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GSU set to return to Beautiful Eagle Creek
Practice starts Thursday as Eagles prepare for last trip through SoCon
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Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The off-season — which exists primarily in name only — concludes Wednesday as the Georgia Southern Eagles report for camp, a month before the 2013 college football season opener against Savannah State.

After a third consecutive appearance in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals, the Eagles will approach this campaign knowing at least one thing: they can’t play in the semifinals again.

A move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, which will begin next season, precludes the Eagles from taking part in the FCS playoffs. Georgia Southern has been in the I-AA/FCS playoffs 19 times, compiling a 45-13 record and winning six national championships. Head coach Jeff Monken insisted earlier this summer motivation won’t be an issue, even with a season that will end with Nov. 23’s date with Florida.

“We’re excited about the 2013 season,” he said. “As I’ve been telling everybody, we’ve always got a lot to play for at Georgia Southern. We’ve got a history and tradition as good as anybody in the country at any level. There have been a lot of teams that have played football at Georgia Southern over the last 30 years that have been tremendously successful and they didn’t have anything to play for at the beginning.”

Georgia Southern, 10-4 a year ago, returns the bulk of an offense that averaged nearly 467 yards and 34.5 points per game last year. Seven starters are back, including quarterback Jerick McKinnon and fullback Dominique Swope, each of whom topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark last season.

McKinnon amassed 1,817 yards rushing a year ago, and the Eagles also bring back four of five starting offensive linemen.

While the defense lost NFL draft pick J.J. Wilcox and free-agent signees Darius Eubanks and Brent Russell, it also returns seven starters from 2012.

But the Eagles were dogged by injuries during spring practice, so much so that the traditional Blue-White spring game was turned into an ordinary scrimmage. Senior slotback Robert Brown was forced to give up football because of injuries, and linebacker Patrick Flowe will miss the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament.

“We had 28 guys in red jerseys,” lamented Monken, referring to the red jerseys Eagles players when they are being held out of practice for medical reasons. “But most of those guys will be ready for preseason camp.”

The Eagles’ first practice will be Thursday, and they will host Savannah State on Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. at Paulson Stadium. They will play eight straight Southern Conference games from Sept. 14 at Wofford through Nov. 16 at Elon.

Georgia Southern won’t get a chance to add a seventh FCS national championship flag to its pole, but Monken believes there are still goals to be met. Since joining the Southern Conference 20 years ago, the Eagles have won 10 league titles.

The SoCon may not recognize the Eagles as champions if they finish atop the standings — but their fourth-year coach said he will. For one thing, the Eagles haven’t gone undefeated in the league on Monken’s watch.

“We do get to play the eight Southern Conference teams,” he said. “We have yet to go 8-0 in the Southern Conference. That’s been one of our goals. It would be hard to argue we’re not Southern Conference champions if we go 8-0 in the league.”

Monken acknowledged he’s disappointed the Eagles will not get an opportunity for a 20th playoff appearance and a shot at one more national championship before departing for the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference. Still, he’s anxious to see what the 2013 Eagles can achieve.

“I think we’ve got a talented enough football team,” he said. “It will depend on how well our guys play together as a team, if they play up to their full potential and they exude the toughness that we value in a football team. If we’re not tough and we don’t play hard, we’re probably not going to be very good.

“Our focus is completely on this season and to have the best season we can this year. We owe it to Georgia Southern and we owe it to the program.”