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Georgia Bulldog Opponent Preview: Georgia Southern Eagles

Georgia Southern gives the Georgia Bulldogs a solid option challenge leading up to the showdown on North Avenue.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

School: A beautiful campus (with a few million too many gnats for my liking) that is home to over 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students (including yours truly).

Mascot: Eagles (of the significantly less offensive non-War variety)

Location: Statesboro, GA

Head Coach: Willie Fritz

2014 record: 9-3

Celebrity Fans/Alumni: Luke Bryan, Dan T. Cathy (politics aside, I think we can all agree that Chick-fil-a is freaking delicious).

SBN Preview: Bill Connelly's 128-Team CFB Countdown

SBN Site: Underdog Dynasty - Georgia Southern

As a longtime Georgia Bulldog fan and UGA alum, I've seen my fair share of the Georgia Southern Eagles in Sanford Stadium.  This year, however, takes on special significance as I am currently a student at the real GSU earning my Ed.S.  That's not to say I have any conflicting emotions as to where my loyalties lie.  I was a Georgia fan long before enrolling at Southern and certainly want the Bulldogs to win the game in convincing fashion, but I now want the Eagles to win every other game on their schedule whereas I didn't care very much before.  In previous years, discussions of Georgia vs. Georgia Southern have often devolved into belittling the quality of the opposing program/institution/fanbase on both sides (as often happens on the Internet).  Someone who claims to be a Southern fan (but who I suspect is secretly a Tech fan) shows up and says something about UGA's program at which point a Georgia fan says the only reason someone went to GSU is because they couldn't get into Georgia and the incivilities commence (Note: That second statement is demonstrably incorrect, by the way, as I got into both but chose Georgia Southern for this degree because I'm a teacher and it was less expensive. People make these decisions for lots of reasons).  I hope this isn't an issue this season because I've had a phenomenal experience at Georgia Southern with a graduate program that has been every bit as rigorous as my previous degrees and classmates who have been excellent collaborators.  Plus, they beat Florida and I just enjoyed the hell out of that game.  So, long story short, let's save the vitriol for Georgia Tech and enjoy the fact that we have another quality program in our state that will hopefully take the Yellow Jackets #2 slot in the near future.

In 2014, the Eagles went 9-3 and won the Sun Belt in their first year in Div. I/FBS. Instead of being rewarded for this tremendous achievement, due to an idiotic NCAA rule (sound familiar?) they were unable to compete in a bowl game.  Now that they're into Year 2, I would frankly be shocked if the Eagles weren't perennial bowl participants and Sun Belt champions for a long time to come.  Though it may be the new found homer in me, I fully expect Georgia Southern to finish atop the Sun Belt again this season and possibly with an 8-0 conference record. Most Sun Belt previews I've seen seem to agree that Georgia Southern is the prohibitive favorite.  Out-of-conference the Eagles have The Citadel and Western Michigan early in the season, which should both be winnable barring another positively Georgia-esque brainfart like the one they had last season against Navy.  Western Michigan will undoubtedly be the more difficult of the two but, again, its winnable.  Before reaching those contests though, they open the season against West Virginia. If the Eagles' secondary can weather the storm of a Dana Holgorsen passing attack and exploit the numerous question marks all over the Mountaineers roster, they could be rolling into Athens on November 21st undefeated. The recent suspension of QB Kevin Ellison for the first two games of the season (WVU and Western Michigan) may seem to spell doom for the Eagles in the early season contests, but backup Favian Upshaw had some solid game experience last year and I think he's serviceable enough to let back Matt Breida put the team on his back and in a position to win.

From the 2014 squad, the Eagles return 5 offensive and 7 defensive starters.  In terms of the offense, the good news is that both of the aforementioned Kevin Ellison and Matt Breida return to Willie Fritz's option offense.  Breida and Ellison combined for over 2600 yards rushing last year with Ellison adding almost a thousand more through the air.  Under 1,000 passing yards you say? Don't forget, Southern is a run first team. Actually, they are a run most team.  The Georgia front 7 will certainly be busy throughout the game and will have to play assignment football to avoid the Eagle backs breaking off big runs.  This is a really good thing for Georgia as they will need to maintain these skills against the Yellow Jackets on Nov. 28th.  The bad news for the Georgia Southern offense is that they must replace 4 offensive linemen.  For any team, this would be an issue, but the new OL will have to gel quickly in an offense that is so reliant on its blocking scheme. While the line will have ample experience by the time they reach their date with the Bulldogs, any penetration Georgia's D-line can get will go a long way toward disrupting the rhythm of Southern's offensive attack.

The Georgia Southern defense was an underrated element of GSU's success in 2014. While the front 7 typically wasn't much of a threat to sack or hurry the quarterback, they were solid against the run and limited opposing backs to an average of 4.3 ypc and just over 150 yards per game.  That said (and with all due respect), that wasn't against Georgia's monster offensive line and Nick Chubb.  On the other hand, Southern's secondary was significantly more porous in allowing over 230 receiving yards per game. This year's secondary may have some new members (including some touted Freshmen), but its hard to see how the secondary will be significantly improved this early in their development. By this point in the season, hopefully Georgia's eventually determined starting QB (GRRR!) will have some serious confidence and chemistry with the WR corps in order to exploit this weakness.  Ultimately, I just can't see Georgia Southern's defense stopping Georgia's offense, though I do think the offense of the Eagles can keep them in the game longer than most Georgia fans would like.

While I know it won't happen, I'm of the belief that Georgia should be scheduling Georgia Southern every year.  Its a mutually beneficial relationship in which Georgia Southern gets both in-state and national exposure to potential recruits and a nice payday while Georgia gets a prime opportunity to prepare for the option attack of Georgia Tech. Georgia gets absolutely no benefit from scheduling Louisiana-Lafayette or Appalachian State out of the Sun Belt as they have for the next couple of years.  Then, when the Eagles have surpassed Tech on the football landscape, we can just jettison the Jackets and keep the Eagles.

I expect big things from Georgia Southern this year and in the future.  That said, I think come late November, Georgia will be on a roll and steamrolling toward an appearance in the SECCG.  The Eagles will probably give the Dawgs more of a fight than they are expecting, but Georgia will ultimately pull away to emerge victorious and find themselves significantly better prepared for Georgia Tech's offensive attack the following week.  In my humble opinion, Georgia hands Georgia Southern its first (and only) loss of the 2015 season on November 21st.

Prediction: Georgia - 45  Georgia Southern - 21