If you’re skimming over Ole Miss’ remaining schedule and getting nervous about playing a Georgia Southern program with a reputation for giving more talented teams a hard time, you may not need to worry. Despite being known as the lower level non-conference team no one wants to schedule, they’re currently 4-4 and averaging just 24 points per game excluding an opening win over FCS Savannah State.
Sure, history tells us that this team is perfectly capable of giving the Rebels fits. In a 2011 loss to Alabama, Georgia Southern ran for 302 yards and 7.7 yards per carry, leading to one of the weirder Nick Saban rants ever recorded. Two years later, they upset a Florida team that, despite being 4-7 at the time, ranked 15th in defensive S&P+. Yes, the Eagles possess much of the personnel from last year to make for a scary option running attack, but offensive production has been an issue to the point that playcalling duties are being moved around mid-season.
As much as the Rebels have had to retool the definition of “backs against the wall” this season, Saturday’s game may just end up being a walkthrough against a Sun Belt team dealing with its own set of obstacles.
The coach is new, but the offense isn’t.
When Willie Fritz left Georgia Southern for the Tulane head coaching job last December, there was concern in Statesboro that new coach Tyson Summers would overhaul the Eagles’ trademark option offense. Summers’ background is, after all, on the other side of the ball, having made stops at Central Florida and Colorado State as a defensive coordinator.
Coaches new to the atmosphere in Statesboro should know by now the potential consequences of replacing the culture that current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson established in 1997. Accordingly, Summers made it clear early on that the option would remain the Eagles’ offensive identity, the only tweak being that it would be run out of the shotgun.
"For those of you wanting to ask, we are going to look (offensively) the way we look now... It'll be the gun option... the gun, triple-option. What we've got to do is be able to throw the ball. Defensively, we'll be a four (man)-down team.”
So far, Summers has delivered on that promised commitment to the ground game, running the ball on 83 percent of standard downs (sixth nationally) and 57 percent on passing downs (fourth). Still, he’s gotten more production out of the quarterbacks when he has allowed them to pass. In 2015, Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw combined for just 6 yards per attempt while completing 43 percent of their passes. This year, the pair has averaged 8.3 yards per throw with a much improved 59 percent completion rate.
But while the passing game has shown increased competence, the effectiveness on the ground has taken a noticeable dip.
The big run plays have been lacking for Georgia Southern.
In 2015, the Eagles had the most explosive rushing attack in the country as measured by rushing isoPPP. They had 51 run plays that gained more than 20 yards last year, with just 13 through eight games in 2016. Among the FBS running backs who ran the ball more than 200 times in 2015, Georgia Southern running back Matt Breida was the very best at taking advantage of getting to the second level with 10.9 highlight yards per opportunity.
Breida hasn’t been able to replicate last year’s incredible production, rushing for 3.9 yards per carry and only gaining five yards or more on 27.6 percent of his carries (national average is 40 percent). Much of the blame can be put on the young offensive line, as they’re currently 127th in adjusted line yards and starting two sophomores and a freshman.
That’s good news for a Rebel defense that’s watched Leonard Fournette and Kamryn Pettway gash them with big runs over the last two weeks. Though Ole Miss’ defensive line has been solid at containing the majority of carries, runners that do make it to the second level have torched the thin linebacking corps and young safeties. Against Auburn, for example, just 17 of the Tigers’ 51 runs gained at least five yards, but 11 of those 17 went for 10 yards or more.
Saturday presents an opportunity for the Rebels to get back on track, put together a complete offensive performance, and prove that they can indeed make tackles on occasion. On paper, this game shouldn’t be all that close. But with all the struggles Ole Miss has experienced against the run this season, they aren’t exactly in a position to take Georgia Southern lightly.