The road ahead: Football season preview

Thomas Jilk

Let’s start with the Eagles.

Record last season: 5-7 (4-4 Sun Belt)

Key players: RB Wesley Fields (Jr.), RB L.A. Ramsby (R-Sr.), WR Myles Campbell (Sr.), QB Shai Werts (R-Fr.), S Joshua Moon (Jr.), LB Chris DeLaRosa (Sr.)

Comments: Coaching staff changes to work (new OC Bryan Cook) the option game back to the forefront, impressive recruits and a stable of good running backs should give the young Eagles team a chance to compete in the top half of the increasingly tough Sun Belt conference.

Schedule Breakdown

At Auburn: Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Record last season: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)

Key players: QB Jarrett Stidham (So.), RB Kamryn Pettway (Jr.), RB Kerryon Johnson (Jr.), DB Tray Matthews (Sr.), DL Marlon Davidson (So.)

Comments: Ranked No. 11 nationally in the preseason by SportingNews, the Tigers will have a chance to win every game they play this year. This test for the Eagles is a stark contrast from last season’s opener against lowly Savannah State. Auburn’s ground game is more than formidable, and their new quarterback, Stidham, showed signs of being a prolific passer in 2015 before transferring from Baylor. They also have a powerhouse SEC defense that will be tough for anyone to move.

Vs. New Hampshire: Sept. 9 at 6 p.m.

Record last season: 8-5 (6-2 Colonial)

Key players: QB Trevor Knight (Jr.), WR Neil O’Connor (Jr.), S Pop Lacey (So.), DE Kyle Reisert (Jr.)

Comments: Don’t count out this FCS team rife with returning starters. The Wildcats have had a winning record every season for the past decade. They have the longest current streak in the nation of making the FCS Playoffs (13 seasons) and veteran head coach Sean McDonnell is well-respected around the nation regardless of level.

At Indiana: Sept. 23 Time TBD

Record last season: 6-7 (4-5 Big Ten)

Key players: WR Nick Westbrook (Jr.), LB Tegray Scales (Sr.), DL Nile Sykes (R-Jr.)

Comments: Indiana has always been more of a basketball school, but any Big Ten team is almost automatically going to be favored against a Sun Belt opponent. The Hoosiers do have some question marks on offense, though, including a quarterback that threw 17 interceptions to his 19 touchdowns last season.

Vs. Arkansas State: Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m.

Record last season: 8-5 (7-1 Sun Belt)

Key players: RB Warren Wand (Jr.), QB Justice Hansen (R-Jr.), DE Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (R-Sr.), DB Justin Clifton (Jr.)

Comments: Last year, GS allowed the Red Wolves to overcome five turnovers and win, 27-26, in the final minute. Similar to last year, this year’s matchup is a nationally televised (ESPN2) Wednesday night event, and the Red Wolves are going to be better than they were last year when they only lost one conference game.

Vs. New Mexico State: Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. (Homecoming)

Record last season: 3-9 (2-6 Sun Belt)

Key players: RB Larry Rose III (Sr.), DB Jaden Wright (Sr.), LB Dalton Herrington (Sr.), QB Tyler Rogers (R-Sr.)

Comments: A Sun Belt bottom dweller last season, New Mexico State has experience at the skill positions and on defense. The Aggies are a senior-laden squad that will look to quash the Georgia Southern Homecoming celebration.

At UMass: Oct. 21 at 3:30 p.m.

Record last season: 2-10 (No conference)

Key players: RB Marquis Young (Jr.), QB Andrew Ford (R-Jr.), LB Steve Casali (R-Sr.)

Comments: The Minutemen are ranked 130th out of 130 FBS teams in this year’s CBS preseason rankings, which makes this a very winnable non-conference game for the Eagles. The cold weather up in Massachusetts may be a factor, as Statesboro in October is not the same as October in the northeast. Nonetheless, this is a game GS should win pretty easily.

At Troy: Oct. 28 Time TBD

Record last season: 10-3 (6-2 Sun Belt)

Key players: RB Jordan Chunn (Sr.), QB Brandon Silvers (Sr.), CB Blace Brown (Jr.), S Cedarious Rookard (Jr.)

Comments: This is a Troy team that lost to Clemson – the eventual national champion – by only six points last September. They lose some talent in their defensive front seven, but their offense remains mostly intact. They are a favorite to finish as one of the top two teams in the Sun Belt and should earn a bowl bid come December. This is an extremely tough conference road game for the Eagles.

Vs. Georgia State: Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m.

Record last season: 3-9 (2-6 Sun Belt)

Key players: RB Glenn Smith (Sr.), LB Michael Shaw (R-Jr.), CB Jerome Smith (R-Jr.)

Comments: Records go out the window for this rivalry. Last season, the upstart Panthers beat the Eagles in Atlanta despite being the underdog. This year, the game is at Paulson, and a depleted Georgia State offense should struggle against Joshua Moon, Chris DeLaRosa and company for the Georgia Southern defense.

At Appalachian State: Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Record last season: 1-3 (7-1 Sun Belt)

Key players: QB Taylor Lamb (Sr.), RB Jalin Moore (Jr.), LB Eric Boggs (Sr.), DL Tee Sims (Sr.), DB Clifton Duck (So.)

Comments: Like Arkansas State, App. State had only one conference loss last season, and they return much of their offensive and defensive production. Taylor Lamb is a dangerous passer who can run when needed, and Jalin Moore is an explosive back and the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. The Mountaineer defense returns its top tackler (Boggs), top sack man (Sims), and top interceptor (Duck). They will be favored on their home turf, but as with Georgia State, records go out the window in rivalry games like this.

Vs. South Alabama: Nov. 18 at 3 p.m.

Record last season: (6-7, 2-6 Sun Belt)

Key players: RB Xavier Johnson (Sr.), QB Dallas Davis (Jr.), LB Darrell Songy (Sr.)

Comments: Georgia Southern beat the Jaguars, 24-9, last season and the Jaguars lost a lot of production from 2016, including their leading tackler and dominant former defensive lineman Randy Allen. The Eagles should have the edge in Paulson Stadium, but this may be closer than last year.

At Louisiana: Nov. 25, Time TBD

Record last season: 6-7 (5-3 Sun Belt)

Key players: WR Keenan Barnes (Jr.), RB Jordan Wright (So.), DE Joe Dillon (So.), DB Tracy Walker (Sr.)

Comments: The Ragin’ Cajuns are another team who lost a lot of production from last year and will have to have young players will the statistical void left by the 2016 seniors. Since the Eagles travel to Lafayette for this one, the environment will be hostile but the game is more than winnable for GS.

At Coastal Carolina: Dec. 2 Time TBD

Record last season: 10-2 (6-1 Big South)

Key players: QB Tyler Keane (Sr.), LB Shane Johnson (Sr.)

Comments: They were an FCS juggernaut, going 10-2 last year. but moving up to the FBS isn’t always as smooth as GS made it look in 2014, especially when you graduate the talent the Chanticleers did. This will be the final game of CCU’s inaugural Sun Belt season, making them the third team to join the conference in football in the past five years.