The state of Georgia remains in flux regarding who really is the team to beat. In total there are four FBS schools in the peach state: Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Georgia State. Both UGA and Tech are established programs with rich histories and a national title to their name. Georgia Southern just completed its first year as an FBS program after dominating the FCS and winning six national championships. After three seasons in the FCS, Georgia State joined the big boys in 2013 and has struggled mightily compiling a 1-23 record. The Panthers didn’t have much success in the FCS either, finishing just 10-23.
Georgia Tech won the state championship last year with wins over hated rival Georgia and a nail-biter over upstart Georgia Southern, but will the guard shift back over in favor of Georgia, or will Georgia Tech once again remain atop of the state? Or maybe Georgia Southern, who is now bowl eligible, will steal the show.
Georgia State Panthers
Georgia State (1-11) will likely suffer through another rough season. In 2014 they snagged an exciting 38-37 season opening win against Abilene Christian, an FCS school, but lost 11 straight to end the season and still search for their first win ever against an FBS school. The Panthers rely on gun-slinger Nick Arbuckle who threw for 3,283 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. Arbuckle is back for his senior season and already holds multiple school passing records. Wide receivers Donovan Harden and Robert Davis will remain top targets outside. Harden caught 60 balls for 885 yards and seven scores last year and is a pre-season All-Conference First Team selection. The running game suffered after freshman Krysten Hammon was dismissed from the team early in the season and led to a rushing attack that averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. Joel Ruiz was recently ranked as a top five tight end prospect for the 2016 NFL Draft and will be a bright spot on the team.
Georgia Southern Eagles
Georgia Southern (9-3) rolled in their first season in the Sun Belt, winning nine games but were unable to make it to a bowl since it was their first season. The Eagles finished a perfect 8-0 in conference and have established themselves as the team to beat in their new home. Southern easily could have finished 11-1, but late game letdowns led them to a 24-23 season opening loss at North Carolina State and a 42-38 loss at Georgia Tech in a thriller. Quarterback Kevin Ellison returns to run the triple option under center and orchestrates the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack which averaged 381.1 yards per game – 39 more than Georgia Tech. Ellison and running back Matt Breida both rushed for over 1,000 yards and breakoff big plays regularly. The defense will be the deciding factor while playing out of conference teams. The Eagles will be able to outscore all their Sun Belt opponents but once they play the likes of West Virginia and Georgia, their defense will need to hold the powerful athletes of the Big 12 and SEC. Eight defensive starters return including four players who racked up three sacks apiece in 2014.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech stunned and stung opponents en route to an 11-3 season and a blowout Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State on New Year’s Eve, 49-34. Quarterback Justin Thomas was masterful running the triple option but he will now be without backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days. Also departed are wide receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller. The Jackets will need to find a way to replace their stable of veteran backs and also find big play wide receivers. Juniors Marcus Allen and Dennis Andrews should get a bulk of the carries while senior Broderick Snoddy returns with the most experience after a gruesome leg injury a year ago. Sophomore Ricky Jeune may be the next in a long line of big receivers to make an impact out wide. At 6-foot-3, 214 pounds he has size similar to those who have starred at the position before him. Defensively, eight crucial starters return. Leading tackler PJ Davis is back at linebacker after a 119 tackle campaign his sophomore season. KeShun Freeman brings back his 4.5 sacks that led the team a year ago at defensive end and should see even more success after his Freshman All-American season.
UGA (10-3) won 10 games last season but lost in overtime to Georgia Tech, 30-24. Nick Chubb returns and will carry the ball as much as possible. Chubb exploded onto the scene with a 1,547 yard season in the absence of Todd Gurley. Georgia will remain one dimensional on offense unless a quarterback steps up. If one doesn’t the Dawgs will fail to win the SEC East yet again. Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert, Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta have all battled for the job. Hutson Mason was a game manager last year and the Dawgs likely won’t have strong quarterback play again. Lambert was prone to head scratching mistakes at UVA and now will face SEC defenses that cause major concerns. Ramsey is the favorite to start and has the most upside but his mettle has yet to be tested. UGA will be without last year’s top two tacklers but have a talented linebacking corps and the nation’s top ranked player in Trent Thompson coming in to anchor the defensive line. Lorenzo Carter, UAB transfer Jake Ganus and Leonard Floyd highlight the linebacker position. Junior Tim Kimbrough is expected to see a lot of time and the talented true freshman Roquan Smith will likely get a shot as well.
What Does The Future Hold?
It will be interesting to see what happens this season. The Dawgs always come in as the prohibitive favorite, but they will be tested in back-to-back games to end the season, hosting Georgia Southern and then visiting Atlanta for a rematch. Much like they did with Tech, don’t be surprised if the Eagles push the Dawgs to the brink with their offensive onslaught. Georgia allowed 399 rushing yards to the Jackets in last year’s defeat and will need to find a way to stop the bleeding this year when they face the two best running teams in the nation. If UGA is able to survive it would surely benefit them as they face the Jackets’ triple option the following week.
It will be a three team race for the battle of state supremacy. There will always be bad blood when Georgia Tech plays Georgia. The Eagles want to start a rivalry with both big schools and not be viewed as a little brother or a non-factor in the state and last season’s game with Tech was a good starting point. If Southern can continue its ascension into elite status in the Sun Belt, they very well could blossom into a BCS buster much like Boise State and Northern Illinois in the past. If that happens, the shift of power in Georgia could greatly change if the Eagles are competitive with both the Jackets and Dawgs. Expect the last weeks of November to be can’t miss action in the state of Georgia and an interesting turning point for the future of football in the south.