The Georgia Southern football team faces tougher terrain in the first season of the Clay Helton era this fall.
That is, assuming that the Sun Belt Conference slate holds true.
Three current members of Conference USA — including two on the Eagles' schedule — have taken legal action to expedite their exits and join the Sun Belt by this July instead of in the summer of 2023. C-USA also has sought court rulings to resolve the dispute, but the league already has released its own schedule for 2022 and included (pending) outgoing members Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi.
Georgia Southern's 12-game schedule, as it stands per the Sun Belt, will be beefed up with games against Marshall and ODU, and against James Madison — an FCS power making the transition from the Colonial Athletic Association to FBS.
The Eagles also have a tall task with a short-week road trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, for a Thursday night, prime-time game Nov. 10 against the Ragin' Cajuns. They are the defending SBC champion, coming off a 13-1 campaign including wins in the league title game and the New Orleans Bowl.
Both teams are at home five days earlier for league games Nov. 5. All of the Eagles' other contests are scheduled for Saturdays.
In the planned realignment inside the Sun Belt, the Eagles lost Troy from the East Division, which makes geographic sense as the Trojans join South Alabama in the West Division.
The East Division expanded from five to seven teams and gained James Madison and Old Dominion (in Virginia) and Marshall (in West Virginia). Returning with Georgia Southern are Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State. The latter three teams with Louisiana represented the conference in bowl season last year.
The Sun Belt West Division will consist of Central time zone schools Arkansas State, Louisiana, ULM, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Texas State and Troy.
The Eagles play their six division foes and two crossover games against Louisiana and South Alabama. They open the season with four non-conference teams they've never played before.
The 12 opponents went a combined 92-63 in 2021, including 5-0 against Georgia Southern (3-9 overall, 2-6 Sun Belt).
The Eagles' 2021 foes were a combined 86-65 last season — 77-62 if the games against Georgia Southern were not included. The best record went to Louisiana (13-1), which won in Statesboro and finished No. 16 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Coastal Carolina (11-2) received two votes in the final poll. BYU (10-3) was No.14 when it won at Paulson Stadium and No. 19 in the final rankings. Arkansas (9-4) was No. 21 in the season-ending poll.
2022 Georgia Southern football schedule
Sept. 3 — Morgan State
The Bears went 2-9 last season, 1-4 in the FCS Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference under second-year head coach Tyrone Wheatley (5-18). The former Michigan star and NFL running back for the Giants and Raiders left the program to become running backs coach for the Denver Broncos. This is the first meeting between the Eagles and the Bears.
Sept. 10 — at Nebraska
One of college football's most storied programs has fallen on hard times of late. Scott Frost, once a star quarterback for the Cornhuskers and part of two national championship teams, has a pedigree of winning but is 15-29 in four seasons as head coach, including 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the Big Ten last season. Six of the nine losses were to ranked teams.
This is the first meeting between the Eagles and Huskers, but not the first visit to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln for GS graduate transfer Kyle Vantrease. The former Buffalo QB also punted on rare occasion (twice in 2021), and his lone kick against Nebraska was for 81 yards in the Bulls' 28-3 loss on Sept. 11, 2021.
Sept. 17 — at UAB
The Blazers were 9-4 overall, 6-2 in C-USA in a season full of highlights. They defeated Marshall and FAU in the regular season, and then-No. 13 BYU 31-28 in the Independence Bowl — the highest-ranked opponent they've ever beaten. Give them a pass on the 56-7 loss to eventual national champion Georgia in Athens. Head coach Bill Clark is 49-26 in six seasons, including through the program's shutdown and two-year hiatus. It will be UAB's first meeting with Georgia Southern.
Sept. 24 — Ball State
The Cardinals went 6-7, 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference and were invited to the TaxAct Camellia Bowl, where they lost to the Sun Belt's Georgia State 51-20. Coach Mike Neu is 28-41 since taking the helm in 2016. The is the first meeting between these football programs.
