Gillespie Brings Change
Gillespie was Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator from 2007-2009. In his last two years at Southern, the Eagles led the Southern Conference in passing offense. In his first year, they finished first in rushing led by Walter Payton Award winner Jayson Foster. Gillespie also has won two Georgia high school state championships at Peach County and was Valdosta High School‘s head coach from 2010-15.
As quarterbacks coach Gillespie will work with Ellison, Upshaw and other Georgia Southern quarterbacks to develop a more efficient passing game. If they can be more reliable, falling behind will not be as devastating as it was last year.
David Dean joins Gillespie from the same town, albeit from a different level of football. Dean served as head coach of Division II Valdosta State from 2007-2015. He led the Blazers to two National Championships and a 79-27 record.
He is tasked with replacing both Derek Keaton and Ryan Longoria who graduated last year. Montay Crockett returns to add senior leadership to the group of receivers.
Summers, Gillespie, and Dean all are proven winners in their respective positions, divisions and levels. However, this is their first year at a school facing their toughest conference schedule since joining the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern plays three of last year’s top four teams in the conference, two of those games away from home. The Eagles also play Georgia Tech and Ole Miss both on the road.
Georgia Southern Schedule
Georgia Southern has an 11-day break before traveling to defending conference champion, Arkansas State, on a Thursday night. From there, the Eagles schedule heats up as they travel to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech the following week.
The last time the two option offenses met, Southern nearly upset the Yellow Jackets when they outscored them 28-7 in the second half. But that seven for Georgia Tech came on a touchdown drive after Southern fumbled with four minutes left to play.
Coupled with last year’s loss to Georgia, the Eagles have more than enough motivation heading into their date with the Yellow Jackets.
Heated Rivalary with An Old Foe
Two weeks later, they renew their heated rivalry with Appalachian State. Both teams combined for nine FCS national championships. With the Mountaineers win over the Eagles and second place conference finish last year, they have placed their rivalry as one of the biggest in the conference.
Ole Miss follows Appalachian State, and it could be prime timing for the Eagles to upset their second SEC team. Ole Miss plays could be caught looking ahead to Texas A&M, and Southern will exude confidence against the Rebels if they beat the Mountaineers the week before. It helps that the Eagles have a nine-day break from competition before going to Oxford.
Georgia State should be the Eagles final roadblock to their second Sun Belt Championship. The Panthers ended last season 6-7, but they defeated the Eagles giving “Modern Hate” heat it did not have before.
Hitting the Ground Running
How the Eagles adjust to the coaching and personnel changes dictates how the season will finish. If players adjust quickly, the Eagles could be looking at more than just a conference title. With an upset over Ole Miss and/or Georgia Tech, they may be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
If they don’t adjust, however, Georgia Southern may fall to their worst record since joining the FBS.