At about this time last year, Georgia Southern football fans were getting pretty antsy about the upcoming season.
With the Eagles’ first campaign as a Football Bowl Subdivision member still a couple of months away, the new coaching staff was in place, the schedule was set, and all that was left to do was to worry about how the team would carry itself as a transitional team.
With fall camp still off in the distance and with the oppressive Statesboro heat rendering most other recreational sporting activities impossible, attention turned to the various preseason rankings that incite countless arguments and premature chest-thumping before the season’s first kickoff.
The projections ahead of the 2014 season weren’t promising for the Eagles — although that wasn’t unexpected. For nearly two decades, any team making the leap up from Football Championship Subdivision was met with a rude welcome and, in many cases, took a handful of years to get up to speed and climb toward the top of the standings.
With the struggles of those previous teams in mind, pretty much everyone with a vote in any sort of preseason poll wasn’t giving the Eagles the benefit of a doubt. Both the coaches’ and media polls for the Sun Belt Conference had Georgia Southern finishing in the bottom half of the conference. For those ambitious polls that attempted to rank all 128 FBS squads, the Eagles were almost unanimously placed in the 115-125 range.
But a funny thing happened on the way to those guaranteed first-year struggles.
Georgia Southern looked every bit the equal of North Carolina State and Georgia Tech in agonizingly close losses during the first month of the season. The Eagles then dominated a South Alabama team that was projected to be a contender in the Sun Belt before pummeling old rival — and fellow FBS newbie — Appalachian State in a Thursday-night matchup that was broadcast to the entire country.
When the dust had settled, Georgia Southern stood as the undisputed Sun Belt champ and the first team in history to go undefeated in conference play in its first season at the FBS level.
Now that we’ve come full circle to another summer, the Eagles will have to endure the expectations of preseason projections instead of being motivated by a perceived slight.
Every Sun Belt preview has lauded the Eagles’ first-year accomplishments and will attest that it was no fluke. Some are predicting Appalachian to claim the league crown this season, but all are citing Georgia Southern as a main contender for the 2015 championship.
And the new optimism for the Eagles isn’t limited to the Sun Belt. National publications such as Lindy’s and Athlon have the Eagles squarely in the middle of their national rankings, hopping over dozens of teams that were ranked above them last preseason.
The Orlando Sentinel has been rolling through its 128-team ranking in reverse order and has already covered teams 60-128 with Georgia Southern yet to pop up. Of the teams that have already been ranked lower than the Eagles, nine of them dot this fall’s Georgia Southern schedule, including season-opening opponent West Virginia, which clocks in at No. 66 — a revelation that has some Mountaineer fans absolutely beside themselves.
That’s all well and good for now. Eagle fans and players alike should be enormously proud of what has been accomplished in just one season. Not only did Georgia Southern rise straight to the top of its new conference, but the Eagles also have garnered the attention of bowl committees and become an underdog darling for a number of college-football writers who previously had little interest in anything coming out of the Sun Belt.
Of course, all of this newfound respect only remains a positive thing if the Eagles can back it up.
As good as it must have felt to breeze past so many teams that were expected to make the Eagles’ inaugural FBS season a tough one, it will be that much more painful if Georgia Southern fails to capitalize on the increased number of eyes that will be watching this season.
Last year was all about proving doubters and new rivals wrong. Now that the Eagles are drawing in bigger recruits, begrudging respect and increased attention from the higher-ups of the college-football world, it’s time to prove everyone right.