Ohio (9-3, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) and Georgia Southern (6-6, 3-5 Sun Belt Conference head down to Conway, South Carolina this Saturday for the inaugural meeting between the two squads in what is also the first bowl game of the 2023 season.
The Bobcats go into the contest with two milestones on the line. With a victory, the ‘Cats will have back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in program history. If that weren’t enough, a victory also gives the Mid-American Conference its first season in a decade that at least three teams have won ten or more games with Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, and Ball State earning double-digit victories in 2013. Toledo and Miami have both reached 10 wins this year.
Meanwhile, GASO looks to finish its season on a positive note with a victory, as doing so would secure a winning record at 7-6. The Eagles are also looking to get back to their winning ways over the MAC in bowl games, beating Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan in the last decade before losing a close one to the Buffalo Bulls last year 23-21 in the Camellia Bowl.
We take a look at where each squad is at this point and some significant changes for Ohio, especially on offense, due to some recent transfer portal activity.
- Time and date: Saturday December 16th, 11:00 a.m. Eastern
- Network: ESPN and ESPN+ (subscription required)
- Location: Brooks Stadium in Conway, South Carolina, on the campus of Coastal Carolina University.
- Gambling considerations: GASO favored by three points, with an over/under of 48.5, per DraftKings.
- All-time series and streak: First Meeting
The Ohio Bobcats
The Bobcats hang their hats on a defense that has been on par or better than most defenses in the Group of Five this year by most measures. For instance, heading into the contest, the Bobcats are fifth in the FBS in scoring defense allowing just 15.4 points per game.
The defensive unit is led by third-team All-American and first-team All-MAC linebacker Bryce Houston, a do-it-all defender who can play the run and the pass and has a knack for winning short yardage situations. Houston led the club this year with 120 tackles and three interceptions while finishing third in the MAC with 12 tackles for loss, chipping in 2.5 sacks.
Patrolling the back end for the ‘Cats include experienced leaders in safety Walter Reynolds and corner Justin Birchette. Reynolds was third on the team this year in tackles with 60 while Birchette led the charge with eight passes defensed.
Reynolds and Birchette are part of a defense that could present a very credible challenge to perhaps the Sun Belt’s most prolific passing offense as Ohio is allowing just 168 yards passing per game, ranked seventh in the FBS in that category.
The only non-injury related likely scratch on defense is first-team all-MAC linebacker Keye Thompson. The Bobcats depth chart shows Thompson’s understudy Shay Taylor getting the nod to start.
Offensively, the Bobcats should have a very different feel than earlier this season.
Running backs O’Shaan Allison and Sieh Bangura and wide receivers Miles Cross and Tyler Walton all entered the transfer portal at the conclusion of the season. QB Kurtis Rourke, the 2022 MAC Player of the Year, also will not appear after recently signing on with the Indiana Hoosiers for his final year. In total, the transfer group accounted for 4,655 total yards rushing, passing, and receiving this year and 32 touchdowns.
With last year’s Arizona Bowl MVP QB CJ Harris sidelined earlier this season with an injury and Rourke out, the ‘Cats will hand the reins to Tempe, Arizona’s own Parker Navarro. The Bobcats offense has enough in the playbook with QB runs and play action passing to play to their new signalcaller’s strengths. Navarro has shown he is a factor on the ground with a career 157 yards rushing and three scores and should be adept at designed runs like options. Navarro has also completed 13 of 24 career passes for 112 yards and two scores.
Despite the portal activity, Navarro will still have a lot of support beginning with an offensive line with four of five lineman with multiple years starting experience.
Ohio still features two-time first-team all-MAC wideout Sam Wiglusz, who has had prolific career production with 124 catches for 1,473 yards and 14 touchdown receptions.
Expect the ‘Cats to get their tight ends involved in threats Will Kacmarek and Tyler Foster who have combined for 41 catches for 445 yards so far this year as well.
The two-deep at running back has Nolan McCormack leading the charge. While McCormack does not have any rushing stats for 2023 he played a significant role in 2022, accruing 289 yards rushing as a north-south style bruiser with soft hands, hauling in 20 receptions.
Freshman RB Ricky Hunt, a highly-touted multi-sport athlete out of high school, figures to get a chance to show what he can do after logging a handful of attempts earlier this season.
The Georgia Southern Eagles
For the Eagles, the year has been a season of contrast. GASO came out of the gate strong to a 6-2 start with losses only to Wisconsin and a dominant James Madison squad which found themselves ranked in the AP poll at ppoints in the 2023 season.
The bowl-eligible sixth win was an extra sweet one, as GASO drubbed their rival Georgia State 44-27 in the annual meeting of the ‘Modern Day Hate’ rivalry.
After the rivalry win, GASO lost its last four games including a couple of one-score losses sandwiched between some dominant losses to Texas State and Appalachian State.
GASO heads into this one looking to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds that sank their ship against Appalachian State and put their best foot forward against Ohio.
Offensively, the Eagles have been predominantly a passing team this year, throwing about 65 percent of the time and are 14th in the FBS with just a shade under 300 yards passing a ball game.
The offense starts with 2023 All-Sun Belt honorable mention QB Davis Brin, an experienced gunslinger who typically doesn’t run but has enough athleticism to make dishonest defense pay. The Tulsa transfer has completed 61 percent of his 1,199 career passes for over 9,000 yards and 59 touchdowns.
Brin looks to bounce back from the last game of the regular season when three interceptions brought his season total to 16 and career total to 40. Overall, the Eagles look to finish with a clean game after finishing the year 128th in the FBS in turnovers lost with 26.
Expect three-star freshman QB JC French to get into the action as he has appeared in just about every contest this year with 160 yards rushing and passing.
Also figure Brin and French to get their dynamic duo wideouts Khaleb Hood and Derwin Burgess Jr. involved early and often as these Eagles have combined for 162 catches for 1,613 yards and 10 receiving scores. Hood had a prolific year, earning All-Sun Belt second-team honors.
In the running game, the Eagles may have their leading runner Jalen White back as he is listed at the top of the depth chart after missing the last game with an injury. At the ready to carry the load is backup OJ Arnold, who has over 400 yards rushing for 5.8 per tote this year.
Defensively, GASO has been an opportunistic bunch as one of the top 20 teams in the FBS in turnovers gained with 21.
With Ohio probably emphasizing the run with play action passing and a few trick plays sprinkled in with Navarro at the helm, GASO’s run defense will be critical in this one. If Ohio can establish the run then everything should click throughout the game with the rest of the plan.
On the year the Eagles have been a solid unit at times defending the run allowing 155 yards per contest on average.
The defense is led by a couple of all conference players in linebacker Marques Watson-Trent and third-team defensive linemen Isaac Walker. Like Ohio’s Houston, Watson-Trent has dominated the competition as a well-rounded defender with 111 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions. Walker has dominated in stretches, leading the club with six sacks and seven passes defensed.
On the whole, Ohio has the most consistent unit on the field in the defense which should hold GASO’s offense to a manageable number of points.
The question becomes, how many points can the Bobcats score? With Ohio’s defensive ability to attack the opponents backfield and GASO’s turnover history this year, it stands to reason that the Bobcats defense will set up a few short fields or possibly score.
Also, Ohio QB Parker Navarro has shown, in limited game reps, that he can pick up chunks in the rushing game and trying to defend someone like Navarro on a one-time basis can be tough on the defense.
Ohio gets just enough done on offense to get their 10th win of the year, 21-20.