This weekend, Clemson will face the Georgia Southern Eagles for the first time in school history. Georgia Southern, located in Statesboro (an hour NW of Savannah), joined the FBS Sun Belt Conference in 2014 after achieving great success in the FCS ranks. That success included back-to-back (1999, 2000) National Championships under the leadership of current Georgia Tech Head Coach Paul Johnson. They won their first bowl game in 2015, but struggled under new leadership in 2016 and 2017 and now have another new coach.
To help us preview this new opponent, Haisten Willis joins us for a special Group of Five Q&A. Haisten is a Georgia Southern alumnus and a writer for Underdog Dynasty, the SB Nation site covering the Sun Belt and Conference USA. You can follow him on Twitter here.
STS: Following a tough 2-10 season, The Georgia Southern Eagles are off to a 2-0 start under new coach Chad Lunsford. Last week against UMass, they rushed for 334 yards. What’s been the key behind the turnaround and how dramatic do you think the year one turnaround will be?
Willis: It’s really too early to tell on both counts, but I’ll take a stab at it. Georgia Southern’s offense was pure chaos the last two years. Our previous coach, Tyson Summers, tried to install a pass-heavy run ‘n shoot offense in 2016 with an option roster. Needless to say that was a disaster. In 2017 he backtracked into running the option with a new OC from Georgia Tech, but by then it was too late.
The offense is now run by Bob DeBesse, who had a lot of success working under Bob Davie at New Mexico. Southern also has a new head coach, who you mentioned. Lunsford is tremendously high-energy, in contrast to Summers’ more milquetoast personality, and the players seem to be feeding off of it. As far as how the rest of the year plays out, I’m sticking with my preseason prediction of 6-6.
STS: Clemson has already played Furman and will play Georgia Tech a week after they play Georgia Southern. Can you tell us about any unique twists to Southern’s triple-option offense - at least as much as you can surmise from the first two weeks under Lunsford?
Willis: It’s not the super old-school, traditional option you’ll see against Georgia Tech. Southern’s will look more familiar to 2018 college football fans, run out of the shotgun and resembling Auburn more than Georgia Tech. Our quarterback, Shai Werts (who hails from Clinton, South Carolina and had an offer from the Gamecocks) even threw two touchdown passes last week. It’s a new day in Statesboro.
STS: Who is Georgia Southern’s most notable play maker than Clemson fans should be aware of entering this game? What makes him a special player?
Willis: QB Shai Werts. He’s just a sophomore but appears to be much more comfortable in the position after struggling as the starter last year. Werts is your typical Georgia Southern quarterback, standing just 5-11 and 200 pounds but extremely fast and difficult to tackle. Watch out for a fake option pitch to open up space if he’s able to turn the corner.
STS: Which positional or individual matchup makes you the most nervous? Which gives you the most optimism?
Willis: Most nervous is the GS offensive line against Clemson’s defensive front. If the OL can’t get their blocks off correctly it’s going to be a very long afternoon for the Eagles. With the caveat that this game is an obvious mismatch, I’m optimistic about Southern’s secondary going up against the Tigers’ passing game. The secondary is an experienced, standout unit and may help keep us in the game... for a while.
STS: If the Eagles are to keep the contest close or flirt with the unfathomable, how do you think that would play out? The spread is around 34.5. How do you feel about the Eagles’ chances to beat the spread?
Willis: It wasn’t so long ago that I might’ve taken this question seriously. GS beat Florida in 2013 and held fourth-quarter leads against NC State, Georgia Tech, and Georgia across 2014-2015. Following the Summers years this team isn’t at that level right now. If the game stays close I’d still look for Clemson’s depth to win out eventually (though I’ll also be glad to storm the field and wind up in a police cruiser should we pull out the win). I think Southern beats the spread. We’re an improved squad and a tick under five touchdowns worth of points is a lot to overcome.
STS: A big thank you to Haisten for joining us for this Q&A. Look for our answers to his questions to be posted on Underdog Dynasty.