Preview 2014 - Georgia Southern Eagles
Georgia Southern QB Kevin Ellison
Georgia Southern QB Kevin Ellison
Posted May 20, 2014

Preview 2014 - Georgia Southern Eagles: The Eagles and their high-powered offense roll into the Sun Belt. (Photo: Georgia Southern)

Georgia Southern Eagles

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak
- 2014 GSU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Willie Fritz
1st year
22nd year overall: 176-67-1
Returning Lettermen
Off: 30, Def. 22, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 20
Ten Best GSU Players
1. QB Kevin Ellison, Soph.
2. C Manrey Saint-Amour, Sr.
3. LB Edwin Jackson, Sr.
4. OT Garrett Frye, Sr.
5. DT Johnathan Battle, Jr.
6. RB Chaz Thornton, RFr.
7. FS Matt Dobson, Jr.
8. WR Tray Butler, Sr.
9. WR B.J. Johnson, Jr.
10. P Ryan Nowicki, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 at NC State
Sep. 6 Savannah State
Sep. 13 at Georgia Tech
Sep. 20 at South Alabama
Sep. 25 Appalachian State
Oct. 4 at New Mexico State
Oct. 11 Idaho
Oct. 25 at Georgia State
Oct. 30 Troy
Nov. 8 at Texas State
Nov. 15 at Navy
Nov. 29 ULM

Even though it won six FCS/D-IAA national titles since 1985 and came in second in 1988 and 1998, just like Appalachian State will forever be known as the team that beat Michigan – forgetting all the success the program had achieved – it'll be hard for Georgia Southern to beat what happened in the 2013 regular season finale.

Forgetting the fact that Florida was dead team walking, the defense that allowed over 200 rushing yards just once on the year – giving up 205 to SEC champ, Missouri – and dismissing that GSU didn't come up with any passing yards, the 429 yards cranked out on the ground were the most allowed by a Gator defense since Nebraska ran wild for 524 yards in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.

Kevin Ellison and Jerick McKinnon, meet Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips.

The 26-20 win over Florida was better than any bowl win, and in harsh reality, got more national play than winning the FCS national title would have. And now it's time to come into the FBS and Sun Belt world roaring.

The program knows how to win and it knows what it takes to be a success, and it all starts with an offensive philosophy that has killed defenses for years. From Paul Johnson – who took his option attack to Navy, with great success – to Jeff Monken - who's trying to do the same as the new head man at Army – Georgia Southern can really run the ball, finishing first in the nation with 360 yards per game on the ground with 44 touchdowns. Now it's up to Willie Fritz to not only keep the fun going, but to do it at a higher level as the program makes the big move up.

Fritz also knows how to win, taking Sam Houston State to the 2011 and 2012 FCS national title games, only to run into the North Dakota State buzzsaw both times. A winner everywhere he's been Fritz has the pressure on his shoulders to win and win now, because with this offense and this style, it should work on anyone right away and doesn't necessarily need a slew of NFL talents to run it.

Will the combination of Fritz, program, experience and talent in the system be enough to take the Sun Belt title right away? That's asking a lot, but there's a reason the team was good enough to beat Florida.

Georgia Southern is pretty good at playing college football at any level.

What to watch for on offense: It's not like Fritz and offensive coordinator Doug Ruse are abandoning the triple-option/spread option attack, but they are giving it a makeover and adding more passing into the mix. Sam Houston State ran wild, averaging 264 yards per game, but the offense also took advantage of mismatches to throw efficiently and effectively, putting up 41 points per game with some dominant efforts, if somewhat inconsistent, efforts last season. It's going to be more like the Nevada pistol attack, with the quarterback utilizing the read option even more than he would out of the triple option. In this offense, the wide receivers get free in one-on-one situations, giving the quarterback more options and more weapons to work with, but the big plays mostly come after softening up the linebackers with the running game. In other words, Georgia Southern fans, welcome to the forward pass.

