NCAA Football Preview - Georgia Southern Eagles

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Updated: 8/18 9:58 am

The Eagles started the season ranked No. 9 in The Sports Network FCS Poll and opened up the campaign with two blowout wins over Savannah State (77-9) and Saint Francis-PA (59-17), but their playoff hopes were dashed over the next several weeks by losing four of their next six games.

Georgia Southern salvaged its season late in the year with three straight victories to close things out, most notably a shocking 26-20 triumph over Florida in Gainesville in the season finale on Nov. 23. It was the first time that Florida had ever lost to an FCS opponent.

As the Eagles relocated to the FBS' Sun Belt Conference this season (along with Appalachian State), they will say goodbye to Jeff Monken, who is now the head coach at Army, and welcome former Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz aboard for the program's next chapter.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Eagles impressed offensively a season ago by scoring 33.5 ppg, and as a triple-option squad, the majority of their 451.5 ypg came on the ground (360.4 ypg).

Of the seven returning starters, quarterback Kevin Ellison is the most valuable asset back for the offense. While his passing numbers were low (41- of-79, 759 yards, two TDs, three INTs), he orchestrated the option attack well and finished the year with 886 rushing yards and eight scores.

With Jerick McKinnon (1,050 yards, 12 TDs) gone, the team will have to find a new leading rusher in 2014. Irving Huggins (224 yards, four TDs), Tray Butler (251 yards) and Nardo Govan (245 yards, two TDs) will all get an opportunity to run behind a veteran offensive line that returns four starters.

Starting receivers B.J. Johnson and Zach Walker are back, but the two combined for just 19 receptions on the run-first team and are utilized mostly as blockers on the outside.

DEFENSE: Georgia Southern's defense was solid, if unspectacular, in the lower rung of college football last season, allowing 23.2 ppg while generating just 13 takeaways, but it'll benefit from returning more than half its starters on that side of the ball.

Edwin Jackson anchors the unit from the middle linebacker position and led the team in tackles a season ago (92), although he is the only starting linebacker returning.

Jonathan Battle (34 tackles, 3.0 TFL) was solid at defensive tackle, but the team had just 11 sacks in 11 games, and Fritz is concerned that it might get bullied up front.

"We're not a real big team (on the defensive line) but we're pretty darn quick," Fritz said. "It'll be interesting to see. We're going to be going against bigger guys. This isn't FCS football."

Three returning starters occupy the secondary. Safeties Deion Stanley (30 tackles, three INTs) and Matt Dobson (44 tackles, two INTs) were crucial in the turnover battle, and cornerback Tay Hicklin (27 tackles) was solid as well.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kicking specialists are back in the fold. Younghoe Koo was impressive in limited field goal opportunities (5-of-6 with a long of 49), and Ryan Nowicki averaged 43.1 yards per punt.

Brandan Thomas (18 returns, 133 yards) was used as the primary punt returner last season while Matt Breida (13 returns, 266 yards) ran back most of the kickoffs. Both are expected to retain their respective roles in 2014.

OUTLOOK: The Sun Belt has been in a state of flux over the past few seasons, and new teams entering the league have not fared well in the recent past (South Alabama went 2-11 in 2012, Georgia State 0-12 in 2013), but Georgia Southern, a strong FCS program, hopes to buck that trend in 2014 in its inaugural FBS season.

"We want to continue the success (we had) at FCS at the highest level of college football," Fritz said. "I want to be involved in that type of situation."

The schedule makers were kind to Georgia Southern, as the team will avoid both conference favorites, Louisiana and Arkansas. Instead its league schedule is filled with winnable games against South Alabama, Appalachian State, New Mexico State, Idaho and Georgia State.

The Eagles' success comes down to whether or not their triple-option rushing scheme can continue to thrive against bigger and faster defenses. If it can consistently control the clock through their success on the ground, expect them to string together a handful of conference wins. If not, it could be a long year.

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