Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
What a roller coaster these last few seasons have been in Statesboro.
Five seasons at the FBS level have produced about two decades’ worth of plot twists for Georgia Southern. A quick recap:
- After a) beating Florida without a completed pass, b) suffering their worst season in quite a while (7-4), and c) losing head coach Jeff Monken to Army, Georgia Southern jumped to FBS in 2014, seemingly with horrible timing.
- Under Willie Fritz, the Eagles proceeded to immediately establish themselves as a Sun Belt favorite, going 9-3 and winning the conference in their transitional year, then going 9-4 in 2015. But they hiccuped late in the season, getting strangely drubbed by rival Georgia State to end the regular season, then unexpectedly losing Fritz to Tulane.
- Replacing Fritz turned out disastrously. Tyson Summers took over, and in 2016 the Eagles fell from nine wins and a No. 52 S&P+ ranking to five wins and No. 84. And then they started 0-6 in 2017, and Summers was fired.
- Under interim coach Chad Lunsford, the rally began almost immediately. They went only 2-4 down the stretch but rose from 127th in S&P+ to a more tolerable 117th. Lunsford’s ability to rally the troops, combined with what was probably a lack of affordable options, led to him getting the head coaching job full-time.
- Returning almost all primary production in 2018, they soared again. They went 10-3 and finished 87th overall; a two-week midseason blip, with losses to Troy and ULM, was the only thing that kept them out of the 70s.
GS finished 2018 with one of the most rousing, emotional wins of bowl season, beating EMU in the last second in the Camellia Bowl.
A friend of mine recently got a chance to run a lower-level English professional soccer team.
He said he came in with a business-like plan and a ton of ideas, but the impact of actual wins and losses made the plan almost impossible to pull off. He said the club offices a day after a loss were just so emotionally wrecked, and morale so quickly careened between great and terrible, that he found himself wanting to fix everything at once, abandon long-term goals and make everybody happy that next Saturday.
It’s so easy to get knocked off course, and it’s so hard to simply hug a program back into prominence. But Lunsford somehow pulled it off.
Just as quickly as the Eagles had fallen apart, they had once again become one of the strongest programs in the Sun Belt.
GS returns quarterback Shai Werts and most of its defense in 2019, but Lunsford’s got some challenges to overcome. He has to replace a lot of his skill corps (leading running backs Wesley Fields and Monteo Garrett, plus two of the three players to catch double-digit passes) and two all-conference offensive linemen.
Plus, the schedule is unforgiving. The Eagles play at LSU (projected fourth in S&P+) and Minnesota (33rd) in non-conference play, and they hit the road to play Appalachian State, Troy, and Arkansas State in the Sun Belt. That will make a conference title run awfully difficult. Despite a solid No. 81 preseason ranking, the Eagles are projected to go only about 7-5. Considering their short but dramatic FBS history, you figure they’ll either go two or three wins above or below that mark, but with Lunsford and Werts in place, I’m guessing “above” is more likely than “below.”
God bless the Georgia Southern option. As I wrote in last year’s preview, identity is a blessing and a curse, and an option identity spells that out pretty clearly. On one hand…
- You are in possession of one of nature’s most efficient attacks.
- You carve out steady yardage and spend most of your time in third-and-manageable.
- You are forever a unique opponent to prepare for, and while some opponents might get more used to playing you over time, you get more used to how they’re going to defend you, too. You can always stay a step ahead.
- You control the ball and give your defense plenty of rest (and potentially make opposing offenses impatient and pushy in the process).
At the same time…
- If you do fall behind schedule, good luck catching back up. You’re not built for it.
- You open yourself up to recruiting difficulties. Only certain types of receivers and linemen are likely to look your way, and defensive recruits with any pro ambition at all will be hearing from other recruiters all about how they won’t be exposed to “pro-style” offenses in practice. And those recruiters technically aren’t wrong.
Committing to the option, then, is hard to fake. Option life won’t love you if you don’t love it back, and from the moment Summers was hired, it didn’t seem like he and the option were on the right terms.
The fences appear to be mended now. Once he had become full-time head coach, Lunsford brought in former Sam Houston and New Mexico offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse, who had crafted a pretty unique approach to the option attack in Albuquerque.
Suffice it to say, the first year of the DeBesse-Werts relationship worked out pretty well. GS ranked 42nd in rushing marginal efficiency, with Werts rushing for 999 non-sack yards, throwing for 987, and producing a combined 25 touchdowns with no interceptions and only three fumbles. Werts was predictably sacked a lot when attempting to pass (Southern’s almost comical 20.3 percent sack rate on passing downs was worst in FBS), but he hit a deep shot here and there, and GS stayed on schedule reasonably well enough anyway.
Fields and Garrett combined for 1,565 yards and 14 touchdowns, but others thrived when given the opportunity. Disparately-sized sophomores-to-be Logan Wright (6’0, 225) and Matt LaRoche (5’9, 175) combined for 6.1 yards per carry and a 48 percent success rate over 5.6 carries per game, and junior Wesley Kennedy III gained a combined 684 yards over 64 carries and 19 pass targets (8.2 yards per intended target) out of the slot.
