2022 G5 Preview: You Got Your Wish, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern is going away from the triple option. Good luck with that.
This is part of the Sun Belt Preview, the third conference in the Outside Zone’s Group of Five season preview package. Check out the preview landing page for all previous stories. All previews and the entire Outside Zone archive are available for only $5 a month or $50 a year.
Jared Benko has made crystal clear his intentions for the Georgia Southern football program since opening his tenure as athletic director on April 1, 2020. One of the younger ADs in the FBS ranks, Benko brought with him a decade-plus of SEC experience from Mississippi State, Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia (from which he graduated in 2007) and wore that on his sleeve, not just as resume points but as the path forward at Georgia Southern – modernization through operating like an SEC program in the Sun Belt.
That Georgia Southern needed to be modernized a bit, especially in the football department, is difficult to argue. The Eagles are still waiting on an indoor practice facility (supposedly coming soon) and their recruiting resources have not been anywhere near where they need to be.
The program has a lot of traditions that can be very limiting in lean years, and former head coach Chad Lunsford was probably not the answer long-term – despite a 10-3 campaign in 2018 and three consecutive bowl games from 2018-20 – if Georgia Southern wants to fashion itself a Sun Belt title contender (it does).
Whether Benko gave him any sort of a shot at all to prove himself can be debated given that he was fired after a 1-3 start in 2021 a year after an 8-5 bowl season, and given that Benko seemed to have his replacement ready in like, August, but it’s not really a debate worth having at this point. Lunsford is gone, and his premeditated replacement, Clay Helton, is entrenched in his first spring camp in Statesboro.
What does bear mentioning is the intent behind the firing of Lunsford, and what it says about Benko’s ideology of “modernizing” writ large. For Benko and many of the power brokers at Georgia Southern, the football program could not be modernized without moving away from the offensive system that made it relevant at the FCS level, led it to six national titles within those ranks (and another two appearances) and ultimately earned it a promotion to the FBS ranks. The triple option and modernization could not mix for those currently running the program at Georgia Southern.
I’ve written before about my feelings on this, and don’t feel the need to do so again. In last season’s preview, I went into great detail on the traditions of this program and its history with the option – and on what has happened when it went away from it before.
“VanGorder wasn’t in the Georgia Southern family, by design. The program decided that it needed a new face instead of a Russell disciple, and hired another Georgia defensive coordinator to lead the new look Eagles. VanGorder did away with the traditions in an attempt to improve Georgia Southern’s recruiting, starting with the triple option. He moved Georgia Southern to a more traditional system, thinking that he could sell the program as an established winner moving into a new era.
“Obviously, it didn’t work. You can’t win if you don’t run the triple at Georia Southern. I don’t have a reason for this and I’m not going to search for one. I like to think that Russell haunts any coach that strays from the program’s humble roots, because he died in Statesboro in 2006 and his funeral was held in the stadium. Honestly, given how stubborn and willful the man was, there’s a decent chance that the haunting theory is true.”
I’ve made clear my affinity for the triple option before as well, though I do want to note that back in September I skewered Lunsford for directing a specifically shitty version of it, noting that it did need to be reworked to fit the program’s new lot in life and that he could not do so.
“The concepts don’t fit the scheme especially well and aren’t themselves designed with much physical understanding of the game to begin with. Georgia Southern is running the option like an established option power, as it was in the FCS days. The issue: those days are over. The Eagles need to get creative and reestablish the talent level up front before it can play like this again. Right now, you just have an underdog playing like a favorite.”
That’s where I feel this program should have gone, and where I will continue to feel it should go until it is proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that someone can actually win some football games here without running the option. I suggested Kennesaw State’s Brian Bohannon as a suitable replacement for his modernized, coherent offensive attack. He coached at Southern in the 90s, spent years under Paul Johnson elsewhere and has won at a high level with Kennesaw State, not previously a program with much ability to do that.
“This one may be my least fire hire of the offseason. Georgia Southern, staring down its history, has decided that this time is surely going to be the time that going away from the triple-option doesn’t immediately doom the program, and that this will be the time a retread doesn’t collapse horribly. Clay Helton, a bad coach with bad ideas, surely is the man for this extremely storied program that has a distinct history of doing things a very specific way, which Helton has already said he won’t do.
“If only there was a proven FCS head coach, within the state of Georgia, who runs the exact system that has worked at Georgia Southern forever.”
I mention all of this for background, but also because I don’t want to say all of this again. You all know how I feel about the hiring of Helton and the eschewing of Georgia Southern’s identity. There’s a team to preview here all the same, and my whining won’t do that team justice, even if I think that Helton is about to get kicked in the dick 11 times in 12 games because he’s a dogshit coach and an even worse fit for a program that requires fit to succeed.