The biggest surprise of the 2014 season likely wasn’t Ohio State’s upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Mississippi State’s rise to a No. 1 ranking or TCU’s run to a co-Big 12 title. Instead it was the magical season of Georgia Southern—or, as fans probably best know it, the FCS team that embarrassed Florida in '13.
After winning six Division I-AA championships (most recently in 2000), the Eagles finally made the move up to the FBS in '14 and promptly ran through the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern went 9-3 overall and 8-0 in conference play, becoming just the third team to win a league title in its first FBS season and the first to do so with an undefeated conference record.
Head coach Willie Fritz made his debut both with Georgia Southern and in the FBS last season after Jeff Monken resigned following the 2013 campaign to take over Army. Fritz, well-versed in the triple-option offense from 32 years of coaching in the junior college, Division II and FCS ranks, helped engineer the top rushing offense in the country behind a veteran offensive line, running backs Matt Breida (171 carries for 1,485 yards with 17 touchdowns) and L.A. Ramsby (148 carries for 691 yards with 12 touchdowns) and quarterback Kevin Ellison (1,001 yards passing, 1,096 yards rushing, 17 total touchdowns).
After 2014’s success comes the perhaps more difficult task—maintaining it now that the Eagles have announced their FBS arrival. SI.com caught up with Fritz to discuss how he hopes to accomplish that, what it would take to become the next Boise State and what name he prefers for the Group of Five conferences.
SI: Last season brought a lot of firsts for both you and Georgia Southern. What were your expectations coming into the season?
Willie Fritz: That was really interesting because it was unknown. We felt like we had a good team. I was very impressed with the guys when I got here in the spring and went through spring ball. But primarily everyone had been recruited as a I-AA [player]. But we really thought we had an opportunity to have success last season.
SI: As the results showed, your team was prepared to make the leap to the FBS. What were the keys that helped players recruited for the FCS compete in the FBS?
WF: It kind of inspires guys to show that they’re better than what they have been originally recruited as. Plus, Georgia Southern has a tremendous amount of history and tradition; the guys believe they’re going to win week in and week out no matter who they’re playing. I think they took it as a challenge. They obviously play with a lot of confidence.
SI: You spent the first 32 years of your coaching career working at pretty much every level of college football except the FBS. Did you ever think you would get an FBS opportunity before last year?
WF: I guess I had a little bit of a different philosophy than maybe some guys that are really working it, trying to find their next job. I just kind of worked as hard as I could, and I’ve enjoyed every level and every place that I’ve ever worked at. If you do good things, I think people notice that.
I knew very little about the Georgia Southern job when I was contacted by Georgia Southern to see if I’d be interested. Just kind of talking with the athletic director—he flew out to Texas—I didn’t know if it’d be a fit. I just didn’t have a whole lot of background with this region of the country. When he told me, I was interested, and when they flew me out to visit, I was even more interested and was fortunate enough to get the job.
SI: What was the biggest challenge for you as a coach moving to the FBS?
WF: Just managing people. I’ve got a much larger staff than what I had at any other level. When I started off as a head coach, it was me and two other guys in the room. That was our staff meeting. Now I’ve got 25 people in the room. It’s really an organization of about 200 people when it’s all said and done with players, managers, trainers, video staff, strength and conditioning, coaching staff, student assistants, graduate assistants, recruiting, player development. So you just have a lot more people to manage, and you’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s on your page.
SI: How does your approach to this season change now that you’re the defending conference champions instead of the new guys?
WF: We’re not going to sneak up on anybody. I’ve talked to our players about that. They understand that—last year I think we were picked ninth in one poll and eighth in the other poll as far as the conference was concerned—we’re probably not going to be picked that low this year. So we’ve got to all get better.
at West Virginia
New Mexico State
at Appalachian State
SI: You came close to beating N.C. State and Georgia Tech last year, falling to the Wolfpack 24-23 on Aug. 30 and to the Yellow Jackets 42-38 on Sept. 13. How significant would it be to beat West Virginia in your 2015 season opener and get a win over a Power Five team?