Oct. 1 — at Coastal Carolina*
The Chanticleers have risen quickly into the nation's consciousness — certainly in the Sun Belt and at the University of Kansas, which has lost to CCU for three straight years. The Cure Bowl-champion Chants went 11-2 overall, 6-2 in the SBC last season including a 28-8 win at Statesboro on Nov. 6, 2021. The Eagles still lead the series 5-3 but have lost two straight to coach Jamey Chadwell's bunch. He's 27-10 in three seasons in Conway, S.C. GS is 0-0 vs. Chants' star quarterback Grayson McCall, who was sidelined by injuries and missed the starts in 2020 and '21.
CCU was top six in FBS statistically in 2021 in total offense, completion percentage, third-down conversion percentage, fourth-down conversion percentage, blocked kicks, blocked punts, fewest passes had intercepted, passing yards per completion, rushing offense, scoring offense, and team passing efficiency.
Oct. 8 — at Georgia State*
The Panthers were 8-5 in 2021, 6-2 in the SBC including a 21-14 win in Statesboro on Oct. 30. Georgia State has won two straight against Georgia Southern and leads the series 5-3. Panthers coach Shawn Elliott took over in 2017 and is 30-30 against all competition.
Oct. 15 — James Madison*
A powerhouse program in FCS (2016 national champions), the Dukes are making the move to FBS and the Sun Belt a little earlier than planned if they start this fall. JMU was 12-2 in 2021, 7-1 in the CAA, and lost to North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals. Head coach Curt Cignetti is 33-5 since 2019. Georgia Southern, a former FCS program, leads head-to-head 7-1 with seven straight wins in a series spanning 1985-92.
Oct. 22 — at Old Dominion*
The Monarchs under first-year head coach Ricky Rahne finished 6-7, 5-3 in C-USA, but that's not the whole story. ODU started 1-6 and won five straight games to qualify for the Myrtle Beach Bowl, which it lost to Tulsa. Other quality losses were to Wake Forest, Liberty, Marshall (in OT), Western Kentucky and Buffalo (led by current GS QB Kyle Vantrease). The Monarchs beat FAU. GS leads the series 2-0, both coming in the FCS playoffs (2011-12).
Nov. 5 — South Alabama*
The Eagles were 7-0 all-time against the Jaguars, but that streak ended decisively with USA's 41-14 rout on Oct. 14, 2021. First-year coach Kane Wommack's squad finished 5-7, 2-6 in the Sun Belt, with four losses by seven points or less.
'Help us close the gap': Georgia Southern is losing ground to Sun Belt members in spending
Nov. 10 — at Louisiana (Thursday)*
The Cajuns were ragin' all right in 2021. After losing the opener at Texas, Louisiana won 13 straight, going 8-0 in the SBC, then winning the conference championship game over App State and the New Orleans Bowl over future SBC foe Marshall. Head coach Billy Napier, after years of wooing from Power 5 programs, finally left Lafayette for the Florida Gators. Michael Desormeaux, a record-setting QB for Louisiana (2005-08) and a longtime assistant coach, is at the helm. The Ragin' Cajuns lead the series 4-1 with GS.
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Nov. 19 — Marshall*
The Thundering Herd, like the Eagles, used to be in the Southern Conference (NCAA I-AA). They played each other six times from 1989-96 — four as conference foes when Marshall was ranked Nos. 1, 1, 4 and 1, and won each meeting. Marshall leads the series 4-2, winning the most recent encounter 29-13 in Statesboro in 1996. Last season, Marshall went 7-6 overall, 5-3 in C-USA under first-year head coach Charles Huff, including losses to App State (31-30) and Louisiana (36-21) and an OT win over ODU (20-13).
Nov. 26 — Appalachian State*
The Mountaineers went 10-4, 7-1 SBC in 2021 under Shawn Clark (20-7 as head coach). The Eagles' biggest rival, from the SoCon days through Sun Belt membership, App State has an 18-13 advantage in a series dating back to 1987. The Mountaineers have won the last two — both regular-season finales on Saturday nights, including 27-3 on Nov. 27, 2021 in Boone, N.C. The Eagles had upset then-No. 20 App State in Boone on Halloween 2019, and then-No. 25 App State in Statesboro on Oct. 25, 2018. Both were national TV games on Thursday nights.
Dec. 3 — SBC championship (if qualified)
* SBC opponent
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Georgia Southern football schedule for 2022: Sun Belt Conference, more