As expected, Georgia Southern’s name wasn’t called Sunday afternoon when the 16-team FCS playoff field was revealed.
It wasn’t much of a surprise for the Eagles, who knew their best shot at snagging one of eight at-large bids was to knock off FBS member Colorado State on Saturday in Fort Collins, Colo. GSU outscored the Rams 31-14 after halftime but couldn’t overcome a lackluster first half, falling 42-34 and dropping to 7-4 on the year.
New Hampshire — one of a record five teams advancing from the Colonial Athletic Association — was the only four-loss team to make the postseason. The Wildcats’ resume was strengthened by an early season win over FBS Marshall.
Wofford and Appalachian State, two teams the Eagles defeated on the road this year, were the only Southern Conference schools in the field. Wofford earned the league’s automatic bid and will travel to No. 3 seed Montana, while two-time defending national champion App State got in with an at-large berth and will host 2004 national champion James Madison. Both games are scheduled for Saturday.
Though the Eagles fell short of their first postseason trip since 2005, the strides they made this season were remarkable. Led by first-year coach Chris Hatcher, the team rebounded quickly from last year’s school-worst 3-8 record under one-and-done coach Brian VanGorder.
“It was awesome,” senior running back Dusty Reddick said of the 2007 campaign. “This coaching staff and this group of guys have done so much. It was a special group of seniors. We started all over at square one and came out and competed well with every team we played this year. We were just a few plays short of making the playoffs.”
Indeed, the Eagles can point to a handful of plays — several turnovers, an offsides call, a couple missed field goals — that were the difference in their defeats.
“We played hard all year,” said junior safety Chris Covington, who finished as the team’s leading tackler in his first season playing defense. “If a couple calls go a different way or we make a couple plays, we’re in the playoffs. It’s never a good feeling to end the season not being in the playoffs, but we made a great turnaround. I think Coach Hatcher’s a big part of that. Everybody bought into the system, and it’s just been great.”
Said Hatcher, “We haven’t given up all year. When I took the job in January, the only thing I promised was we were going to play hard each and every week. These boys have been through a lot this season and the past couple seasons, and we’ve fought through a bunch of adversity. They battled hard, and I’m real proud to be called their coach.”
Former Effingham County High star Lynon Jefferson finished with four catches for 67 yards on the season and had 293 yards and three touchdowns on 16 receptions for his career.
GSU’s four losses were by a combined 20 points, and one was decided in overtime, another in double overtime and the third on the final play of regulation. Including Colorado State, GSU was in every game it played this fall. Overall, it was stark contrast from 2006 when the Eagles ended the season with a five-game losing skid.
“It was definitely a significant turnaround,” said Walter Payton Award finalist Jayson Foster, the Eagles’ star quarterback. “It was a season full of two or three plays a game that would have gone differently and we might have been 11-0 instead of 7-4. Hopefully next year we’ll learn from it and make those plays.”
Georgia Southern tailored its game plan around Foster this season, and the senior delivered, running for 1,844 yards and 24 touchdowns and throwing for 1,203 yards and six scores. He broke the NCAA Division I mark for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback and also set single-season GSU records for total offense (3,047) and plays (431).
Foster’s 1,844 rushing yards this year is second-most in Eagle history and third-best in the SoCon record books.
He finished second in the nation in rushing, behind Colgate’s Jordan Scott by 31 yards. Georgia Southern, as a team, led the nation in rushing with 326.3 yards per game. SoCon rival Wofford was second among FCS teams in rushing.
“Now it’s time for the underclassmen to step up and get ready for next year,” Foster said.
With the season now complete, Hatcher and his staff will turn their focus towards bringing in new talent. The Eagles lose 22 seniors, including seven of their top offensive linemen.
“We’ve been recruiting all season, but we’ll step it up a notch now,” Hatcher said.