In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
Georgia Southern Eagles
2014 Record: 9-3 (8-0 in Sun Belt)
Head Coach: Willie Fritz (.692)
Returning Starters: 14/24 (5 OFF/7 DEF/2 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 104th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 5 @ West Virginia
- Sept. 12 v. Western Michigan
- Oct. 22 @ Appalachian State
- Nov. 21 @ Georgia
- Nov. 28 v. South Alabama
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE EAGLES
Georgia Southern has a long history as a I-AA powerhouse, making a belated transition to the FBS last season. The six-time FCS national champion made noise immediately, rolling undefeated through its inaugural Sun Belt schedule to win the conference and finish 9-3. It could have easily been 11-1 as well, with the Eagles falling by a single point at NC State and by four points at Georgia Tech. In both cases the ACC opponent needed a late score at home to survive and avoid the upset:
It wouldn’t have mattered, though, if the Eagles had defeated one or both of the schools. Ten or 11 wins would not have made one iota of difference in whether or not the Sun Belt champion made a bowl game or not, because as an FCS transition team Georgia Southern was not permitted to participate in a bowl game despite the fact that they won their league and were wholly entitled to the spoils befitting the accomplishment. If the Eagles repeat the feat this year, though, a bowl game will be in their near future. How big that inaugural bowl game might be is dependent on closing the deal on upsets like they nearly pulled off against the Wolfpack and the Yellow Jackets last year.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE EAGLES IN 2015
Last year, despite being a transitional team, no team generated more yardage on the ground than Georgia Southern. Quarterback Kevin Ellison and running back Matt Breida — who each ran for over 1000 yards last season — both return to the offense in 2015, though the offensive line will lose four starters from last year and returns just 37 combined starts among the players on the roster. Injuries contributed to some of that experience, and three redshirt freshmen will be there to bolster what looks like a forlorn situation only initially.
Georgia Southern’s schedule also lines up favorably for a memorable year. A trip to Morgantown to open the season against West Virginia could finally provide the Eagles that statement win they nearly achieved last year. Western Michigan comes to Georgia in a virtual Access Bowl elimination game, and the Eagles will have the decided home-field advantage. By the time they have to face Georgia in Athens on November 21, Willie Fritz’s squad should be ready for the challenge of taking down an SEC opponent. The opportunities are boundless for a school that only just arrived at the party.
WHAT COULD COST THE EAGLES THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
Five other teams in the Sun Belt return more talent than Georgia Southern, including fellow conference contenders Appalachian State and Arkansas State. Inexperience could prove costly for the Eagles in 2015, as they have to play a road game against a Big 12 school immediately to start the campaign and close out the season with an SEC challenge in the penultimate game. If redshirted players and last year’s backups can’t maintain and even surpass the production of last year’s championship roster, it could be a long, long season with little to play for beyond bragging rights in Statesboro .
We didn’t quite see the question play out last season, as the selection committee’s job last year was to choose between two losses and a tougher schedule versus one loss and a bunch of cupcakes. With that precedent, though, one can assume that without at least one statement win against either the Mountaineers or the Bulldogs it will be tough for a team like Georgia Southern to compete against the resumes of other Group of Five champions. As we saw last year, the Eagles aren’t competing against their league foes so much as against teams like Boise State and Northern Illinois and Memphis, and style points will matter as the champion of what is perceived to be the weakest of the mid-major conferences.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
Defense will be the deciding factor for Georgia Southern against West Virginia, who will be unable to fully contain Ellison and Breida as the Eagles roll to their statement win right out of the gate in Morgantown. Things won’t be quite as easy against Western Michigan, which will come to Statesboro and knock off the Eagles in a minor upset. That setback will be quickly set aside as FCS The Citadel and a trip to Idaho provide ample opportunity to let the loss fade in the rearview mirror. With wins over the Bulldogs and the Vandals, Georgia Southern will be at 3-1 as September ends.
Road game against UL-Monroe will allow the Eagles to enter their bye week with a 4-1 record, and coming out of the recovery period a visit from New Mexico State will allow Georgia Southern to warm back up to full speed ahead of their game at Appalachian State that could ostensibly decide the conference title. By taking out the second set of Mountaineers on their schedule, and then following it up with a victory over Texas State, the Eagles will enter November with a 7-1 record and 5-0 record in the conference. A second bye week allows Georgia Southern to avoid the potential chaos that usually swirls around Halloween weekend, and they get to come out of the break with an away game at Troy that once again provides the opportunity to ease back up to game speed.
They will need to be revving on all cylinders after that win over the Trojans, because a trip to play between the hedges awaits. Georgia has a fearsome running game, but if one team has a chance of stopping them it would be a defense that deals almost exclusively with the ground game — like Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs will probably win, but the Eagles will beat the spread to claim a moral victory in Athens. At 8-2, Georgia Southern will have a shot at reaching double digits in the win column before bowl season. They’ll also claim their second straight undefeated, undisputed Sun Belt crown by knocking off South Alabama and Georgia State. 10-2 won’t be enough to surpass other teams in the hunt, but a bowl game will finally be in Georgia Southern’s future. The Eagles will make the most of the opportunity to enjoy a sustained bout of success out of the FBS gate.
PREDICTED RECORD: 11-2 (8-0 in Sun Belt)