Just a little less than eight months after Georgia Southern ended its 2016 season with an upset victory over Troy, it’s finally game week in Statesboro.
The football program has been far from dormant during that time, instituting some coaching changes and recruiting a fresh class of Eagles in the winter, beginning the task of improving during spring practice, continuing to work in the weight room during the summer and then grinding through a tough fall camp.
Now it’s finally time to play some games.
“We’re mostly excited about just being able to play football,” GS coach Tyson Summers said. “I’ll say again that we have a very good summer and fall camp. We’re excited about what we’ve been able to do to improve as a team and now we have an opponent to look forward to.”
The excitement throughout the team is palpable throughout the team, but that doesn’t mean that an offseason’s worth of hard work is guaranteed to produce success. After all, Georgia Southern begins its 2017 campaign with a date at 12th-ranked Auburn.
Plenty of Eagle fans remember taking down an SEC foe when the Eagles topped Florida in 2013. But the joy and catharsis of that day are now resting in the memories of Eagle Nation and on the walls of the Ted Smith Family Football Center. Once again invading the home of a highly-touted SEC school, it will be another uphill battle — but one the Eagles are prepared for.
“We certainly (are looking to win),” Summers said. “We don’t approach any game thinking about loing. Auburn is a tough team, but we expect to compete. Whether I’m brushing my teeth, playing cards or coaching, I”m competing and trying to win. That’s what we expect from our team.”
The Tigers — who are projected to contend with Alabama for the top spot in the SEC West — are bigger on paper, hold a national ranking and can point to four and five-star recruits up and down the depth chart. Georgia Southern is used to facing those kinds of challenges when it steps into the SEC or ACC to punch above its weight class, but the latest Eagle squad to go hunting for a statement win is about as young as it gets.
Last year’s season finale saw graduating seniors take up most of the field. They are gone now, along with a wealth of experience and talent. Just eight seniors are currently listed on the Georgia Southern roster and Monday morning saw the release of a depth chart that is packed with more than its fair share of freshmen and sophomores.
The last few recruiting classes for the Eagles have ranked high when compared to the rest of the Sun Belt. The coaching staff has sung the praises of its young talent, but now they’ll have to prove it when it counts.
Nowhere will that be more evident than along the Eagles’ defensive front.
Deshon Cooper, Ty Phillips and Raymond Johnson III are all scheduled to make their first career starts on Saturday. One step further down the depth chart reveals a true freshmen (Melton Brown Jr.) and two redshirt freshmen (Traver Vliem, Randy Wade Jr.) who will also see their first collegiate action.
That inexperiened group will have to contend with a talented Auburn offensive line and a pair of running backs that will look to spend most of their Saturday evening running hard and downhill into the interior line.
“We’re going to need a good effort out of the young guys,” GS defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Lorenzo Costantini said. “The biggest thing is getting up after each play and getting to the line since Auburn runs its offense very quickly.
“It’s tiring and it can be confusing. We need our guys to look for the call and trust the call - don’t overthink and just play hard.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday night and the game can be viewed on the SEC Network. Auburn announced on Monday afternoon that all tickets for the game have sold out.