More than a month before the 2015 Sun Belt regular season kicked off, the conference’s coaches saw it fit to install the Georgia Southern Eagles as favorites to repeat as conference champions.
With a relatively easy beginning to the conference schedule — save for a pair of long road trips — the Eagles were expected to still be in great position to win the league title until well into the season. Georgia Southern has lived up to those expectations and then some, winning its three Sun Belt games by a combined score of 151-77.
The Eagles hit a high-water mark in their most recent victory. On Saturday, Georgia Southern posted season highs in points scored (56), total offense (592) and rushing yards (507) in its 56-26 pasting of New Mexico State.
The Eagles are hoping that the momentum of their last month of stellar play carries over a short week as archrival Appalachian State welcomes them to Boone for a Thursday-night showdown. Much like Georgia Southern (5-1, 3-0 Sun Belt), the Mountaineers (5-1, 2-0) are making things look rather easy.
Appalachian State trailed Louisiana-Monroe early last weekend before catching fire and reeling off a 59-14 victory. In its only other conference game, Appalachian shut down Georgia State in a 37-3 runaway win.
The winner of this week’s game will have the inside track on a conference title, but the Eagles aren’t looking that far into the future.
“Appalachian State is a very good team, and we’re expecting a tough game,” Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz said. “I know this is a big game in the standings, but all of them are. A win against (Appalachian) will count the same as the one we just got against New Mexico State. That’s how we try to view it. If we keep getting that one win each week, we’re going to end up where we want to be.”
Star in the making
As usual, most of the headlines associated with the Eagles are focused on their high-powered rushing attack. Matt Breida turned plenty of heads in 2014 with 1,485 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He is on pace to top that this season, as he currently leads the nation with 10.3 yards per carry and ranks ninth in total rushing with just less than 900 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But while Breida now has everyone’s attention, another star running back seems to be coming down the pipeline.
Wesley Fields is one of a handful of true freshmen who have played their way onto the field for the Eagles already this season. With carries in all six games this season, Fields has amassed 338 yards and found the end zone six times, including hauling in the Eagles’ first touchdown pass in more than a calendar year last weekend.
“We had some fantastic individual performances,” Fritz said. “We had a good night running the ball, and I think that Wesley Fields is a big part of that.”
When the Eagles take the field on defense Thursday night, they’ll do so without a pair of linebackers.
Both Ironhead Gallon and William Bussey were flagged for targeting against New Mexico State. Because both penalties occurred during the second half, Gallon and Bussey will be ineligible to play in the first half of the Appalachian State contest.
“Obviously, it affects us,” Fritz said. “Gallon is one of our best players defensively, and Bussey plays a prominent role in the kicking game. It’s the same mentality that we would have if there was an injury. The next guy just has to step up and get the job done for us.”
The availability of All-Sun Belt safety Matt Dobson is also up in the air. Dobson injured his right knee against New Mexico State and sat out the entire second half. Fritz commented that the team has defensive plans that account for whether or not Dobson is able to go.
Because each Sun Belt team plays just eight of the 10 other teams in the conference, there is always the possibility of top teams not playing each other during the regular season.
While Georgia Southern takes on fellow frontrunner Appalachian State this week, two other schools that figure to finish near the top of the Sun Belt — Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette — don’t appear on the Eagles’ schedule.
As it so happens, Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette were scheduled to have a date with each other Tuesday in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Results were unavailable at press time. By the time Friday morning rolls around, just two teams will remain undefeated in conference play.
If Georgia Southern escapes Boone with a victory, it is possible that a pair of teams could finish undefeated in the Sun Belt. If the Mountaineers win, things will be settled on the field, as both the Red Wolves and Ragin’ Cajuns play at Boone later this season.