STATESBORO -- Georgia Southern opens its defense of its Sun Belt Conference championship Saturday, and the Eagles will do so about as far from home as they can get.
The Eagles (2-1) will be going for their third straight win at 9 p.m. when they face Idaho (1-2) at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. It is a trip of approximately 2,700 miles, and it’s be the conference opener for both teams.
Georgia Southern is coming off consecutive wins over Western Michigan and The Citadel after dropping its opener at West Virginia, and Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs is an indicator of how far the Eagles’ program has come since the two teams last met two years ago, according to head coach Willie Fritz.
“We talked about the scores of the games the last few years and how close they had been,” Fritz said of his team’s preparation. “I think this shows the program is ahead of where it was a few years ago.”
There were doubters about Georgia Southern’s decision to move up to the FBS level of football and join the Sun Belt. Many of them were quieted last year when the Eagles finished unbeaten (8-0) in the conference to win the championship. Georgia Southern has now won 10 straight conference games, having won its final two Southern Conference games.
The game with The Citadel was somewhat of a measuring stick for the Eagles to show how far they had come since leaving the Southern Conference following the 2013 season. In the previous eight meetings, seven had been decided by seven or fewer points.
But the difference between the two programs became evident early on as Georgia Southern led 31-0 at the half and was never pressed.
“That’s a very, very good football team,” Citadel head coach Mike Houston said. “They have speed at all the skill positions, are big and strong up front, very physical on defense. They’ve got a shot to be just as good or better than they were a year ago.”
That is not good news for the Vandals, who got hammered 47-24 last year by the Eagles in a game in which Georgia Southern piled up 550 yards total offense. Idaho was 1-11 last year, its third straight one-win season. Its lone win came in conference play when it beat two-win New Mexico State, which is currently riding a 12-game losing streak.
Idaho is 9-51 since the 2010 season, and it has the distinction of playing in the smallest stadium in FBS football. The Kibbie Dome is an enclosed facility that opened in 1971, and it seats 16,000. The Vandals broke an eight-game losing streak Saturday with a 41-38 win over Wofford.
The Vandals do, however, have some excellent players, starting with sophomore quarterback Matt Linehan and senior running back Elizah Penny to go along with wide receiver Dezman Epps. Linehan is 81-of-114 passing this season for 825 yards while Penny has 201 yards rushing on 51 attempts. Epps has 25 catches for 299 yards.
Idaho’s losses have come at the hands of Ohio (45-28) and Southern Cal (59-9). The Eagles want to show want to show last year’s unbeaten run to a conference championship was not a fluke.
“The Vandals are a big passing team, so the game plan will be similar to Western Michigan,” senior linebacker Antwione Williams said. “We will be relentless. We’ve been focused on turnovers, and we’re doing a good job of attacking the ball.”
After committing five turnovers in the opener at West Virginia, the Eagles were plus-four in turnover margin in each of their wins over Western Michigan and The Citadel.
“We’re ready for conference play,” Williams said. “We’re anxious to get it going. The first game didn’t go well, but we’re better disciplined now, and we’re getting better each week.”