By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 16, 2011
One of the pitfalls in scheduling Division I-AA programs is that fans usually don’t know how to gauge those programs’ true strength.
In the case of Georgia Southern, the Eagles have received a vote for the AP top 25 this week, and find themselves ranked in the top 100 in the BCS. This is not Georgia State of 2010, a program just getting started; this is a Division-IAA powerhouse that could win a national championship in its division.
It’s also a team that runs a flexbone offense, which Alabama has yet to see in years, if not decades. One might have to go back to the 1990 Blockbuster Bowl against Colorado and the Buffaloes’ I-bone attack to find something similar; if not, some mid-90s Vanderbilt teams might suffice. Given that Alabama has had just a week to prepare, it wouldn’t be a shocker if Georgia Southern pulled off a couple of cheap TDs on long “gotcha” plays.
But is there really a chance Georgia Southern could win this game? It’s not likely. But Alabama also might not be able to substitute reserves into the game as soon as it would like.
Georgia Southern’s flexbone attack is a combination of Georgia Tech’s offense and the one Dennis Franchione installed at Alabama in 2001-02. The Eagles run the ball very well – ranked 2nd in Division-IAA with 320.4 yards per game – but rarely throw it (ranked 118th with an average of 112.9 yards per game). The Eagles rank 3rd in scoring offense, but the last three weeks have seen a slowdown in their explosiveness. GSU is 2-1 over that time and averaging under 21 points per game. The Eagles base from multiple formations but no one will have to guess that the option is the lifeblood of this unit. Alabama counters with its multiple pro-style attack that is coming off two difficult weeks in a row. Alabama runs the ball better than it throws it, and could use this game to build up confidence among the quarterbacks, as Georgia Southern is vulnerable to the pass.
Georgia Southern is unlike most other Division-IAA teams from this region, in that you can’t find a ton of former SEC players on its roster. But you can find Jaybo Shaw, who transferred from Georgia Tech and is enjoying a solid senior season. Shaw still hasn’t thrown 100 passes, however, thanks to the option format of Georgia Southern’s offense. He’s 49-of-92 (53.3%) for 1,057 yards, 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. The average of 21.6 yards per completion underscores the big-play ability of the offense. Two other players, Jerick McKinnon and Ezayi Youyoute, have seen time under center. Shaw is the biggest player at 6’0”, 200 pounds. Speed and quickness are the stock and trade of the GSU quarterbacks. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who has thrown for 2,026 yards so far on 164-of-252 passing (65.1%). McCarron, like the GSU quarterbacks, has thrown for twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. Expect to see Phillip Sims in this game at some point, either to clean up in the second half or to replace a struggling McCarron if it comes to that. Most likely, it won’t come to that, but there’s no reason McCarron shouldn’t be able to move the ball on the Eagle defense. Advantage: Alabama
Nine GSU running backs have 100 or more rushing yards this season. The leader is fullback Robert Brown, who is averaging 6.5 yards per rush and has amassed 834 yards. Jerick McKinnon has run for 489 yards and 7 touchdowns and can also throw the football. Dominique Swope, J.J. Wilcox and the quarterback Shaw round out the top group of runners. The Eagles have good depth, and the starters actually have decent size. Alabama counters with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, and Jalston Fowler and Blake Sims also figure to see playing time here. Alabama uses no full-time fullback as Georgia Southern does, but the presence of Richardson more than makes up for any shortages. Richardson is starting to heat up his Heisman Trophy campaign, but doesn’t figure to play a lot in this game. Georgia Southern isn’t bad, but Alabama has comparable depth and is just better top to bottom. Advantage: Alabama
No Eagle receiver has broken the 10-reception plateau, a staggering stat in 21st-century football. The top receiver is Jonathan Bryant, who has caught 8 passes for 264 yards (33.0 avg.) and 1 touchdown. No Eagle receiver has multiple touchdown receptions, either. Most have gaudy yards-per-catch statistics, however, owing to the fact that just about any pass play is considered a trick play. Along with Bryant, Kentrellis Showers starts. He has caught 6 passes for 112 yards (18.7 avg.). The tight ends are barely worth mentioning and are substantially undersized. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze at one spot and questions at the other. Darius Hanks played just one series against Mississippi State before suffering an ankle injury. His status for this game is uncertain. If he can’t go, look for Brandon Gibson to get the start on senior day, but expect to see more of Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones. Norwood had a strong performance against the Bulldogs last week in Hanks’ absence. Tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley are far superior to the Eagles’ players at that position. Backups Chris Underwood, Brandon Lewis, Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones would all easily start for GSU as well. No contest here. Advantage: Alabama
The size of the Georgia Southern line looks like something from a throwback game. Brandavious Mann started at center the first nine games at 263 pounds. Either he or Trevor McBurnett (283 pounds) will start this game. The starting tackles are Dorian Byrd (265 pounds) and Brett Moore (255 pounds). Things are a bit better at guard, where William Maxwell (294 pounds) and Blake DeBartola (271 pounds) reside. If there’s one area GSU does hold an edge, it’s in flexibility, as most of the starters can play multiple positions. Alabama counters with center William Vlachos flanked by guards Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack and tackles Alfred McCullough and D.J. Fluker. Barrett Jones will almost certainly miss this game at left tackle. John Michael Boswell becomes the primary backup at guard, Austin Shepherd and Tyler Love at tackle and either Kellen Williams or Chad Lindsay at center. Georgia Southern is built for quickness, but it’s hard to imagine how the Eagles can match up with Alabama’s defense. Advantage: Alabama
Georgia Southern is salty against the run, ranking 24th there and 23rd in total defense and 9th in scoring defense. Pass defense is a little less stellar, though, as the Eagles rank just 44th in raw pass defense and 40th in pass efficiency defense. Athleticism is a problem. The Eagles base from the 4-3, while Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that ranks 1st in all major statistical categories in Division-IA.
