When Georgia Southern plays Wofford on Saturday, it offers the Eagles the chance to reclaim their role as Southern Conference favorite.
It was another Palmetto State school—The Citadel—that, at least briefly, derailed those championship aspirations with a 23-21 win over the Eagles the second week of the season. However, Georgia Southern has collected itself and is starting to look like the team we all thought they were,' to steal the words of former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green.
To claim a fourth straight win, the Eagles will have to do something they haven't done in eight years, which is beat Wofford in Allen E. Paulson Stadium. The Terriers are off to their best start since 1991 and possibly bring their best team to Statesboro since joining the conference in 1997.
However, the Eagles haven't dropped a home game since 2010, having won 13 straight.
Who: No. 4 Wofford (5-0, 3-0 in Southern Conference) at No. 7 Georgia Southern (4-1, 3-1 in Southern Conference)
When: Saturday, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Statesboro, Ga., Allen E. Paulson Stadium (18,500)
Georgia Southern and Wofford have engaged in some important battles over the past couple of seasons, with the Eagles claiming a 23-21, FCS quarterfinal win at Wofford in 2010. Last season, the Eagles' 31-10 win in Spartanburg helped GSU claim its first outright Southern Conference title since 2002.
Last Saturday, Wofford was able to fight its way to a 20-17 win over Furman. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern rolled over Western Carolina, winning 45-13.
Most recognize this as a matchup between two of the FCS's premier triple-option teams. Wofford's 448.8 rushing yards per game leads the nation, while Georgia Southern's 437 rushing yards per game ranks second.
Often unnoticed in this rivalry is the role of the defense. Traditionally, both teams have two of the better defenses in the nation and two units that are extremely physical.
This season is no different. The Terriers bring in the nation's 18th-ranked total defense (315.2 YPG) while the Eagles rank third (270.2 YPG).
While the two teams come in utilizing some of the same formations offensively, the units offer different mindsets. Wofford will look to reigning and preseason Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year Eric Breitenstein, a senior fullback who has rushed for 893 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 9.6 yards a carry. He's second in the FCS in rushing.
The Georgia Southern offense is more likely to attack the perimeter, capitalizing on its edge in speed and athleticism at the slotback position.
Another difference is the role of the quarterback. Southern's Jerick McKinnon and Ezayi Youyoute are much bigger running threats than Wofford's Brian Kass. McKinnon and Youvoute are as much of a big-play threat as slotbacks Jonathan Bryant and Darreion Robinson, or fullback Dominique Swope.
Wofford won't use its perimeter rush game as much, but the Terriers have had some stars emerge at the position, such as Cam Flowers and Octavius Harden.
The last time the Terriers visited Statesboro, they had three players rush for more than 100 yards in a 33-31 win. One of those players was Donovan Johnson, who is now in his junior season and is Breitenstein's backup and Wofford's second-leading rusher.
For Georgia Southern, its best deep threat off the play-action pass is Kentrellis Showers, who has two of GSU's three receiving TDs this season.
Wofford will use its tight end as a major part of its passing attack. All three of Michael Harpe's catches this season have resulted in touchdowns.
The one similarity between the two offenses is that both will operate out of the shotgun, with the Terriers now doing that a majority of the time, especially out of the Pistol formation.
Both defenses are physical up front, although for Wofford, there's no Ameet Pall or Eric Eberhardt wrecking havoc out of a diverse slant-50 defense or 3-4 defensive scheme.
However, last week's win over Furman was the the first time the young unit started to get pressure with its front, with most of it coming from sophomore defensive end Tarek Odom. His pressure forced Furman quarterback Reese Hannon into two uncharacteristic interceptions. One of those was picked by Odom himself after the Terriers got pressure from the blind side.
Georgia Southern has a solid contingent along its offensive line, anchored by Manrey Saint-Amour, who was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last season. With Dorian Byrd not 100 percent, expect to see Raymond Klugey start at left tackle.
The Eagles are much younger along the offensive front than the unit that helped them advance to the FCS semifinals the past couple of seasons. But the 2012 edition is playing just about as well as those lines that featured all-league performers such as Brandavious Mann.
Georgia Southern, meanwhile, has one of the top defensive lines in the FCS. The defensive front is again being led by Brent Russell, the reigning and preseason Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He will start at the nose tackle and is one of the best to play the position in Southern Conference history.
Russell, who will be double-teamed, is also a solid candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top defensive player at the FCS level.
Javon Mention, who is having his best season as an Eagle, will start at one defensive end. Junior Josh Gebhardt will man the opposite end.
Gebhardt has made big plays against the Terriers before, as most remember his fumble return for a score in Spartanburg as a freshman in the FCS quarterfinal meeting.
The Eagles are tied for first in the SoCon in sacks (14) with Samford, although that will likely not be a factor on Saturday evening, as GSU will be facing one of the top offensive lines in the FCS. Wofford returns four of five starters, anchored by left tackle Calvin Cantrell and center Jared Singleton.
The Terriers also have a strong corps of four linebackers who are among the best in the country. That is arguably the deepest part of the Wofford defense, but the Terriers recently have been without All-American Mike Niam, one of their top linebackers.
Wofford can do a lot of things with its outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense, and sometimes it will slant its front and bring a linebacker down on the wide side of the field to try to create matchup problems.
Alvin Scioneaux has been a beneficiary of that wrinkle, as his 3.5 tackles for loss leads the team. Mike McCrimon has also played well of late, as evidenced by his performance last Saturday in the win over Furman. He had a key interception and tackle behind the line of scrimmage in one of the more clutch performances of his career.
Georgia Southern counters with a solid corps of linebackers. John Stevenskon, one of its most athletic performers, anchors the unit at weakside linebacker. Veteran Kyle Oehlbeck will line up in the middle on Saturday.
The Wofford secondary has been susceptible to the big play this season, but the unit has a couple of veterans who are playmakers, including senior cornerbacks Blake Wylie and Stephon Shelton. Wylie made a key interception in last week's win over Furman.
Like Wofford, Georgia Southern's secondary has been susceptible to the big play. That's primarily due to youth at corner. The Eagles have some of the top safeties in the league, however, including former slotback J.J. Wilcox and Deion Stanley, who is having another season worthy of All-SoCon consideration.
This game will once again be a war and should be another physical battle in a series that has seen plenty of those in recent seasons. For Georgia Southern, it's a chance to pick up its third-straight win over the Terriers. This one should be a classic, but I see Georgia Southern ending the Terrier winning streak in Statesboro and making the SoCon title race very interesting coming down the stretch.
Georgia Southern 17, Wofford 13