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Georgia Southern football lost itself in 2016 under another outsider head coach

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Tyson Summers has a second chance to prove he can win, Statesboro-style.

NCAA Football: GoDaddy Bowl-Georgia Southern vs Bowling Green Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published February 15 and has since been updated.

I’m gonna say it one more time. We're Georgia Southern. Our colors are blue and white. We call ourselves the Bald Eagles. We call our offense the Georgia Power Company — that is a terrific name for an offense — and our snap count is ‘Rate Hike.’ We practice on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek, and that's in Statesboro, Georgia, the gnat capital of America. Our weekends begin on Thursday. The coeds outnumber the men three to two. They are all good-lookin', and they are all rich. And folks, you can't beat that, and you just can't beat Georgia Southern. And you ain't seen nothin' yet."

Georgia Southern’s spirit animal is a man named Erk. He runs the option on offense and takes your head off on defense.

When the school decided it wanted to play football, Erk Russell almost immediately led the Eagles to two I-AA national titles. He picked up the town of Statesboro, called it the most beautiful place he’d ever seen, and loved it like a father. His shadow might hang more fully over the Georgia Southern program than any other coach’s anywhere. And that’s quite the statement.

Erk’s influence over Georgia Southern is such that fans cannot imagine running anything other than the clean, beautiful option. And when a coach tries to change — or when he doesn’t love the option enough — the Eagles fail. It has become self-fulfilling.

Technically, Summers didn’t try to ditch the option when he took over. But he didn’t love it enough. And God could tell.

Summers is a defensive guy. He's not married to any offensive system, and that made people nervous. He's made some reassurances.

"For those of you wanting to ask, we are going to look (offensively) the way we look now," he said. "It'll be the gun option ... the gun, triple-option. What we've got to do is be able to throw the ball."

Still, his coordinator hires were interesting. Summers brought in two locals — former Valdosta State head coach David Dean and former Valdosta high school coach Rance Gillespie — as co-coordinators. Gillespie was Chris Hatcher's offensive coordinator at GS from 2007-09, when he helped unsuccessfully shift from running 75 percent of the time in 2007 to throwing 54 percent of the time in 2009. Meanwhile, at Valdosta State last year, Dean's squad ran just 53 percent of the time.

Last year’s Georgia Southern preview had two major points:

  1. Southern hired a non-option guy as head coach. He promised to keep the option rolling, but his coordinator hires were a bit odd.
  2. The middle of the schedule was brutal, featuring road trips to Western Michigan, Arkansas State, Georgia Tech, and Ole Miss, and a home game against Appalachian State. Those games would define the year.

I was still optimistic, but it was easy to see how things might go wrong based on those two points. They did.

The offensive regression was even worse than imaginable. Southern fell from 40th to 101st in Off. S&P+, and despite the return of two strong option quarterbacks (Kevin Ellison, Favian Upshaw) and star running back Matt Breida, the Eagles fell from ninth in Rushing S&P+ to a stunning 117th.

Southern's identity remained the same in terms of tendencies — the Eagles ran 78 percent of the time on standard downs (sixth in FBS) and 52 percent on passing downs (seventh) — but the confidence was gone.

Technically, Southern got better at throwing the ball, improving from 76th to 61st in Passing S&P+. But what has made Southern so terrifying in years past was sporadic at best. You can’t fake the option.


2016 in review

2016 Georgia Southern statistical profile.

Meanwhile, that five-game gauntlet indeed defined the season.

  • Western Michigan 49, Georgia Southern 31
  • Arkansas State 27, Georgia Southern 26
  • Georgia Tech 35, Georgia Southern 24
  • Appalachian State 34, Georgia Southern 10
  • Ole Miss 37, Georgia Southern 27

The Eagles were reasonably competitive but still went 0-5. That required them to go 6-1 in the other games to find bowl eligibility. Instead, they lost at home to UL-Lafayette, then lost for a second straight year to Georgia State.

It's hard to imagine 2016 going much worse for Summers. Not only was Southern's win total nearly cut in half, but he VanGorder'd the offense.

