2. Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern has done much to repair its image among its SoCon and FCS brethren the past two seasons, after experiencing a forgettable four-year period from 2006-09 that saw the Eagles encounter their longest playoff drought since reinstating the program in 1982.
Sixteen starters (eight offense, eight defense) have many pegging the Eagles for a second straight SoCon title and third straight FCS postseason appearance in 2012. While those are solid predictions, it's not as if the Eagles don't have questions to address in spring drills.
The first order of business is pretty obvious, as the Eagles must replace Jaybo Shaw under center. All Shaw did the past couple of seasons was lead the Eagles to their first Southern Conference title since 2004, two FCS Final Four appearances and back-to-back double-digit-win campaigns in a return to the bread-winning flexbone offense that has yielded an FCS standard six national titles.
Shaw's legacy now will go alongside of some of the greats in the Eagle QB lineage, and now it will up to Jerick McKinnon (3-for-6 passing, 37 yds., 1 TD/ 80 rush att, 537 yds, 7 TDs, 6.7 YPC) and Ezayi Youyoute (4-for-6 passing, 35 yds, 1 TD/ 26 rush att, 310 yds, 3 TDs, 11.9 YPC) to etch their respective names alongside former Eagle quarterback greats, such as Tracy Ham, Greg Hill, Jayson Foster, Chaz Williams and J.R. Revere.
Under the direction of Shaw, the GSU flexbone offense was a lot more deliberate than it was explosive, but that will all change this season with McKinnon and Youyoute under center, with both possessing the ability to take it the distance each time they get their mitts on the pigskin.
McKinnon is probably the best athlete on the team, logging action at quarterback, slotback, wide receiver and defensive back last season. McKinnon figures to see plenty of time under center this coming fall, much like he did during his freshman campaign back in '09.
The Eagles will have the league's top tandem of running backs, returning both Dominique Swope (168 rush att., 1,023 yds., 7 TDs, 6.1 YPC) and Robert Brown (136 att, 937 yds, 7 TDs, 6.1 YPC ) to the fold for the 2012 season. Swope was simply sensational starting the last half of the season in the Georgia Southern backfield.
Swope and Brown are powerful backs, with both possessing excellent speed. It was Brown who helped Georgia Southern overcome a tough Chattanooga defense in a key midseason Southern Conference win. In the 28-27 victory for the Eagles, Brown rushed for 178 yards and three scores en route to garnering Southern Conference Player of the Week accolades.
This season, Swope and Brown will be on the field at the same time, with Swope starting at fullback, while Brown will line up as the starting A-Back. Add McKinnon to that mix and you have one of the best running games in all of college football.
Swope would save his most impressive performance of what was an outstanding inaugural campaign in the GSU Navy Blue and White for the Eagles' opening-round playoff win over Old Dominion. In that contest, Swope would rush for a remarkable 255 yards and a pair of TDs, including a 76-yard scamper in the third quarter, to help lead the Eagles to a 55-48 win.
Swope's power and speed will make him an instant candidate for SoCon Preseason Offensive Player of the Year accolades this coming fall.
While Swope and Brown offer the Eagles and outstanding backfield tandem, the Eagles should also be buoyed by strong play at both slotback positions this fall, as Jonathan Bryant (26 rush att, 217 yds, 2 TDs, 8.3 YPC/13 rec, 355 yds, 2 TDs, 27.3 YPR) returns to lead the unit. The Eagles must replace J.J. Wilcox, who was one of the better athletes on the club last season, but Bryant is certainly a big-time game-breaker in his own right, and even put up better totals than Wilcox last season. It was Bryant that ultimately ended up ranking second on the club in receiving last season.
Leading the returnees at wide receiver heading into the 2012 season for the Eagles will be rising sophomore wideout Kentrellis Showers (15 rec, 258 yds, 258 yds., 3 TDs, 17.2 YPR). Showers is another tremendous athlete expected to put up even better numbers this fall. Showers has game-breaking speed and will be a huge threat when GSU decides to go to the air this fall.
