Southern Conference Football: Mirror Images

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IIJuly 14, 2012

Former GSU Quarterback Greg Hill (1996-99)
Former GSU Quarterback Greg Hill (1996-99)

In this article, I am going to attempt something unique and it is a bit of an a trial-and-error idea. However, the idea for an article about this appealed to me, so I figured why not give it a shot.

The object of this article will be to take the current edition of each of the Georgia Southern teams and compare it to a team of the past that most resembles the 2012 edition in terms of personnel and other areas. 

Georgia Southern (2012)

Defending Southern Conference champion Georgia Southern is coming off its first Southern Conference title since the 2004 season (snapping Appalachian State’s string of six-straight Southern Conference crowns won in 2005-10).

The Eagles return 15 starters (eight offense, seven defense) to the fold for the 2012 season, and will be looking to defend that Southern Conference title this fall.

Georgia Southern’s offense will be explosive, returning some key figures to the mix. This includes fullback Dominique Swope (1.023 yds, 7 TDs), who took the league by storm last season as a freshman.

The Eagles will have a new starter under center with the graduation of Jaybo Shaw, as Jerrick McKinnon (3-of-6 passing, 37 yds, 1 TD, 537 rush yds, 7 TDs) will take over under center this fall. McKinnon has played a combination of slotback and quarterback throughout his Eagle careeer. McKinnon is an extreme athlete under center for the Eagles.

On the defensive side of the football, the Eagles bring back perhaps the greatest defensive player in the history of the program, with the return of nose tackle Brent Russell (67 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 1 blkd kick). He enters the season as a leading candidate for the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player at the Football Championship Subdivision level.

The Eagles also have one of the best linebackers in the Southern Conference, as senior Josh Rowe (75 tackles, 4.5 TFL) is back to patrol the middle of the GSU defense this fall.

The Eagles completed the 2011 campaign ranking first in the league in scoring offense (35.1 PPG), second in total offense (435.0 YPG) and second in rushing offense (323.5 YPG). On the defensive side of the football, GSU ranked sixth in total defense (356.6 YPG), third in rushing defense (149.8 YPG) and ninth in passing defense (206.9 YPG).

Mirror Image (Georgia Southern 1999)

In 1997, Georgia Southern had returned to the top of the Southern Conference mountain, winning the Southern Conference crown for the first time since joining the league in 1993.

In 1998, Georgia Southern had steamrolled its competition in SoCon play, brushing through league play in dominating fashion. They completed the league slate with a perfect 8-0 ledger, and with the luxury of not having to face an FBS foe, the Eagles were able to complete the 1998 regular season with a perfect 11-0 mark.

The 1998 season marked the second season on the watch for GSU head coach Paul Johnson, and the Eagles strolled all the way to the FCS national title game. They would face an upstart UMass team, which  had seemingly reached the national title game by getting a few lucky breaks along the way.

There’s no doubt Mark Whipple’s Minutemen were talented, but the Eagles would turn the ball over seven times in the 1998 title game. GSU dropped a 55-43 decision to UMass in one of the bigger upsets in national title game history.

The 1998 Georgia Southern team, which finished the campaign with a 14-1 record, is arguably the greatest SoCon team to not win a national title. The 1998 campaign saw the Eagles average 492.6 YPG, including 378.7 YPG on the ground.

Led by a player that would go on to become the greatest running back in FCS history, in freshman Adrian Peterson, and players like slotbacks Bennie Cunningham and Mark Myers, the Eagles were ultra athletic and fast. The Eagles would go on to finish second in the nation in total offense, second in scoring offense (42.5 PPG) and second in rushing offense.

It would be the third season under the watchful eye of Johnson in which the Eagles would reach the top of the FCS mountain once again. With a large majority of its talent returning for the 1999 season, the Eagles would complete the quest for a title in which they had come up just short the previous two seasons.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles had a senior leader under center—Greg Hill, who had already established himself as one of the most explosive quarterbacks and athletes in the rich history of the Georgia Southern football program.

The Eagles would put up astounding offensive statistics en route to the school’s fifth national crown, averaging a program record 551.7 YPG, 419.0 rushing yards per game and 50.0 PPG.

Georgia Southern had clearly learned from its previous failures in Johnson’s first two seasons at the helm. They won the national title game in dominating fashion over another tradition rich program—Youngstown State, who was tied with GSU with four national titles at the FCS level.

But unlike the heartbreak of the 55-43 loss to UMass a year earlier, the Eagles scored in just about every imaginable fashion, taking down the Penguins, 59-24.

Greg Hill was the orchestrator of a Georgia Southern offense that was no stranger to the "big play" as the Eagles had 12 plays that went for 60-69 yards (including eight TDs, and had three plays for 70 or more yards, with all three going for scores). In total, the Eagles had 38 TDs of 20 or more yards, and had 108 plays that gained 20 or more yards in the 1999 campaign.

Sandwiched between the great Tracy Ham and future Walter Payton Award-winner Jayson Foster (2004-07), there was Hill. Hill had one of the greatest seasons in the history of the program for a GSU quarterback, using his quickness and talents as an improviser to total 2,990 yards of total offense (1,461 pass yds, 1,529 rush yds).

