USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Even before joining the Sun Belt Conference, one of the league's newest members had achieved a feat matched by only four programs in SBC history: Georgia Southern beat a team from the Southeastern Conference.
That would be Florida, which self-blocked its way to a stunning 26-20 home loss to Eagles on Nov. 23, at once clouding the Gators' future under Will Muschamp while paving GSU's path from Football Championship Subdivision superpower to Football Bowl Subdivision newcomer. Want to make a statement? Try rolling into Gainesville and knocking off big, bad Florida, even if the Gators were days away from completing the most miserable season in decades.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Sun Belt Conference
But that's the funny thing about a single win: GSU has already made a reputation. This is the place of six FCS national champions, four during a six-year span from 1985-90; of the great Erk Russell, who went from Georgia's defensive mastermind to the architect of a dynasty; of Paul Johnson, who ran the FCS with an iron first before stepping off to Navy, and the rest is history. Former coach Jeff Monken remade GSU into a power before departing after last season for Army, leading the school to hire Willie Fritz, a two-time national runner-up at Sam Houston State.
All that one win did was add to a strong reputation, sending a signal to the rest of the Sun Belt: Georgia Southern's coming to play. Whether the Eagles can build upon November's win with a new coach, new philosophies, a new cast and a tougher level of competition remains to be seen.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: When it comes to last season, let's not let one win cloud an unavoidable fact: Georgia Southern was a disappointment. Seven wins, yes, but four losses, all in conference play? It was the least successful season of Monken's tenure, one where the Eagles flopped early in league play and never recovered – not at any point outside of late August factoring into the FCS title conversation. So there are better ways to leave the FCS, in short. Included among the four losses were three by 10 points or less, to Wofford, Samford and Furman; that painted GSU as a team close to its customary 10-win perch, though one unable to seal the deal against equal competition. The fight gets tougher this fall.
High point: Beating Florida. Does Monken get the Army job had GSU lost by 30? Maybe, though the win certainly didn't hurt.
Low point: The one loss that got away: Appalachian State, another new member of the SBC, topped the Eagles by 24 points on Oct. 26. GSU was able to rebound late against Elon and Western Carolina, a pair of two-win teams, but the damage had been done.
Tidbit: Georgia Southern heads to the Sun Belt as the most successful FCS team in the level's era, which began with the NCAA's split in 1978. The Eagles won six national titles, two more than second-place Youngstown State, and reached eight title games, one more than Montana. During the six-year span from 1985-90, GSU won four championships and lost one title game.
Tidbit (coaching edition): After an extremely successful turn at Sam Houston State, Fritz will come to GSU and tweak the Eagles' famous option attack. Now, don't look for some wholesale shift – the Eagles aren't going to turn into Texas Tech, for example. But Fritz and offensive coordinator Doug Ruse will blend the historic run-based offense into a spread-based system, which could entail a bit of a learning curve. For example, Fritz would like to throw the ball upward of 20 times a game – and remember that GSU didn't complete a pass in November's win in Gainesville. That's the greatest adjustment on GSU's plate as it enters summer workouts. Elsewhere, Fritz opted to retain defensive coordinator Jack Curtis. To call that a wise move would be an understatement.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
5. Schrödinger's (unnamed)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The big focus offensively was the forward pass, a moment that occurs when the quarterback – the gentleman often seen running the ball for GSU – brings the ball back behind his ear and flings it to and beyond the line of scrimmage, hopefully into the waiting arms of a teammate, often referred to as a "wide receiver." Primarily blockers no more, the Eagles' receiver corps now features a mixed bag of players either new to the position or, in many cases, inexperienced in the intricacies of a more balanced offensive system. As noted, prepare for a transition – and prepare for at least a few hurdles to overcome: Fritz wants to sling the ball around far more than in the program's recent past, even if not to vintage-Spurrier-like levels, and the offense needs to catch up to the new style.
The Eagles have a nice dual-threat quarterback in sophomore Kevin Ellison, who teamed with the since-departed Jerick McKinnon as a rookie and ran for 886 yards – the most of any returning player – while adding a team-best 756 yards through the air. The job is his; it's on Ellison to deliver. Doing so will demand an offseason's worth of work in learning, digesting and implementing Fritz's vision for the offense, which means hours of film study and hours spent on footwork – with the rest of the free time spent developing a rapport with this receiver corps. If nothing else, Ellison will give GSU one of the Sun Belt's most dangerous run-first quarterbacks. But it's obvious that his ability to grasp this offense and its passing game will determine the effectiveness of the Eagles' attack.
Several ex-running backs have moved to either receiver or tight end, giving this backfield a fairly new look. Two relative unknowns topped the two-deep during the spring: Chaz Thompson, a redshirt freshman, and stocky senior Ean Days, a former Illinois transfer. If both are unproven, GSU's history suggests an ability to insert new faces into the mix and land similar results – a trend that should remain despite the coaching change. In addition, while GSU has transitioned a number of backs out to receiver, the new staff does have the option of returning one or two to the running game should the ground attack fail to grind out an early rhythm.
With all the talk of Ellison and the moving pieces at the skill positions, the greatest offensive adjustment may come up front, where big bodies accustomed to mushing must add a dose of finesse to a typically physical approach. Let's look at the personnel in a positive light: GSU brings back three senior starters – left tackle Garrett Frye, center Manrey Saint-Amour and right guard Trevor McBurnett, with the latter shifting from the left side – and will start four seniors altogether, with senior right tackle Raymond Klugey and junior left guard Darien Foreman rounding out the likely starting lineup. But is this experience a negative – since these steady hands are so well-versed in a heavy-option-centric system? That's nitpicking, perhaps, but it's something to consider. If the group does jell, this line could be a major asset. Call me cautious. The good news is that injuries forced GSU to shuffle an inordinate number of linemen into the starting rotation last fall, a painful process that could yield dividends in 2014.