Perhaps the biggest and only concern for the Eagles heading into the 2012 season is the offensive line, which has graduated three starters from a year ago, including an All-American in Brett Moore. He returns with left tackle Dorian Byrd, who will likely enter the campaign as a Jacobs Blocking Award candidate.
Blake DeBartola completes the left side of the Georgia Southern offensive line at left guard, and he likely will enter the campaign as a SoCon honors candidate.
Traditionally, Georgia Southern's offensive lines in the flexbone offense have minored on size and majored on athleticism, and that will be the case once again this season. Players like Zach Lonas (RG) and Raymond Klugey (RT) will have some large shoes to fill on the line this fall.
The defensive side of the football should be strong once again, although the unit might not perform better than it did a year ago. In 2011, the Eagles completed the campaign ranking third in scoring defense (23.6 PPG),
Obviously, the Eagles have one of the best players in the nation returning on the defensive line, in Brent Russell (67 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 blkd kick). Russell will be joined by three other starters along the front this fall. He will be joined up front by Javon Mention (30 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 blkd kick) at defensive end and Blake Riley (24 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sack) at defensive tackle.
Russell is on the verge of becoming the top defensive player to ever don the Navy Blue and White, which is saying something considering the Eagles have had so many greats in the past. This is especially true along the defensive line, which included former greats Freddy Pesqueira, Voncellies Allen and Alex Mash.
Russell is already the school leader in career sacks (20.5 sacks), and was the 2011 Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, as he joined he counterpart Swope on offense in that respect, helping the Eagles sweep the postseason awards.
Josh Rowe (75 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 FF) will anchor the GSU corps of linebackers this season, and he enters the season as one of the top linebackers in the SoCon heading into the 2012. Rowe will be one of the top defensive players in the Southern Conference next fall, and he is coming off a season which saw him rank second on the club in total tackles.
Rowe made one of the biggest plays of the 2011 season, as he brought down Chattanooga quarterback Terrell Robinson in the backfield, preventing a potential game-winning two-point conversion in the midseason 28-27 win over the Mocs.
Flanking Rowe at the respective linebacker positions this fall will likely be Darius Eubanks (69 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs) and Carlos Cave (18 tackles, 2.0 TFLs). Eubanks will play the "bandit" linebacker and will provide veteran leadership for the Eagles on the perimeter next season. He could contend for All-SoCon honors in 2012.
Kyle Oehlbeck (34 tackles, 2.0 TFLs) could also be a significant contributor for the Eagles at LB this fall, and one of the younger players to watch could be sophomore Antwoine Williams (25 tackles, 1.0 TFL).
The biggest question mark on defense for the Eagles might be the corneback position, as the Eagles must replace one of their top players on the defensive side of the ball, and one of the top defensive players in all of the SoCon: LaRon Scott.
Expected to man the two CB positions for the Eagles this fall are Riyadh Jones (9 tackles, 1 INT) and Connell Reddick (five tackles).
In contrast to the CB position, the safety positions should be a major strength for the Eagles this fall, returning starters Lavelle Westbrooks (60 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR) and All-SoCon candidate Deion Stanley (86 tackles, 7 PBUs,1 FF, 1 blkd kick, 1 INT). Stanley led the Eagles in tackles last season, enjoying his best individual performance in the regular-season finale against Alabama, when he posted a career-high 14 tackles.
The Eagles must also replace one of the best place-kickers in the SoCon, as Adrian Mora has graduated.
Georgia Southern should be back to scoring points like they are going out of style, much like they were in the early 2000s with Greg Hill and J.R. Revere under center. The athleticism at QB has gotten an upgrade, but the question remains whether the decision-making will be as good as it was with Shaw.
If the defense can overcome its youth and lack of depth at corner, the Eagles will once again be SoCon and national title contenders.