It’s the Eagles vs. the Eagles in the Camellia Bowl this year. Be ready for someone to say something like “It’s a lock the Eagles are going to win.” There’s always someone who tries. It’s a matchup of the MAC vs. the Sun Belt here. Eastern Michigan will make the relatively long trip to Birmingham to take on a Georgia Southern team that will clearly have a home field advantage. You should definitely be giving Georgia Southern at least 1.5 points for home field here (likely more like 2 or 2.5). In the market right now, Georgia Southern is favored by one at most books, and the posted total sits at 48.
Eastern Michigan was the worst FBS team in the country a few years ago. They went 7-5 this year, and this is their second bowl game in the last three years. Chris Creighton doesn’t get enough credit for the job he has done with this Eastern Michigan football program. The Eagles biggest win of the year was definitely their 20-19 victory at Purdue. Sure, there was inclement weather during the game that changed things, but a win over a quality Purdue team is quite the feather in the cap for Eastern Michigan.
Eastern Michigan’s defensive improvement throughout the course of the season was key in them getting to this point. Eastern Michigan finished the season allowing only 4.96 yards per play. That was good for 26th best in the country. Eastern Michigan’s scheme makes it very hard for their opponent to have big plays. Eastern Michigan only allowed 119 plays of 10 yards or more this year. That was fifth best in the country. The Eagles secondary was tremendous. They only allowed 5.73 yards per pass attempt (9th best in the nation). The secondary isn’t the key here though. Georgia Southern is all about the running game. Eastern Michigan allowed 4.43 yards per carry (76th in the nation).
Georgia Southern went back to its old self this year, and that worked out very well. Under Tyson Summers, the team tried to throw the ball more and change the entire scheme. It didn’t work well at all. Chad Lunsford re-committed this team to running the option. Remember when Willie Fritz was here? Georgia Southern won nine games in both 2014 and 2015. That was running the triple option. Under Lunsford, the Eagles won nine games again this year by staying committed to running the triple option. It’s amazing what can be done in this program when they stay true to their biggest strength.
Georgia Southern averaged 5.18 yards per carry this year. They finished the year with 3,130 yards on the ground. That ranked 12th most in the country. Only 18.55 percent of their plays were a pass this year, so Georgia Southern isn’t going to try trick anyone. One other important note about this offense is their pace of play. Georgia Southern was 130th (out of 130 teams) in the country in tempo, so they were going extremely slow. How slow? On average they used 32.83 seconds between plays.
Georgia Southern’s defense was surprisingly strong this year as well. They ranked 43rd in the country in total yards allowed. Part of that was their ability to control the ball and use up the time on offense. Still, Georgia Southern ranked 53rd in the nation at 5.42 yards per play allowed. Like Eastern Michigan, this is a defense that does a great job minimizing big plays from the opposition. Georgia Southern only allowed 17 plays of 30 yards or more (12th in the nation).
How do these two teams stack up when it comes to strength of schedule? According to Jeff Sagarin, Eastern Michigan has played the 104th ranked schedule. Georgia Southern has played the 136th ranked schedule. Sagarin believes that some FCS teams played a tougher schedule than Georgia Southern. The edge here would go to Eastern Michigan.
Both teams are well-coached here, and I don’t see any coaching advantage at all. I don’t see any reason for either team to be more motivated than the other. One could argue that Eastern Michigan would be less motivated being farther from home and not playing a big name opponent, but I wouldn’t agree. Eastern Michigan was so bad for so long, and Creighton should have his guys properly motivated.
My concern here for Eastern Michigan is their defensive success has been largely based on being great against the pass. They are only mediocre against the run. On the other hand, Eastern Michigan did face Army during the regular season. Having faced the option during the regular season is a clear positive. Army did win 37-22 in that one, but Eastern Michigan’s defense held their own. Army averaged 4.0 yards per carry in that game.
Georgia Southern having played such a weak schedule is the biggest knock on them here. Who did they beat this year? They have solid wins over Arkansas State and Appalachian State in conference play. In the non-conference slate, the only decent team they played was Clemson and their 38-7 loss there doesn’t mean much either way.
College Football Free Pick: Under 48
I would lean toward Georgia Southern here if taking a side, but I’ll take under 48 for the free pick. Georgia Southern will run the ball and use up a ton of clock. That can make for some very long drives. If Eastern Michigan is able to keep them out of the end zone on some of those long drives, the under has value here. Eastern Michigan’s red zone defense ranks fourth best in the nation so far this year. The Eastern Michigan offense has struggled with consistency this year, and they also move slower than the average team. Keep an eye on the total here since 49 is a key number. If it gets to 49 or higher, I like the under even more.