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Mike's take: A bowl game to remember
Eagle fans, players revel in trip to Montgomery
Camellia Bowl win
Georgia Southern head football coach Chad Lunsford passes the Camellia Bowl trophy to kicker Tyler Bass, left, who hit the game-winning field goal as time expired against Eastern Michigan in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday. (SCOTT BRYANT/staff)

Bowl games often promote themselves as an entire week of fun and a celebration of what the competing teams have accomplished over the course of a long and often grinding season.

Maybe some teams and fan bases out there play favorites with their bowl games and destinations, but for a Georgia Southern team — and its fan base — that suffered through a pair of losing campaigns ending without a postseason, there was never a doubt that the Eagles’ bowl destination would serve as an early Christmas present to everyone involved with the program.

Well before the season ended, Georgia Southern fans were making their bowl plans. As soon as the Eagles hit the 6-win mark, hotel rooms in Mobile, Montgomery, New Orleans and Orlando began to fly off the shelves. The destination was ultimately Montgomery and Eagle Nation paid its first visit to Alabama’s capital city.

Stressing the “nation” portion of Eagle Nation is key as Montgomery could easily have been mistaken for Statesboro over the weekend. Not only did Georgia Southern set a record for Camellia Bowl tickets sold through a school’s athletic department, but most corners of downtown Montgomery were sporting blue and white both before and after the game.

The party started before most fans even set off for Montgomery. In fact, it was how some fans made the trip that grabbed the early headlines.

When a bus chartered for students by GS head coach Chad Lunsford quickly filled up, Eagle alumnus and country music star Cole Swindell stepped in and got another bus in on the action. Then a GS booster chipped in for even more seats to be made available. By the time all was said and done, it wasn’t just bus seats but also tickets and T-shirts that had been donated by various sponsors and organizations.

Montgomery got its first taste of the full force of Georgia Southern 24 hours before kickoff. A week’s worth of soggy and cool weather did nothing to dampen Eagle spirits, nor did it keep anyone from taking full part in the festivities.

According to one Twitter account, an Eagle fan made his way to a designated fan meetup following a Friday evening pep rally for the team. In keeping with a competitive nature that seems to bridge the gap between Eagle players and fans, the GS supporter was about to ask a bartender how the fan participation compared to Appalachian State’s previous appearances in the Camellia Bowl, only to be told not to worry about it as the Eagle fans had already topped their Sun Belt rivals in that category. That statement was made well before many Eagle fans were even done with their dinner and ready to really kick things into high gear.

I awoke on the morning of the game to photographic evidence that proved Saturday would be an even more overwhelming showing of support by Eagle fans. Numerous emails sent to tailgaters stressed that the parking lots wouldn’t open until 9 a.m. On Friday, more emails stated that 8 a.m. was the absolute earliest anyone should show up.

The photo I received showed my friend’s tents and flags already assembled in the tailgating lot with a grill warming up. Meanwhile, the continental breakfast at my hotel that began at 6 a.m. wasn’t yet fully assembled.

By the time the Georgia Southern team arrived at the stadium, Eagle Nation was in a fever pitch. Once again arriving in style in some yellow buses borrowed from local schools, the team had to stop several hundred feet short of its designated drop-off spot. The sea of Eagle fans was too thick to drive through, but the players were happy to walk the rest of the way while doling out high-fives.

The game offered its own excitement that can be diagnosed and debated, but if the purpose of a bowl game is really to celebrate a good season, Georgia Southern fans and players were winners well before Tyler Bass split the uprights for the Eagles’ 23-21 victory.

All through the winter, spring and summer of 2018, the Eagles put in the work that was necessary to turn a 2-10 squad into a 10-3 bowl winner. During the offseason, the fans were relegated to nervous optimism on the sidelines, but came forward in droves to spur the team on once it became evident that winning football was back in Statesboro.

In the end, both groups had every reason to celebrate — and they did.

From chartered bus trips, to late-night parties, to several clutch plays that will be recounted again and again, Georgia Southern took everything that bowl season had to offer.

And after a week’s worth of Georgia Southern fans and players doing what they do best, it might be Montgomery — and any future bowl destinations for the Eagles — that is left wanting more.

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