In theory, you can win in Statesboro without running the option. You can win doing whatever you like. But Southern fans know what they like and know what works. They know because Erk showed them. You might not get a second chance to prove yourself if you fail while hinting at a change in identity. VanGorder didn't. Summers just barely did.


Offense

Full advanced stats glossary.

It probably goes without saying that Gillespie and Dean are no longer Georgia Southern's coordinators.

Summers did his best to show his loyalty to King Option by bringing in a Paul Johnson disciple. Johnson was Erk's coordinator for the 1985-86 title teams and led the Eagles to two more titles as head coach. He's spent the last nine seasons at Georgia Tech and has won nine-plus games four times. Summers brought Johnson's quarterbacks and B-backs (fullbacks) coach, Bryan Cook, to run the show.

Cook racked up major rushing yards as co-coordinator at Cal Poly from 2009-12. He passes the option litmus test. We'll see if he can salvage Summers' tenure. (Summers also brought in a new line coach and new receivers coach.)

Cook has quite a bit of rebuilding to do. Ellison, Upshaw, and Breida are gone. Through Southern's first three FBS seasons, this trio accounted for 7,520 rushing yards and 3,585 passing yards. Breida rushed for 3,093 yards in 2014-15, and Ellison rushed for 118 yards and two scores in the Eagles' momentous 2013 upset of Florida.

This was the collective face of Southern's offense for a long time. Their departure hurts, despite dramatic underachievement in 2016.

Also gone: three of the four wideouts who caught more than two balls last season. The reboot is significant, especially when you include two lost starters on the line (including all-conference center Andy Kwon).

If you count the assets instead of the losses, though, you find hope.

Georgia Southern v Mississippi
Myles Campbell
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
  • Sophomore quarterback Seth Shuman got some experience during last year's disaster, and he could be pushed by Alabama State transfer Ellis Richardson, three-star redshirt freshman Shai Werts, and JUCO transfer Kado Brown. [Update: Shuman’s left the football team, focusing on baseball.] You want options, and Southern's got them in all shapes and sizes.
  • While Breida was struggling, the trio of Wesley Fields, Demarcus Godfrey, and short-yardage guy L.A. Ramsby combined for 959 rushing yards (5 per carry) and 11 touchdowns. And three-star freshmen Grant Walker and Wesley Kennedy III could help sooner than later.
  • Slot receiver Myles Campbell is back and could thrive in the right system, and Georgia Tech transfer Mike Summers Jr. knows the offense and averaged 14.8 yards per catch for Tech in 2015. Little-used pieces like junior Malik Henry and sophomores Obe Fortune and Hampton McConnell are certainly fast, and redshirt freshman Darion Anderson, the jewel of the 2016 signing class, could be ready to play a role.
  • Five linemen with starting experience return, including two-year left tackle Jeremiah Culbreth. Eight of 11 names from last year's two-deep are back, and Georgia transfer Jake Edwards joins the mix.

When you look at things from that perspective, a bounce-back is possible. But Georgia Southern has lost the benefit of the doubt, and Cook has to earn it back.


Defense

Summers is a defensive guy. He had four years of defensive coordinator experience, two at UCF under George O'Leary, and two at Colorado State. So did he at least get the defense going?

Not really. The Eagles fell from 47th to 76th in Def. S&P+. Granted, the secondary had to be completely rebuilt, which is typically the closest thing to kryptonite for a defense, but with the way the offense cratered, Summers could have used a win here.

An experienced front seven was able to do some damage against the run. GASO ranked a decent 55th in Adj. Line Yards, 48th in power success rate, and 33rd in stuff rate.

Southern's front 7 havoc rate ranked a solid 33rd. The secondary: 123rd. After a decent early defensive showing, opponents managed a 62 percent completion rate and a 144 passer rating over the final nine games of the year.

Passer rating was a tipping-point stat for the Eagles.

  • Opponent passer rating in GASO wins: 118.3 (58% completion rate, 11.4 yards per completion)
  • Opponent passer rating in GASO losses: 148.3 (60% completion rate, 14.5 yards per completion)

When opponents were getting the ball downfield, the Eagles were probably losing.