What to watch for on defense: Every single new coaching staff says the same thing about being more aggressive and doing more to make big plays, but defensive coordinator Jack Curtis – a holdover from the Monken administration – will do just that while working for a new head man. The Eagles weren't awful against the run, and the secondary didn't suffer too much from the lack of pressure, but the D was too inconsistent and didn't do enough to bother quarterbacks or get behind the line with a mere 12 sacks and 51 tackles for loss. There's enough experience in the 4-3 - that's really going to be more like a 4-2-5 - to start coming up with more big things in the backfield like it did in 2012 when it came up with 32 sacks on the way to the national title appearance.

The team will be far better if… the improved defensive pressure forces more takeaways. Coming up with third down stops wasn't a problem, and as a whole, the defense did a nice job, but there weren't enough gamechanging takeaways for a team that will need to be on the right side of the turnover margin in the FCS world. Last year there were just ten interceptions and two fumble recoveries – there weren't enough big hits. Taking the ball away is a must, especially for an offense that puts the ball on the ground on a regular basis with 31 fumbles last season, losing 13. As good as Georgia Southern might be, it has to do all the little things right. Winning the turnover battle, though, is a big thing.

The Schedule: So, Georgia Southern, you enjoyed the giant kill from the Florida game last season? You'll get a few chances early on to screw up other BCS-caliber programs, opening up the year against NC State and with a date against Paul Johnson's option attack at Georgia Tech. No matter what happens the rest of the season, the season might be seen as a big step forward with at least a split in those two games. The Sun Belt world is very, very manageable, missing Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette and getting Troy and ULM at home. On the down side, the battle with Troy comes just five days after playing Georgia State. However, there are enough winnable games at home against Idaho and Appalachian State to potentially be a part of the Sun Belt title discussion.

Best offensive player: Sophmore QB Kevin Ellison. How many quarterbacks not named Bridgewater, Murray or Winston showed the poise of Ellison against the Florida defense over the last few seasons? With star running back Jerick McKinnon off to the Minnesota Vikings, it'll be up to Ellison to handle even more of the rushing workload. But unlike last year, now he'll have to start throwing the ball a bit more with the tweak to the offensive style. Very talented and in command of the field, he should be able to handle the work and the changes without any trouble.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Edwin Jackson. The man in the middle did his share for a defense that didn't get behind the line enough with a team-leading five quarterback hurries, but his real worth was against the run, coming up with a team-leading 92 stops. While he's not all that big, he's quick, active, and great at getting around the ball and making the open-field stop. A great special teamer early on, he hits everything and runs through a wall to make a play. Now he needs his front four to do more in the backfield so he doesn't have to.

Key player to a successful season: Junior WR B.J. Johnson and senior WR Tray Butler. There's talent and experience at receiver, but you'll have to forgive the corps if it's not exactly used to the idea of loads of passes coming their way with just 102 throws last year and Johnson and Butler combining for 17 catches. It's not going to be Texas Tech time, but the opportunities will be there to do more than just block, and the receivers have to be ready. The running game didn't need any help last season, but the tweak and the move to a wee bit more of a balance should do wonders as long as the receivers help out Ellison.

The season will be a success if ... the Eagles flirt with an eight-win season. They're not eligible for a bowl game until 2015, but they can win the Sun Belt title this year – the right mix could be there to make it interesting. As long as they survive the first month with three road games in the four would weeks, and as long as they can handle two five-day turnarounds playing both Appalachian State and Troy on Thursday nights, they could be in for a great year. Savannah State and Idaho have to be wins, and there's no reason not to win two out three home games against ASU, Troy and ULM. Georgia State shouldn't be a problem, and New Mexico State is a relative layup. That's six wins before getting into the 50/50 games against South Alabama and Texas State.

Key game: Sept. 20th at South Alabama. The Jaguars are coming off a strong season and have the potential to be a major player in the Sun Belt title chase. It's Georgia Southern's first true Sun Belt game, and if it can come up with a win on the road, all of a sudden the chance is there for a great start with Appalachian State, New Mexico State, Idaho and Georgia State up next – 5-0 in conference play isn't out of the question before facing Troy. However, beating USA on the road is a must.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Rushing Yards Per Game: Georgia Southern 360.4 - Opponents 160.4
- Fumbles: Georgia Southern 31 (lost 13) - Opponents 7 (lost 2)
- Second Quarter Scoring: Georgia Southern 103 - Opponents 55

- 2014 GSU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players