With the transition tag now fully discarded, the Georgia Southern Eagles have a big act to follow in their second year of playing Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
The Eagles went 9-3 in their first year as a FBS program, winning the Sun Belt Conference after posting an 8-0 mark in league play. Their move up from Football Championship Subdivision rendered them ineligible for postseason activity in 2013 and 2014.
But now the Eagles — who won a record six Division I-AA/FCS national championships — enter the season eligible for the program’s first bowl bid.
“We’re coming off a very successful season,” said Willie Fritz on the cusp of his second campaign at the Eagles’ helm. “Now we have to follow that season up.”
Fritz, who took Sam Houston State to back-to-back FCS national championship games in 2011-12, still runs an option-based offense, though it bears little resemblance to Southern’s fabled spread-option look.
Regardless of the formation, the Eagles continued to be one of the nation’s most prolific rushing teams in Fritz’s first year. They amassed 4,608 yards on the ground, an average of 384 yards per game. Their average topped all Division I teams.
Leading rusher Matt Breida, one of the speediest Eagles ever in the backfield, returns after posting 1,495 yards and 17 touchdowns. Alfred “LA” Ramsby, who had 691 yards and 12 scores, is back as Breida’s relief, and both top quarterbacks from last year — Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw — also return. Ellison and Upshaw combined for 1,594 yards and 14 rushing TDs.
Yet the veteran offensive line that Fritz inherited is all but gone. Only Darien Foreman is back from a unit that had three members earn all-Sun Belt honors for 2014. The Eagles added some depth when Roscoe Byrd transferred from Alabama-Birmingham after that school halted its program.
Only one other lineman on the Eagles roster — senior Maurice Hunt, who had two starts as a sophomore — has been in a college game opening lineup.
“We lost some really good players,” Fritz said. “But it’s an opportunity for guys to step up and compete.”
He equated replacing the linemen to how the team was able to resolve the loss of quarterback-running back-defensive back Jerick McKinnon, now with the Minnesota Vikings.
“When I took the job last year, people asked me ‘how were we going to replace Jerick McKinnon?’ Lo and behold, Matt Breida stepped up,” Fritz said. “It’s going to create an opportunity for some guys who played a little bit for us last year and who were redshirted. Hopefully, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Georgia Southern returns eight starters from a defense that was third in the conference against the run. Five Sun Belt teams ranked among the bottom 27 teams against the run in 2014. Though the Eagles had 13 interceptions and 24 sacks, they also gave up 234.4 yards per game through the air. Only two Sun Belt teams yielded more yards through the air than did the Eagles.
While the Eagles’ dominant rushing attack continued to roll up numbers — rushing for more than 300 yards in nine games and topping 400 yards in five contests — Fritz is keen on sharpening the passing game. After Eagles quarterbacks threw for 245 yards and a touchdown in a 42-38 loss to Georgia Tech, the Eagles threw for more than 150 yards in a game just once in the remaining nine dates. In seven of those final games, they had less than 100 yards passing and they did not record a single passing touchdown in their last five games.
Ellison was 71-of-128 passing for 1,001 yards and five touchdowns. Upshaw attempted just 27 passes, completing 19 for 285 yards and two TDs. A bolstered passing attack, to the Eagles coach, will make the running game even more dangerous.
“They’re both very good players,” Fritz said of Ellison and Upshaw. “Where they can get better is throwing the ball more effectively. And that just doesn’t happen with the quarterbacks throwing the ball. For us to get better offensively, we have to throw the ball.”
Fritz said his preference is to throw 20-25 times a game, giving some balance to a run-heavy option mindset. Only once last year did the Eagles attempt at least 20 passes in a game, and they had three games where they attempted fewer than 10 passes. They also lost two of their top three pass-catchers from a year ago. B.J. Johnson had a team-best 23 receptions for 312 yards and three scores, but no one else had more than eight catches last season.
“We need to keep running the ball effectively like we did last season,” the coach said. “But we really need to throw the ball better and a big part of that is the play action pass. People are going to pack the box on you when you run the ball effectively. You have to be able to beat man coverage. You have to protect for an extra count when you use play action.”