So the secondary struggled as expected, but it wasn't getting a ton of help. Southern fell from 59th to 122nd in Adj. Sack Rate despite tons of experience up front.

That experience is no more. Seven of last year's top nine linemen are gone, as are the top three linebackers. There's excellent continuity in the secondary, where eight underclassmen are now sophomores and juniors, but a surge in the back could be met with a collapse in the front.

Summers has recruited well here. We'll see how quickly that can make a difference. Four three-star freshman ends could make a difference, along with three freshman linebackers and a JUCO transfer (Tomarcio Reese). If you can get contributions from a couple, and you luck out from an injuries perspective, maybe you can duct tape a decent front seven together.

Injuries could be devastating, though. End Logan Hunt and tackle Darrius Sapp are the only returning linemen with more than two tackles last year, and senior Chris DeLaRosa and sophomore Todd Bradley are the only linebackers with more than 2.5. There are a lot of former three-star guys up front (not just the freshmen); they'll need to play like it.

Citadel v Georgia Southern
Joshua Moon
Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

Special Teams

One bright spot in 2016: special teams. The punts were pretty short, but the Eagles ranked fourth in field goal efficiency, ninth in kickoffs, and 30th in punt returns on the way to a No. 30 ranking in Special Teams S&P+.

Sophomore Tyler Bass was responsible for the kickoffs and might be a decent replacement for placekicker Younghoe Koo, but the departure of both Koo and punt returner Montay Crockett hurts.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Auburn 9 -32.4 3%
9-Sep New Hampshire NR 13.1 78%
23-Sep at Indiana 39 -19.0 14%
21-Oct at Massachusetts 111 -0.6 49%
TBA Arkansas State 83 -1.0 48%
TBA Georgia State 113 5.9 63%
TBA New Mexico State 124 9.5 71%
TBA South Alabama 108 4.9 61%
TBA at Appalachian State 62 -15.1 19%
TBA at Coastal Carolina 114 0.0 50%
TBA at Troy 79 -9.2 30%
TBA at UL-Lafayette 112 -0.5 49%
Projected S&P+ Rk 98
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 117 / 71
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.7 (91)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 95 / 101
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 2.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (35%, 57%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.0 (0.0)

I really, really enjoy Georgia Southern.

I love the option offense and wish more people would run it. I love the unabashed, heavyweight-in-a-welterweight's-body confidence that emits from the fanbase. I love the century's worth of history the Eagles have packed into less than four decades. I love that Russell really existed when, on paper, it seems like he had too much personality for a fictional character. This program is high on my own personal "This is what makes college football, college football" list.

It was frustrating, then, watching the Eagles lose their way. It wasn't that they faltered — that happens to a lot of teams — but they faltered in a way that seemed both existential and preventable.

Knowing this program's history, and knowing how quickly it jettisons a guy who doesn't win immediately — Frank Ellwood went 4-7 in 1996 and was gone, Brian VanGorder went 3-8 in 2006 and vanished — I was a little surprised that Summers was retained. But he now gets a second chance. He has a bonafide Option Guy, and his secondary has all the experience it didn't have. He's got athletes in the skill positions and pieces at quarterback.

Still, when you look at the smoking craters at quarterback, on the defensive line, and in the linebacking corps, it's hard to be immediately optimistic. Summers has three-star replacements lined up everywhere, but even if he does get this ship steadied — if he both gets the time and has the wherewithal to do it — you kind of have to figure it doesn't happen until 2018.

From an S&P+ standpoint, a bowl is feasible. There are three likely losses (at Auburn, at Indiana, at Appalachian State) but S&P+ says there are four virtual tossups (at UMass, Arkansas State, at Coastal Carolina, at UL-Lafayette) and four in which Southern has at least a 61 percent chance of winning (New Hampshire, Georgia State, NMSU, South Alabama).

Win the winnable games, split the tossups, and you're bowling. And maybe that buys you a third year. But expectations have shifted quickly in Statesboro, and that doesn't tend to work for long.


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