MACON — Conference media days are still more than a month away for most football programs, but Georgia got a head start as coaches from all of the state’s collegiate programs met with members of the media June 2 at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame as part of the annual Pigskin Preview.
Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz was a popular man at the event. In his first season as the Eagles’ coach last fall, Fritz led Southern to a 9-3 record and an undefeated 8-0 conference mark to claim the outright Sun Belt championship.
Even more impressively, all of that success came in the Eagles’ first season playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“We were very proud of what we were able to accomplish last season,” Fritz said. “Now, it’s all about how we’re going to follow that up.’
Fritz credited last year’s success — even as the Eagles were competing with lower scholarship numbers and mainly original Football Championship Subdivision signees — to his team’s toughness and belief that it would contend against any opponent. That will have to hold true again this season as Fritz focused his comments on a tough nonconference slate and the fact that the rest of the Sun Belt now has its sights set on the Eagles.
Georgia Southern begins the 2015 season with a trip to West Virginia and will have a home tilt against Mid-American Conference power Western Michigan and a trip to Athens to play the University of Georgia.
Asked about NCAA rules that prevented a deserving Eagle team from competing in a bowl last season, Fritz stated that a postseason game would have been nice, but that he wasn’t expecting the rules to change.
“Our focus is on this season,” Fritz said. “This season, we can go to a bowl. Right now, we’re guaranteed 12 games. One of our goals is to get a 13th game.”
Bulldogs with high hopes again
“Almost, but not quite” has summed up the feelings of UGA fans over the last few seasons. In three of the last four seasons, the Bulldogs either have made the Southeastern Conference championship game or have fallen just one win shy of playing for the league title.
The Bulldogs will begin the 2015 campaign with lofty expectations again as many early preseason projections think they are a top-10 team capable of winning an SEC crown.
For many upperclassmen on the roster, that would be great closure to the heartbreak that has highlighted previous seasons.
Georgia’s biggest question mark will be at the quarterback position, as Hutson Mason has departed after his one season as a starter.
Redshirt sophomore Bryce Ramsey appears to be the front-runner to claim the starting gig, but has yet to see competitive snaps during his college career. Luckily for the Bulldogs and whoever lines up under center, a solid offensive line and Nick Chubb — arguably one of the top running backs in the nation — should provide plenty of cushion for a quarterback learning on the job.
Georgia hopes to climb back to the top of the SEC, but all Statesboro eyes are set on a Nov. 11 game against Georgia Southern.
“Georgia Southern has played us tough in the past,” UGA coach Mark Richt said. “I expect it to get even tougher (now that the Eagles are in FBS). We’ve seen what they’ve been up to the last couple of seasons. That’s a good team.”
Georgia State still building
This fall will mark the third season for Georgia State as a member of the Sun Belt, but the Panthers are still in search of their first win against an FBS opponent.
Last season, the Panthers needed a frantic last-minute comeback in their season opener to defeat FCS opponent Abeline Christian. Following that were 11 consecutive losses, giving Georgia State a 1-
23 mark since 2014.
If nothing else, the law of averages figures to work in the Panthers’ favor this season. Georgia State takes on first-year FBS program Charlotte to begin the season and will host Sun Belt rival South Alabama, which Georgia State beat in the year before the Jaguars became an FBS member.
Adding to the offensive firepower that quarterback Nick Arbuckle brings will be a handful of transfers from Alabama-Birmingham who departed the school after football was — temporarily — disbanded last fall.
Georgia State also is looking to the future as it continues to host satellite camps featuring the coaching staffs of Penn State and Nebraska.
“Some don’t like it, but I’m all for it,” Georgia State coach Trent Miles said. “Some kids can’t get out to those places in the summer. If those kids are around my coaching staff, that’s a win for us.”
Georgia Tech wanting more
One of the biggest surprises in all of college football last season was Georgia Tech’s run to an Orange Bowl victory and a No. 8 ranking in the final Associated Press poll of the season.
Head coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense — always under scrutiny by national analysts — proved that it could rack up the yards against even the toughest defenses in the country.
Even better for Johnson, quarterback Justin Thomas returns this fall, along with a large portion of the Yellow Jackets’ offensive line.
“We have a lot of guys back who were big parts last year,” Johnson said. “But we also lost an offensive lineman and two receivers to the NFL draft.”
Georgia Tech’s latest recruiting class — as is normal for the Jackets — just barely slid into the top 50 in national rankings. But fitting in perfectly with his team’s unique offense is Johnson’s unique view on recruiting.
“It’s a fixed game,” Johnson said. “Guys get stars if the right schools are looking. We like our guys, and we win with them.”