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Eagles await a big first date
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MACON — For Football Championship Subdivision schools such as Georgia Southern, playing college football’s big dogs certainly has its advantages.

A fat paycheck and increased media exposure are usually the biggest pluses enjoyed by lower-tier Division I schools whenever they suit up against opponents from the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Eagles will do just that in a little over two months when they trek to the University of Georgia for their season opener on Aug. 30. It’ll be the second FBS game for the Eagles in as many seasons after GSU traveled to Colorado State last year. Georgia Southern cashed a check for $200,000 from CSU and will earn $260,000 for the trip to Georgia.

That money is much-needed and hype among the fan base grows each day, but how do the players feel about the challenge of facing the highly touted Bulldogs?

“I think it’s a great way to start a special season,” senior defensive back Chris Covington said Tuesday at a gathering for the state’s coaches, players and media. “The rest of the seniors and myself are looking to have a great year and leave a lasting memory and a good legacy behind us.

“It’s definitely something we look forward to. We always try to be the best team in the country and getting to play the No. 1 ranked team in America is a good way to test yourself. It’s a great motivator.”

Second-year GSU coach Chris Hatcher is definitely using the date with the Bulldogs as a way to push his team during the down months. Though he’s not opposed to playing up a level and recognizes the benefits, Hatcher’s always been the type of coach that prefers to play teams in his own division.

“It’s just a fair, more equal football game,” he said. “Players like to do it, but coaches have a different perspective.”
Hatcher knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence after helping Valdosta State pull off an upset of then-Division I-AA’s top-ranked Central Florida during his playing days. As a coach, he led the Blazers to a 45-17 win over Florida Atlantic in 2003.

“I’ve been on the winning side, and I’ve been beat down by those opponents as well,” Hatcher said. “Playing one of them is not too bad, it’s just if you ever play multiple games a year it becomes very difficult for your team to compete and rebound from those types of games. I like to win, so I don’t like to go in as the underdog to a bigger school.”

Several Southern Conference foes suit up against two FBS teams a year, but Georgia Southern opted not to, turning down a chance to play Georgia Tech this season. Its next FBS game is slated for 2009 at Navy. If they had their druthers, how many FBS games would the Eagles play a year?

“The more the better just because it gets the Georgia Southern name out there,” Covington said. “Bring anybody. We’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. I’m OK either way.”

Though preseason talk in Athens swirls around Southeastern Conference titles and national championships, the Bulldogs insist they’ll treat the Eagles like any other game.

“We know Georgia Southern is a good team,” said Bulldogs linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. “They control their conference, their division. It’s always going to be a tough game with them. The last time they came (to Athens) it was a tough game. We’re going to have to play them hard.”

The Eagles hung with the Bulldogs before falling 48-28 in 2004, but it could be a different story this season with GSU’s rebuilding offense and influx of young players. Nearly half of the scholarship Eagles will be getting their first taste of college football.

“There’s just so much unknown headed into the season with all the new players we have,” Hatcher said. “I just hope they don’t go up there and get their feelings hurt.”