As of 2018’s Week 9, Georgia Southern is coming off a 34-14 beatdown of rival Appalachian State and sitting pretty in the Sun Belt. This team is night and day from the program that only won two games the season prior and fired Tyson Summers before the end of October, and if you want the simplest explanation available, it’s hard not to go for this one:
They went back to running the option.
As the Eagles were truly beginning to put the game against the Mountaineers out of reach, ESPN’s commentators had a little discussion about Georgia Southern’s roots. Color guy Roddy Jones, a former flexbone player at Georgia Tech, said “this is a Georgia Southern team that’s defined by that style of offense.”
Plenty of programs have identities, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that clings to its bread-and-butter like Georgia Southern.
They also have the tangible results for why they should stick to what works.
The identity goes way back to when the Eagles brought football back in the 1980s.
It’s simple: when it wins, it runs.
When Georgia Southern won national titles in the 1980s, it was with the triple option. When it returned to I-AA glory in the 1990s, it was with the triple option. When Jeff Monken capped his career in Statesboro by upsetting Florida in 2013, it was with the triple option.
When Fritz was hired by Sam Houston State in 2010, he just needed to move the ball despite few returning offensive players. SHSU ran the option out of conventional spread passing formations.
It holds so tightly that when Fritz dared to take the option out of its under center alignment, he had some pushback. But Fritz made a bowl game in Southern’s first year in FBS. Fritz’s offense was shotgun-based, and it wasn’t truly a triple-option system, although he did run some of it. What mattered was that the Eagles won under Fritz, doing so while looking like a modern version of their flexbone lineage.
But when Southern has gone completely away from the option, despite all the conventional wisdom that might say to do so, it doesn’t work.
Brian VanGorder was hired in 2006 to run the show in Statesboro. He went 3-8 and was out after one season. A reason why? He ditched the option. He was hoping to modernize the program (which was still FCS at the time), but instead he set it back. The results were so poor that former Eagles coach Paul Johnson might or might not hold a grudge to this day.
”VanGorder had made some comments that he didn’t think too highly of the offense,” longtime Georgia Southern administrator Robert Inman said via USA Today. “And Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,’” Inman said. “I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.’ “
VanGorder’s replacement, Chris Hatcher, kinda ran the option, but he also only kinda won — not enough, and he was out after three seasons. In came Johnson protege Jeff Monken in 2010, who restored the flexbone option to its full victorious glory before beginning a successful stint at Army. He handed things to Fritz in 2014 and 2015.
Fritz left for Tulane, and boy, did the Eagles ever struggle under Tyson Summers.
His .278 winning percentage was just barely higher than VanGorder’s for worst all-time. Summers tried to build on Fritz’s evolution of the Southern offense, but instead of going back toward the option, went in a more pass-happy direction in 2016:
2017 was even more of a disaster, and after Summers got fired and Chad Lunsford promoted, the option returned.
One of Lunsford’s first coaching jobs was for Johnson guy Mike Sewak at Georgia Southern, and Lunsford’s been at Statesboro since 2013.
What’s interesting about this current shotgun-heavy option is that the Eagles mix some air raid passing concepts in it — likely holdovers from what the Eagles were able to do well under Summers.
It’s a little odd, but do not mistake the integration of concepts for a revamp of the system. Through seven games, then Eagles were dead last in passing attempts nationally, with 52 on the season. The 12 passes against Texas State was the only time Georgia Southern’s thrown for double-digit attempts this season. They’ve returned to being one of the top-five rushing attacks in the nation, for the first time since Fritz’s last season in 2015.
The option is back in Statesboro, and it’s working. Like pretty much always.