Georgia Southern might be a Sun Belt Conference program in just its second season as a full-fledged FBS member. Yet the Eagles are hardly an opponent West Virginia can take lightly heading into Saturday night's opener in Morgantown.
Out of its spread option last season, Georgia Southern featured the nation's top rushing offense on its way to winning a Sun Belt title. The Eagles not only led the country in rushing yards per game (380), they led it in rushing touchdowns (55) and yards per attempt (7.11).
With eight returning starters, including ESPN.com preseason All-Big 12 safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, the Mountaineers believe they have a chance to field the best defense in the Big 12.
But they'll be put to the test in Week 1 by Georgia Southern's distinctive option attack.
“You have to prepare all summer for them,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “I’m glad they’re first on the schedule, and not second or third or fourth.”
The Eagles won't have quarterback Kevin Ellison, who was ruled academically ineligible for the first two games. But they'll still standout have running back Matt Breida, who rushed for almost 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
No matter the quarterback, Georgia Southern doesn't throw often. Only New Mexico, Army and Navy attempted fewer passes last season. But when the Eagles do pass, they go for the dagger, ranking 18th nationally in yards per attempt in 2014.
"This is the game where we have to be the most disciplined," cornerback Daryl Worley said. "We can’t fall asleep because that’s when they will take us up top and go right over the top of our heads with it. This is the game that we have to stay locked in mentally as a secondary and be able to focus on what we have to do."
Staying disciplined will be especially critical. After finishing last in the Big 12 in forced turnovers last year, the Mountaineers placed an added emphasis this offseason on being more opportunistic. In this game, however, West Virginia will have to be careful not to be overaggressive against an offense that turned the ball over just 12 times all last season.
"It’s assignment football. Every guy has an assignment, and they have to do it," Gibson said. "You’re not going to make a lot of big plays against them. They take good care of the football. You have to try to hold them and make them punt."
Georgia Southern is a three-touchdown underdog. But the Eagles have played Power 5 conference opponents tough in recent seasons. Two years ago, they knocked off Florida in their final season as an FCS program. Last year, Georgia Southern led both North Carolina State and Georgia Tech in the fourth quarter before surrendering game-winning touchdowns in the final minutes.
"They expect to win," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They won nine games last year, and they should’ve won two more."
The Mountaineers will face bigger challenges later on this season. But Georgia Southern has proven that, behind their unique offense, they can be one tough out.
"I’m kind of glad we get to open up with them, because it will make everybody play better," safety Dravon Henry said. "Everybody knows that they have to do their own assignments. We can’t do too much. I think we will be all right."