In limited samples, the actual wide receivers did their “go deep” jobs pretty well. Colby Ransom, Darion Anderson, Obe Fortune, and Mark Michaud — all of whom return — combined to catch 17 of 33 passes for 342 yards and six touchdowns. The security blankets (Fields, Garrett, tight end Ellis Richardson) are gone, but Werts seems to still have a lot of weapons here, and I didn’t mention recent three-star recruits like sophomore running back Grant Walker, redshirt freshman Andrew Cunningham, or wonderfully named tight end Jallah Zeze Jr.
Really, the main question for this offense could come up front, as all-conference center Curtis Rainey and left tackle Jeremiah Culbreth are both gone. But you can pretty easily talk yourself into GS being able to overcome that too: 2017 starting tackle Drew Wilson returns after missing last year with injury, and he’s one of eight returnees with at least a little bit of starting experience. They have 66 career starts in all.
You don’t like losing good running backs or all-conference linemen, but it really is pretty hard to worry about this attack. It’s still got Werts, it’s still got DeBesse, it’s still got experience up front, and it’s still got fast skill guys, even if they’re a bit younger this time around.
The transition from Summers’ aggressive defense to the more pragmatic approach of new coordinator Scot Sloan went nearly as well as bringing DeBesse to town.
Formerly Appalachian State’s co-coordinator, Sloan installed a system that cut the Eagles’ aggression plays — GS went from top-40 to top-75 in stuff rate, sack rate, and havoc rate — but also drastically reduced big mistakes. The Eagles went from allowing 38 gains of 30-plus yards in 2017 (116th in FBS) to just 18 in 2018 (13th). It probably isn’t a surprise, then, that they also cut their points allowed by nearly 11 points per game, too.
Better yet, Sloan achieved this with a young front six/seven: of the 12 linemen and linebackers to log at least 10 tackles, seven were freshmen or sophomores, and eight return. The best pass rushers were juniors-to-be Raymond Johnson and Quan Griffin, and the best run disruptors were probably Johnson and another junior, linebacker Rashad Byrd. Sloan does have to replace end Logan Hunt and WLB Tomarcio Reese, but a majority of last year’s production returns.
Any time you produce great big-play numbers on defense, your safeties probably played a big role. So to be sure, the loss of free safety Joshua Moon probably hurts. But Sloan put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of cornerbacks Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor, and they responded. They not only played the ball well, combining for five interceptions and 21 pass breakups; they also tackled incredibly well and even made some plays against the run (five combined run stuffs).
There are some exciting recent recruits at the cornerback position — sophomore Justin Birdsong, redshirt freshman Brandon Cross, and true freshman David Spaulding were all mid-three-star prospect. But perhaps the most pivotal members of the secondary are either sophomore safety Kenderick Duncan or Savannah State transfer Donald Rutledge Jr. The loss of Moon opens up playing time for someone.
When Werts raced for 29 yards on fourth-and-10 to reach the EMU 30-yard line in the closing seconds of the Camellia Bowl, the game was effectively over. In fact, out of fairness, the Eagles should have probably committed two or three procedure penalties just to back up and give EMU a chance. Tyler Bass ended up hitting a 40-yard field goal at the buzzer to win the game, and a 40-yarder for Bass was like an extra point.
For the season, Bass went 45-for-45 on PATs, 9-for-10 on field goals under 40 yards … and 10-for-11 on field goals over 40. That’s absurd, and it ranked first in my FG efficiency ratings, ahead of all three Lou Groza Award finalists. It also powered a No. 18 overall Special Teams S&P+ ranking. Wesley Kennedy III’s returns helped with that ranking a little bit, too; punter Magill Bauerle did not. Everyone’s back, but Bass is the key figure here.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|3-Oct||at South Alabama||127||16.8||83%|
|26-Oct||New Mexico State||121||18.9||86%|
|31-Oct||at Appalachian State||31||-14.4||20%|
|23-Nov||at Arkansas State||70||-5.0||39%|
There aren’t many hinge games on the Georgia Southern schedule this year. S&P+ projects the Eagles as at least 9-point favorites in six games and at least 13-point underdogs in three. Surprise results happen, obviously, but it’s pretty easy to look at this schedule and quickly home in on the three games that will determine GS’ ceiling:
- UL-Lafayette (Sept. 28) — 68 percent win probability (8.2-point favorite)
- at Troy (Nov. 9) — 38 percent win probability (5.4-point underdog)
- at Arkansas State (Nov. 23) — 39 percent win probability (5-point underdog)
Win all three, and you’re on the doorstep of another 10-win season (and maybe a Sun Belt East title). Lose all three, and you’re eking out bowl eligibility.
Despite a solid No. 81 ranking, GS is projected about 7-5. After what we saw from the Eagles last year, that almost feels like a disappointment. But then you remember that they were 2-10 in 2017.
The rebound that Lunsford pulled off felt so natural that you could almost forget just how recently things had completely fallen apart. He made smart coordinator hires and embraced Southern’s option identity in a way that his predecessor couldn’t, and just like that, the Eagles were right back in the Sun Belt’s ruling class. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.