Throughout Georgia Southern's journey from a storied FCS program to an FBS school looking to make its mark on the college football landscape, the message has been clear that the Eagles want to grow and develop as a school and program while staying true to what has made them successful.
That idea was framed perfectly in the Eagles' blowout 58-27 GoDaddy Bowl victory over Bowling Green on Wednesday night in Mobile, Ala.
Gameday for Georgia Southern began as it so often does. Eagle fans traveled en masse to support their team, and — thanks to the holiday season — a few yellow school buses were made available to escort the Eagles to Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile.
But instead of driving past a romanticized drainage ditch in order to play in front of a modest crowd in a sleepy college town off the beaten path, those buses were driving through the downtown streets of a city thrilled to be hosting the Eagles. And at the end of that bus ride, Georgia Southern players were dropped off for a game against a conference champion, airing in primetime on ESPN for the entire nation to see.
After a few days filled with all the perks and fringe benefits of a bowl trip, the Eagles honored their oldest and most storied tradition by heading back to Statesboro with a win. And what a win.
Georgia Southern's bowl victory wasn't the top of the mountain. It's far from it. The national semifinals are still a week away, and the Eagles would have needed at least three more wins over the course of the regular season to even be considered for a marquee New Year's bowl game, much less a crack at a national championship.
But there is no doubting that the Eagles are on the right path and that the team's fans are well aware of that.
By way of a quick glance at the stands, GSU fans easily outnumbered Bowling Green supporters by a count of at least 3 to 1. The days before (and hours after) Georgia Southern's win saw the streets of downtown Mobile overflowing with "Hail Southern" chants.
Bowling Green fans might be veterans of bowl trips and a bit more reserved, but every one that I encountered was quick to point out their surprise at how excited and supportive Eagle fans were. Following the game, another group of Falcon fans had the same to say about the Georgia Southern team, marveling about how the team seemed to be much more excited, focused and determined to win than the Bowling Green squad.
With the excitement of the build-up and the actual game now behind us and the books officially closed on the season, it will be hard to argue that Dec. 23, 2015, is not already one of the most important dates in program history.
The Eagles have grown up, and — not to the surprise of many GSU fans — they've done so far faster than could reasonably be expected.
Last season, the Eagles found FBS success in their first year, when most other FCS move-ups require the better part of a decade to find their footing. This season, the Eagles experienced the downside of success in FBS as they watched a bigger and richer program poach a coach.
And now the Eagles get to include themselves in the pageantry and celebration of the bowl season and have wasted no time grabbing the extra attention and announcing to the nation what they're capable of.
While there are many more steps that can be taken in Georgia Southern's journey into the FBS, Wednesday was, along with the Sun Belt championship, as big a leap as any the Eagles have made so far.
And my guess is, we ain't seen nothin' yet.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.