With just three games remaining in the regular season, the picture is now clear for Georgia Southern.
Another year has gone by with close-but-not-quite showings against Power 5 opponents and a share of another Sun Belt Championship is only attainable through a cavalcade of upsets and favorable outcomes too convoluted and unlikely to even discuss at the moment.
What is still on the table is a return trip to a bowl game, and the Eagles (4-5, 3-2 Sun Belt) must win at least two of their final three to qualify for their second bowl game since becoming eligible to participate in the FBS postseason last year.
“You take it one play or one game or one whatever at a time, but everyone knows where we stand," GS coach Tyson Summers said. “Everyone wants to make a bowl game and we know what needs to happen to do it. The best way to go about it is to go out and get a win on Thursday."
A bowl game would be great, but Summers’ main focus is getting his team back on track after losing five of six since a 3-0 start. He mentioned that he was still pleased after reviewing tape from the Eagles' 37-27 loss at Ole Miss last weekend, but also reiterated earlier claims that he would rather find positives after a win.
For the Eagles’ seniors, a strong finishing kick and the opportunity to play in another bowl game is personal.
Fourth and fifth-year players at Georgia Southern were recruited into the program knowing that their postseason chances would be limited. The Eagles weren't eligible to compete in the playoffs during their final FCS season in 2013 and — due to an arguably useless NCAA rule - were also ineligible for a 2014 bowl game despite going 9-3 and winning the Sun Belt Conference championship with a perfect 8-0 mark.
Finally able to venture to a bowl game last season, the Eagles tied the bow on one of the most successful transitions to FBS in history with a dominating win over the Mid-American Conference champions from Bowling Green.
But there are still quite a few contributors from those three squads who would love to go out with a bang.
"We want to send the seniors our right," senior defensive lineman Jay Ellison said. "It's a big deal to get a bowl game at the end of the year. We've been working hard all year, but getting to a bowl is going to make us work even harder."
Also working hard is the Georgia Southern offense.
The Eagles' usually-vaunted attack has fallen on lean times for much of the season, but looked more like its usual self against Ole Miss. Georgia Southern racked up 401 yards against a Rebel defense stacked with talent and could have easily done more damage if not for Kevin Ellison having to battle through injury for nearly three quarters.
While the offensive output was once again potent, the Eagles also welcomed back the art of the big play. Many games this season have seen the Eagles grind for every yard and point. Against Ole Miss, the Eagles blocked a punt to set up a touchdown and also got a 29-yard passing strike from Kevin Ellison and a 64-yard touchdown run from Matt Breida.
"It definitely felt good to see that play open up," Breida said. "I have to give credit to the line. I think everyone on the offense did a better job with our assignments and it got us some big plays. That's what we have to keep doing."
For the second time in three weeks, the Eagles are looking at a quick turnaround. Scheduled to play Appalachian State less than 100 hours after landing from a trip to New Mexico State a couple of weeks ago, Georgia Southern is facing a nearly identical situation this week.
UL Lafayette is in town for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff Thursday night at Paulson Stadium and Eagle players and coaches have been prepping for the Ragin' Cajuns since before the team got out of Mississippi.
"A couple of extra days would be nice," Summers said of the quick turnaround. "But we're playing Thursday and we expect to compete and win. It's another televised game and another chance to show a lot of people what Georgia Southern can do."
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.