A Sun Belt championship isn’t in the cards for Georgia Southern this season, but there are no shortage of storylines as the Eagles host Georgia State in today’s regular season finale at Paulson Stadium.
Both teams were in great position to win the Sun Belt East at the beginning of the month, but Georgia Southern (6-5, 4-3 Sun Belt) lost to both Troy and Arkansas State while the Panthers (7-4, 4-3) continued their trend of getting blown out by Appalachian State to knock them out of the running.
No title will be on the line tonight in Statesboro, but it’s unlikely that the atmosphere will reflect that. There’s been no shortage of animosity in this matchup’s five-year history as players, fans and coaches alike have fueled the fire.
“We try to take the same approach as always where we’re trying to go 1-0 this week, no matter who our opponent is,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “That said, it is Georgia State. They’re an in-state opponent and a lot of our guys have grown up playing a lot of their guys. There’s definitely some familiarity that will lead to some more intensity.”
It’s also not lost on the Eagles that they have yet to beat Georgia State in two previous attempts at Paulson Stadium. The oldest Eagles on this year’s roster were either freshmen or recruits during Georgia State’s first trip to Statesboro, so they feel plenty of incentive to break that particular streak.
“Of course we want to change (Georgia State’s success in Paulson),” GS senior cornerback Kindle Vildor said. “We take a lot of pride anytime we’re on the field and especially when we’re playing in front of our home fans.”
The Eagles figure to be a bit healthier than the squad they took to Arkansas State last week. Running back J.D. King and offensive lineman Jarrod Leeds are hopeful to play after both missed a game due to concussions. Rashad Byrd — who was carted off the field at Arkansas State with a neck injury — also returned to practice this week and might be able to get back into action.
The Georgia Southern game plan figures to once again center on junior quarterback Shai Werts and his ability to direct the Eagles’ option running attack, as well as a passing game that has emerged in the second half of the season. Werts burned the Panthers on a pair of deep touchdown passes last season to loosen up the Georgia State front. The Panthers’ rush defense has been a bit more suspect this season, but it is still a seasoned squad that has authored a net gain of five wins over last season’s result.
Defensively, the Eagles shut down Georgia State last season until well after the game was put to bed. The Panthers have showcased their most versatile offense in team history this season, but that comes with a huge asterisk.
Senior quarterback Dan Ellington is the catalyst in the Panthers' run-pass option scheme, but Ellington tore his ACL three weeks ago. He continues to gut things out and showed last week that he can still be a dangerous passing weapon, but his running ability is severely limited and makes the Georgia State attack a bit easier to plan for.
"Obviously, we'll probably look more at what they've shown the last two seeks," Lunsford said. "But they're a good team, he's a tough player and we have to be ready for anything they throw at us."
Georgia Southern would love to retain bragging rights in the series, but also needs a win to ensure its spot in the postseason. The Eagles became bowl-eligible two weeks ago, but being eligible and being in are two different things. The Sun Belt has five bowl tie-ins and currently has five eligible teams, but both UL Monroe and Troy could get a sixth win this weekend. By defeating Georgia State and notching a seventh win, the Eagles would take a lot of pressure off of bowl selection committees trying to determine which Sun Belt team is most deserving if there are more eligible teams than available slots.