When Georgia Southern takes the field at Georgia State Stadium this afternoon, there will be plenty to play for. Every win is precious for the Eagles (8-3, 5-2 Sun Belt Conference) and one more favorable notch on the resume can only help when bowl selection committees make their offers on Dec. 2.
And then there is the opponent on the opposite sideline.
To say that there is no love lost when Georgia Southern and Georgia State (2-9, 1-6) get together is as much of an understatement as casually observing that open flames and dry forests might be a bad match.
In just four meetings, plenty of storylines have already built up the history between the teams.
The initial matchup in 2014 saw the Eagles lay waste to a struggling Panthers squad. State had beaten Southern to the ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision - albeit without much success on the field - but it was the Eagles that drew first blood with a blowout victory en route to a Sun Belt championship.
Georgia Southern had the first laugh, but that’s the last one for the Eagles to date.
The Panthers scored a huge upset in 2015, not only getting their first win in the series, but also clinching bowl eligibility on the final day of the season. Neither team had much to smile about in 2016, but it was State that won a battle of losing teams.
Last season was the best in Panthers history and it rolled into Paulson Stadium to face a then-winless Eagle squad. Georgia Southern nearly returned the upset from 2015, but it was Georgia State escaping with a late score to win the game and run its streak to three straight over its in-state rival.
History has proven that nothing should be taken for granted in this game, but it also seems clear that all signs point towards Georgia Southern ending the losing streak, padding its already stout resume while piling on to what has been a miserable year for the Panthers.
If Georgia Southern is to finally break through in the series, it will likely come on the back of its bread and butter - the running game.
The Eagles’ option attack hasn’t always been consistent or explosive this season, but it has shown spots of brilliance and has come up with enough key plays to make the difference in each of the team’s wins to date.
Conversely, the Georgia State rushing defense has been a sieve for most of the year. The Panthers are tied for 122nd in the country (out of 129 FBS teams), allowing an average of 248.7 yards on the ground per game. Youth and injuries have been the main culprit for Georgia State as a senior-laden unit that was among the best in the conference last season left behind a roster with plenty of holes and not much depth.
On the other side of the ball, it will be a battle of a couple of singularly talented Panthers against a Georgia Southern defense that has had some bad days, but that is also notorious for making game-changing plays.
Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington has emerged as one of the most dynamic threats in the conference and he has All-Sun Belt selection Penny Hart — and a bevy of other talented receivers - to target downfield. Deep passes have hurt the Eagles at times, but have also contributed to plenty of interceptions as Georgia Southern continues to lead the nation in turnover margin.
Georgia Southern has the paper trail on its side while Georgia State can trust that this rivalry game has rarely gone as scripted.
The Panthers have bragging rights and momentum in the series while the Eagles are riding a season that has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations and bring a grudge into the showdown.
And that’s why the games are played on the field, and not in computer projections or on message boards.
Just 60 more minutes until the next chapter of the rivalry is written.