This is the third in a series of previews of Georgia Tech’s opponents, courtesy of writers covering those teams. Next up is Georgia Southern, which Tech will play Sept. 13 (my sister’s birthday) at Bobby Dodd Stadium at noon.
Record in 2013: 7-4
Conference: Sun Belt (moved up from FCS and Southern Conference this summer)
Sagarin rating in 2013: 148
Semi-interesting fact: Coach Paul Johnson’s connection to Georgia Southern is well-known. There are other ties between the two teams, as well. Tech center Freddie Burden’s father Willie is a professor at Georgia Southern. Nick Sewak, the younger son of Tech offensive line coach Mike Sewak (who succeeded Johnson at Georgia Southern), is a long snapper for the Eagles. In fact, after Sewak was fired at Georgia Southern, he remained in Statesboro and earned his master’s in sport management, taking a class from the elder Burden in the process.
Georgia Southern against power conferences: 26-20 win over Florida in 2013, 45-14 loss to Georgia in 2012, 45-21 loss to Alabama in 2011, 42-12 loss to North Carolina in 2009.
Q: How would you describe the offense new coach Willie Fritz has installed, and how different is it from the option-based offense that Jeff Monken ran in Statesboro?
A: The best way to describe coach Fritz’s offense in comparison with coach Monken’s is that they’re philosophically the same but fundamentally different.
Both use the option-based running game as their bread and butter. In fact, 50 percent of each offense is exactly the same — shotgun formations with a lot of motion, zone reads, speed option and triple option.
The other 50 percent is completely different. When Monken’s offense gets under center, it’s got two slotbacks and a fullback in the backfield. One slotback motions into the I-formation and from that, you get a plethora of option plays and designed runs, with a negligible amount of play-action passing. The key play — the play responsible for 75 percent of the big plays in Georgia Southern’s history — is the fullback dive, which is sometimes a designed handoff and sometimes the first option in the triple option. When it works, it goes for a big gain up the middle, and even when it doesn’t work — as long as the O-line made its blocks — it still goes for three or four yards. That sucks in the defense over time and makes everything else go.
Fritz, from what I can tell, likes setting the tone with runs between the tackles too, but does it exclusively out of the shotgun. The O-line sits upright and plays zone, where Monken’s O-line cuts and attacks. That’s the big fundamental difference.
Fritz also seems to rely much more on the quarterback, who will still be the option trigger but will also be asked to execute a much, much more complex passing game. However, unless the Eagles are playing an extremely porous pass defense, I still wouldn’t expect to see more than 12-15 passes per game.
There’s no fullback dive, ever. Rather than the mesh taking place at the line of scrimmage, it happens in the shotgun after the snap. This gives the running back and quarterback more time to make a read or find a seam, but it also gives the defense more time to react. In fact, everything in Fritz’s offense has more time to develop. The advantage to this is (in theory) fewer turnovers. Turnovers are simply part of running Monken’s offense. When you don’t turn it over, you’re almost impossible to beat, but there are many, many opportunities to cough it up. The disadvantage of Fritz’s fundamental approach is that it allows defenses to utilize their talent a bit more. The old adage that “the option negates talent” applies much more to Monken’s offense than Fritz’s.
Q: What’s been the reaction to the hiring of Fritz, who didn’t have an option background or ties to the state?
A: Fritz is committed to running the football, and he does run a variation of the option, so that has helped ease the tension a little bit. There’s a lot of cautious optimism about the program. I think that’s because of the circumstances around the hire. Each of the three coaches before Monken were either fired or quit, only to leave behind a trashcan fire. Monken made it to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs three years in a row, then beat Florida in the fourth. With all of the excitement around the move to the Sun Belt and the win over the Gators, Fritz will get a lot of rope from the fan base. At first.
Anybody who’s coached at GSU will tell you, though, they’ll turn on you in a hurry. Also, Chris Hatcher was a popular hire, in large part because of his ties to the state, and GSU fans weren’t pleased how that turned out, so it doesn’t seem like they’re putting a premium on where Fritz is from. He also pulled, depending on who you talk to, the best recruiting class in the Sun Belt, and that’s good to see in year one from a guy who’s never recruited Georgia before. Also, Fritz is a proven winner.
Q: What about the move to the Sun Belt and FBS? Do fans see a downside?
A: The move has been very polarizing, though those against it are a bit of a vocal minority. I’ve written at length about the positives of the move and I’m of the opinion that it was an absolute no brainier. I think the win over Florida opened the eyes of a lot of fans to the exposure that success in the FBS can bring. It’s a brand new challenge. The FCS has been great for Georgia Southern and the chance at national titles is a nice carrot to dangle, but I have a feeling that when (if) this fan base has a chance to experience a bowl game against a nationally-respected program, they’ll be happy. Also, the last playoff game in Paulson Stadium had less than 9,000 fans in attendance, so whether they’ll admit it or not, fans were flat-out bored with the FCS playoffs. The biggest downside to moving up to the FBS is pretty obvious — there’s not much excitement in being a 3-9 Sun Belt team.
Q: Is quarterback Kevin Ellison a good fit for the offense? What will he asked to do?
A: Ellison has been referred to as the guy to beat since Fritz arrived, and for good reason. Early in his freshman campaign, he threw the ball well and had a lot of raw talent running the football. By the time the season ended, he was polished in Monken’s option offense, but a shoulder injury made him look pretty bad throwing the football. The Eagles could do a lot worse than Ellison, but I suspect there will be a little bit more of a competition in the fall. He’ll have to be a legitimate FBS quarterback — not just a glorified running back — and he’s untested. Fortunatly, he’s creative enough to make something out of nothing.
Q: Everything’s new, but what do you feel like is a good season for Georgia Southern?
A: I’m going to catch flak for this, but 4-8 would be my over/under (at this point) for the Eagles. They’ll be favored against Savannah State of course, but it’s hard not to call them an underdog against everyone else. Georgia State was 0-12 last season, but looked like it was starting to figure things out toward the end of the year. Also, the Panthers know what playing a Sun Belt schedule is like. Meanwhile, the Eagles had their hands full with the Southern Conference last season. Wins over Navy, Appalachian State and Georgia State wouldn’t shock me, but every other game is a big, fat question mark. What would be a good season? 6-6. Anything above that would be a massive achievement, and anything below that is certainly not cause to mash the panic button.
Tech opponent previews
Next up: Virginia Tech