WF: It’d be huge. We’ve got to play great. We’re going to be playing on the road in a hostile environment against a very good team, a team that played in a bowl game last year. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but that’s one of the reasons why we made this move from I-AA football to Division I football, to be on the biggest stage.
SI: A week after visiting West Virginia, you host Western Michigan, another Group of Five team that made a big rise last season by finishing 8-5. Do you place extra importance on that game, for the chance to prove how the Sun Belt stacks up with another Group of Five league?
WF: That’s another big game. I don’t know if our fan base is aware of the success that Western Michigan had last year. They’re a really good team, a big team from looking at them. Whenever you play teams from what we like to refer to as the “Elite Five,” you obviously want to play your best because you’re going to be compared to each other when the season winds down.
SI: Georgia Southern has long history of using a triple-option attack, but you added a new element by running it out of the pistol. What advantage does that give you?
WF: You can throw the ball a little bit more effectively when you have to pass it. We’re more of a zone-blocking team, running it out of the pistol. We probably run gun a little bit more than we run pistol, actually. I think it gives you an advantage throwing the ball. I think it helps you get in space quickly. It might be easier to recruit to. There are a lot of teams that are doing this. It also allows you to expand your offense based on what you do well. We can throw a little out of it, throw the ball a lot out of it. Last year our team was built more for running, so we ran the ball a lot more than probably I’ve ever run it.
SI: Your starting quarterback (Ellison), top two running backs (Breida and Ramsby) and top wide receiver (B.J. Johnson) all return in 2015. What type of progress do you anticipate from them in year two?
WF: We’ve got to develop some more depth in all of those different positions. Everybody’s just got to get a little bit better. Offensively for us to get better, we have got to throw the ball more effectively. We really did a good job early in the season of throwing the football. We’re going to get a lot of man coverage, people packing the box against us because of how effectively we run the football, so for us to take a step forward offensively we’ve got to average another 50, 60, 70 yards per game of passing offense.
A lot of our passing game is play action. For [a successful] play-action pass, you’ve got to protect for a second longer, you’ve got to run crisper routes, you’ve got to beat man coverage, you’ve got to catch the ball and our quarterbacks have got to be more accurate throwing the football. So it’s a whole team deal.
SI: You mention protection, but lose four of five starters from last year’s offensive line. Can you maintain solid blocking with a group that will be short on experience?
WF: We’ve been working with those guys a tremendous amount during the spring. A big part of spring was identifying which of those guys were ready to step forward and be a starting type of guy of us. We’ve got a lot of guys who have gotten some kind of experience, one returning starter in Darien Foreman who started all of our games last year. Maurice Hunt has started a few games. Andy Kwon has played quite a bit as a center, Tommy Boynton played quite a bit last year, both of those guys more in a backup role. But we’re going to have to have some guys step up who haven’t played a whole lot of Division I football or even college football.
SI: You also bring in a lot of youth to the secondary, with six new players. Can those guys adapt quickly enough to offset the loss of cornerback Nick Wright?
WF: I think they can. That was probably the area that we did the best in recruiting, at least on paper. We got longer, taller, faster back there. I think those guys are going to push for playing time this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have three true freshmen play for us this year in the secondary.
SI: Every Group of Five team has the goal to become a regular conference champ and stay in the national conversation, much like Boise State has done. What is the key to maintaining last year's success on a continuous basis?
WF: Well, No. 1, scheduling is important. You’ve got to schedule to not only pay the bills, but you’ve also got to schedule to allow you to be in the conversation toward the end of the year. I think both Northern Illinois and Boise have done a tremendous job of that.
Somehow, this elite Group of Five has got to try to do a good job of scheduling against each other. We’ve got to have the Mountain West play against the MAC, the MAC play against the Sun Belt, the Sun Belt play against the Conference USA. Get more of those games against each other to really help the people when they’re doing the bowl pairings late in the year to make better decisions about who are the better teams from that conference structure.