Defense: Continuity will rule the day on defense, thanks to Fritz's decision to retain Curtis as coordinator, but some changes are afoot: GSU will make the slow move from a 4-3 base set to the 4-2-5, the latter a defense that at its best can wreak havoc but at worst is extremely susceptible to yards in bunches both on the ground and through the air. To be safe, let's assume that Curtis moves the Eagles toward the 4-2-5 while retaining multiplicity with the 4-3, giving opponents two different formations to consider hinging on down and distance. Unfortunately, improving on last year's up-and-down performance – great one week, ineffective the next – will task the Eagles' ability to replace a handful of former starters.
But help is on the way in the form of JUCO transfers, particularly in the secondary. GSU needs to locate a stopper to replace cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks; that could be a holdover like Valdon Cooper, Darius Jones or Nick Wright – Jones has promise – or one of three incoming JUCO additions. That group could also land at safety; however, that GSU returns juniors Matt Dobson (44 tackles) and Antonio Glover and sophomore Robert Brice could lead the JUCO threesome to start on the outside. Keep an eye on one position in particular: Deion Stanley (team-best three interceptions) and Tay Hicklin will serve as that fifth defensive back in the new system, and GSU – only 13 takeaways last fall – needs to do a better job forcing turnovers. Both have that ability.
The pass rush is a concern. While moving to the 4-2-5 does help address some personnel woes at linebacker, the Eagles need more push from the front four, a group that returns fairly intact but has been wildly ineffective on third down. What good is a deep secondary if the front can't pester quarterbacks on clear passing downs? In an effort to cause trouble, GSU trimmed sophomore end Bernard Dawson and senior tackle Jonathan Battle about 10 pounds, which could help in boosting that initial burst. But at what cost? The key might be sophomore Jay Ellison, the group's lone 300-pounder and the projected starter on the nose. Yeah, it's a long way to August – yet another season without a healthy pass rush would mean serious trouble against the Sun Belt's best.
The Eagles have also trimmed the fat at linebacker, an act that should aid a grouping devastated by graduation. Although senior Edwin Jackson and junior Antwione Williams held starting jobs during the spring, that could change with the arrival of another JUCO pair, Ken Butler and Laderrick Roberts. If they can grasp the system, both fit what GSU is looking for from the second level – about 215 pounds, rangy, aggressive and athletic. Linebacker is a position to watch come August, when the new blood meets the holdovers.
Special teams: GSU has five kickers: Younghoe Koo, Matt Flynn, Alex Hanks, Ryan Nowicki and Connor Tierney. There's only one spot, of course, unless the Eagles want to continue playing musical chairs with the kicking tee. While last year's return game was spotty, the number of skill players on this roster leads me to believe GSU has the speed to rebound.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receivers: Remember last year's running backs? Well, most are playing wide receiver – and catching passes, believe it or not, and not just blocking on the edges. GSU will often use three receivers in addition to a tight end; most options on the two-deep are making the move from the backfield. At tight end, for example, look for converted backs Nardo Govan and James Dean to factor into the mix for the starting job. On the outside, B.J. Johnson, Montay Crockett and Zach Walker are joined by position-changers like Tray Butler and Derek Keaton, the latter a JUCO transfer quickly penciled for shift to receiver duties. So what should GSU expect? Fritz's top receiver at Sam Houston State last fall made 50 receptions; while no one target is going to take charge to that degree in 2014, players like Butler, Keaton and Johnson seem poised for a major uptick in production.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Georgia State: There are bigger games, perhaps, especially if the Eagles do hit their stride immediately under Fritz, but this one looms large for a single reason: Georgia Southern does not want to hit the FBS ranks and immediately lose to one of the nation's worst, let alone one inside the state borders. In a perfect world, this would develop into a nice in-state rivalry – but that would entail both programs finding a degree of success, and even if Georgia Southern hits a snag early it's still a mile above the still-learning Panthers.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Let's respect the history, the tradition and the potential while being pragmatic about 2014. From top to bottom – in terms of past success and likelihood for growth in the future – Georgia Southern is prepared for this leap to the FBS and should position itself in the years to come as one of the stronger programs in the Sun Belt Conference, a league with room for another consistent postseason presence. The commitment is clearly there: GSU has upgraded its stadium size to match FBS requirements while adding some new bells and whistles, like a sparkling football operations building. The recruiting is already superb: Fritz's first class was the best in the SBC despite the shortened time frame, as positive as omen as you'll find looking toward the future.
But this year's team is in a state of transition. Begin with Fritz himself, who brings along years of success but a new look on both offense and defense – the Eagles will look for more balance on offense, using the pass, while the defense adopts the 4-2-5 to go with a taste of the 4-3. Both shifts will task a roster built for GSU's traditional philosophies. On offense, the Eagles will struggle at times blending run-run-run into run-run-pass; on defense, a questionable pass rush only heightens the concerns over the scheme change. It's clearly a period of transition – in more ways than one.
There are still positives. One is the general optimism surrounding the program: GSU is amped for this move for the FBS. Another is the hire, with Fritz picking up where Monken left off. Another is the personnel in many spots, like the offensive front, secondary and even quarterback, though Ellison needs to find his groove as a thrower. If the future holds enormous promise, I see Fritz's first team as one of the bottom four in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern wants to race to the top of the SBC; it'll take a year to learn what that takes.
Dream season: GSU goes 5-7, beating Appalachian State, Idaho, Georgia State and New Mexico State during league play.
Nightmare season: The Eagles beat Savannah State but lose the rest.
Who's No. 123? This team's coach has lost more games in the last two years than as an assistant from 1999-2004.