Brent Russell and Javon Mention anchor the middle of the Eagle line, although Mention is smaller than three of Alabama’s starting linebackers. At end, one of the few SEC transfers, former Auburn recruit John Douglas, starts opposite Josh Gebhardt. Roderick Tinsley and Blake Riley give GSU good depth at tackle, and both have good size. Justice Ejike backs up both inside and outside. Douglas and Russell are by far better than the others, combining for 10 sacks. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman in the middle and Damion Square at one end position. Jesse Williams is out for this game, so Undra Billingsley and Quinton Dial will split the other tackle/end slot. Nick Gentry backs up Chapman, while Ed Stinson, Chris Bonds and Jeoffrey Pagan provide depth at end. Look for Brandon Ivory to get some snaps in the middle as well. Even with Williams’ injury, Alabama has better depth, particularly at end, although tackle is fairly even. Advantage: Alabama
Production from this group has been a bit spotty. Josh Rowe starts in the middle, with Darius Eubanks and Antwione Williams outside. The group has only 6 tackles for losses and 1 sack, and Williams has basically been a non-factor all year. Kyle Oehlbeck has actually been more productive despite not starting. Alabama counters with Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson in the middle, Jerrell Harris outside and Courtney Upshaw at Jack linebacker. Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard will back up Upshaw, while Chris Jordan, Trey DePriest and Tana Patrick back up the inside positions and Jonathan Atchison the strongside slot. Need any more be said? Advantage: Alabama
Lavelle Westbrooks and Riyahd Jones start at cornerback, with Deion Stanley at strong safety and Laron Scott at free safety. The most effective DB has been Michael Butler, but he’s been nicked up all year and his status is uncertain. Derek Heyden, who had NFL size at safety, has been out since the third week with a neck injury. As one would expect, size is an issue across the board, as is depth. Alabama counters with Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner at cornerback and Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Will Lowery at safety. Phelon Jones and John Fulton should see time at cornerback, while Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry should play some at safety. Vinnie Sunseri’s status is uncertain due to a concussion. Alabama’s group makes far more plays, has better depth and size, and is more athletic. Advantage: Alabama
Georgia Southern has some of the best special teams in Division-IAA. Kicker Adrian Mora is a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals, and the Eagles rank 10th in net punting, 27th in punt returns and 5th in kickoff returns out of 120 teams. Alabama’s kicking woes are well-documented, but it looks like the Crimson Tide will press on with a combination of Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster on kicks and Cody Mandell on punts. Alabama’s coverage units have been solid most of the year, although the Tide has allowed a handful of long kickoff returns lately. Still, due to the kicking woes, the Eagles take this one. Advantage: Georgia Southern
Alabama leads in seven categories, Georgia Southern in one. Alabama wins the two line matchups by wide margins.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Alabama will dominate the line of scrimmage in this game. Playing a flexbone team is a different experience than a pro-style or spread team Georgia Southern will rely on quickness and misdirection to keep Alabama’s defense off-balance. Offensively, Alabama might find it difficult to run up the middle, where GSU has size commensurate with most Division-IA teams.
Again, the Eagles are probably as good or better than a couple of SEC teams this year. The Eagles typically have more speed and athleticism than most Division-IAA teams, owing to their location in the middle of a recruiting hotbed. A flexbone offense can also kill clock and shorten the game.
It remains to be seen whether Alabama is ever truly threatened by Georgia Southern, but don’t look for a repeat of last year’s win over Georgia State, a game in which Alabama could have named whatever score it pleased. This one figures to be an accelerated version of Alabama’s typical performance in 2011 – a slow start followed by steady overpowering of the opposition. Look for Georgia Southern to threaten the scoreboard more often than Alabama’s recent opponents largely as the result of a couple of trick plays.
Georgia Southern 10
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