In 30 seasons of playing at the Division I-AA/Football Championship Subdivision level, the Georgia Southern Eagles went to the playoffs 19 times and won six national championships.
Now, in their first year as a fully-fledged member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Eagles finally are eligible to play in the storied program’s first bowl game.
First, however, they have to win enough games to qualify, and it’s a demanding schedule that lies ahead.
“It’s a very challenging schedule,” said Eagles coach Willie Fritz. “One of our goals is to be eligible for a bowl game. We’re very excited about the opportunity to compete in a few new places.”
The Eagles’ opener will be Sept. 5 at West Virginia, a state the Eagles haven’t visited since a loss to Marshall 20 years ago. The Eagles have never faced the Mountaineers, who were 7-6 last season and were 11th in the nation in passing offense.
Georgia Southern plays four teams that went to bowls in 2013, including Western Michigan, the first out-of-conference FBS team to visit Paulson Stadium. Georgia Southern also visits Georgia this season, meeting the Bulldogs on Nov. 21. The Eagles are 0-5 all-time against the Bulldogs.
“They know our kids aren’t going to back down,” Fritz said. “Hopefully, they feel we’ve got a great coaching staff. Our kids love going out to compete and don’t shy away from it.”
The Eagles went 0-3 against its FBS foes from outside the Sun Belt Conference last season. Navy thrashed Southern 52-19 in its next-to-last game of 2014, but the Eagles had two wins against teams from Power 5 conferences slip away in the final seconds earlier in the season.
Georgia Southern led N.C. State 20-10 in the fourth quarter before Jacoby Brissett’s 35-yard scoring strike with 1:37 to go lifted the Wolfpack to a 24-23 win. The Eagles trailed Georgia Tech 35-10 at the half in the first meeting between the two programs before storming back to take a 38-35 lead. But Justin Thomas’ 13-yard TD pass with 23 seconds left in the game gave the Yellow Jackets a 42-38 win.
Until the 26-20 upset of Florida to end the 2013 season, the Eagles had gone 0-for-20 in games against I-A/FBS opponents, with a number of close calls against East Carolina, Auburn, Florida State and Oregon State. Fritz, who joined the program two months after that victory, said the win over Florida imbued an attitude into the returning players that carried over into 2014.
“Our guys enjoy competing. They have a lot of pride,” he said. “That comes from the history and tradition of Georgia Southern. They had a lot of confidence coming in after the big victory over Florida. I was very pleased with the competitive nature.”
The Eagles have back-to-back road trips twice this season, including a road swing to Moscow, Idaho to play the Idaho Vandals that precedes a visit to Louisiana-Monroe. The Eagles had seven road games last year, going 4-3. In their last three games of 2014, they beat Texas State by three points, lost to Navy and then survived a scare from 4-8 Louisiana-Monroe to hang on for a 22-16 win and the Sun Belt Conference title.
Georgia Southern went 8-0 in its inaugural Sun Belt season, but because the Eagles were in the second year of their two-year transition period, they weren’t eligible for a bowl berth. An appeal for bowl eligibility was filed but ultimately denied.
“But we knew that before the season,” Fritz said. “It wasn’t a surprise. I knew it was going to be a strong possibility it wouldn’t get changed. I’d like to see that changed.”
The date with Georgia comes at the end of a two-game road swing that starts at Troy. Even with seven games away from Paulson Stadium
last year, the Eagles fans turned out in force at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium and for the win over Georgia State at Georgia Dome. The Eagles-Panthers game drew nearly as many fans as Georgia State’s first three home games of 2014 combined.
“I was very impressed with our passionate fans, going to away games and having our fans take over the stadium,” Fritz said.
The veteran coach knew something was unique about the atmosphere for a Georgia Southern game in the home opener, and the impact Eagles fans can have.
“In the first game, I couldn’t put a finger on what was different,” he said. “When we were on offense, you could hear a pin drop. When we were on defense, you couldn’t talk to the guy next to you. I had never really experienced that before.”
After three decades as Division I-AA/FCS’ most successful program, the Eagles now can play in one of four bowls with slots for Sun Belt teams. Should the Eagles get into one of those postseason games, Fritz is confident of at least one thing — there will be plenty of blue and white in the stands.
“One of our goals is to play in a 13th ballgame,” he said. “There ought to be a lot of excitement. From what I’ve seen from Eagle Nation, if we get to a bowl game, we’re going to travel. So that’s exciting. But we have to do our part.”