He presided over possibly the most versatile offense in the history of Georgia Southern football, as he averaged 97.4 yards passing per game, while averaging 101.9 YPG on the ground and averaging a whopping 6.8 YPC.

Hill had 33 TD responsiblities (22 rushing TDs, 11 passing TDs). Hill completed 56.3% of his passes (72-for-128) and threw eight INTs. He led the SoCon in passing efficiency, with a rating of 168.0.

It could be argued that Hill’s success was thanks in large part to the opposing defenses having to focus on eventual Walter Payton Award-winning running back Adrian Peterson, who was coming off one of the best freshman seasons by a running back at any level in college football history.

Peterson was a landslide winner of the highest individual accolade given at the FCS level, after completing the season with 2,704 yards rushing and a jaw-dropping 40 TDs. Unfortunately, the NCAA record books only recognize the regular-season numbers put up by Peterson and didn’t take into account the four playoff games. These games saw Peterson rush for 897 yards in the postseason, including a then NCAA Division I record 333 yards in the quarterfinal win over defending national champion UMass.

Peterson was instrumental in GSU’s playoff run, scoring 74 points on his own in the four games in the postseason. His performance in the national title game will be famously be remembered to play simply known as "The Run."

GSU may not have been the defensive outfit that it had been in the Erk Russell era, but there was no shortage of talent on the defensive side of the ball during the 1999 campaign.

The Eagles had one of the best nose tackles to ever play for the program, in Voncellies Allen. Allen, a senior, was the anchor of the GSU defense during the 1999 season, as he was an Associated Press All-American. Allen completed the 1999 campaign with an astonishing 22 tackles-for-loss.

Despite the Eagles’ record-breaking offense which garnered most of the praise during the 1999 season, Allen led an unheralded defense. The defense, however, led the league in total defense (317.3 YPG), scoring defense (17.5 PPG) and rushing defense (129.3 YPG).

GSU finished the 1999 season with a 13-2 overall mark, with the only losses the Eagles suffered coming at Appalachian State (17-16) and at Oregon State (48-41).

So, the question is how does the 2012 unit compare to the 1999 Georgia Southern team that took home the national title?

Well, for starters, like the 1999 team, the 2012 team will mark the third under the direction of Jeff Monken. It was that 1999 squad that claimed the national crown in Johnson’s third season at the helm.

In the previous two playoff appearances, the Eagles were ousted in the postseason in the quarterfinals in 1997 by Delaware (16-7) and in 1998, the Eagles of course lost in the national title game to UMass (55-43).

In Monken’s first two seasons at the helm, the Eagles have lost both times in the semifinals of the FCS postseason, losing two years ago to national runner-up Delaware (27-10) and last season to eventual national champion North Dakota State (35-7).

The Eagles will have to replace a great, gritty quarterback in Jaybo Shaw, but the one area that will be a positive with the graduation of Shaw is that now the GSU offense becomes much more explosive with McKinnon at the controls. In fact, McKinnon is similar in many ways to Hill in terms of the type athlete he is, but he is still an unproven passer. McKinnon has completed just 6-of-15 passes for 61 yards, with a TD and an INT for his career.

However, McKinnon has proven to be every bit as dangerous a running threat as Hill was, and posted a career-long 75-yard run for a score in GSU’s 52-20 rout of Western Carolina last season. He is also averaging 5.5 YPC for his career, including averaging 6.7 YPC last season.

The comparisons for Dominique Swope are pretty easy. According to Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb, Swope is the best running back in Statesboro since Peterson.

Lamb had a chance to see the machine-like GSU offense in action first-hand, having attended spring drills for the Eagles this past March.

The former Furman head coach came back raving and said the Eagles’ sheer speed was "scary." It was Lamb that posted one of the most successful records against Georgia Southern during his time as the head coach at Furman, posting a 4-5 record, including becoming the only coach in Furman history to win twice in Statesboro (2007 and ‘09).

Swope took the Eagle nation by storm last season, and he rushed for 750 yards over the final five games of the season, including rushing for 255 yards on 31 carries in the wild 55-48 second-round playoff win over Old Dominion. Swope was named the SoCon’s Freshman of the Year for his efforts in 2011.

Like that 1999 team, the Eagles will also have tremendous depth at slot back. Despite the potential loss of Robert Brown to a back injury, the Eagles still welcome back big-play threats Jonathan Bryant and Darreion Robinson. The 1999 team had the likes of Bennie Cunningham, Mark Myers, Zzream Walden and Andre Weathers.

Finally, like the 1999 team had with Voncellies Allen, the Eagles have a nose tackle in Brent Russell that can absolutely control a game. But while Allen primarily clogged the middle as just a "run-stopper" with his tremendous size and strength, Russell is a bit more versatile and athletic. Russell’s 20.5 career sacks rank him fifth on the school’s all-time charts. He also has 46.0 career tackles-for-loss heading into his final season.

Now, this is simply a comparison on paper and I am not saying the Eagles will win the 2012 national title, but I do think there are some similarities and I do think this Eagle offense will have a chance to set some records this fall. Watch out for the GSU offense in 2012!

Stay tuned for articles to come in this series of articles on this subject.


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