Football season never truly ends in Statesboro, but updates from spring practice, summer workouts and preseason camp can only quench some of the thirst.
Luckily for the Eagles and their fans, it’s finally game week.
On Saturday, Georgia Southern will take the field at Paulson Stadium at 6 p.m. to take on Savannah State in the 2016 opener. Sun Belt Conference competition starts the following week for Georgia Southern with a road date at South Alabama, but other conference schools are also chomping at the bit to get things started this week.
The Sun Belt took some steps forward in the national landscape last year, placing four teams in bowl games and winning two of those contests - highlighted by Georgia Southern’s pasting of Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green in the GoDaddy Bowl.
A new bowl tie-in will give the Sun Belt five guaranteed postseason berths if enough teams can qualify this season, giving the conference yet another opportunity to prove that it is moving up in the college football world.
Here are a few thoughts from around the conference as teams prepare for their first games of the season:
The Red Wolves of Arkansas State are the defending conference champions and looked dominant in rolling to an 8-0 mark in Sun Belt play last season. And even with star quarterback Fredi Knighten now graduated, the Wolves have plenty of skill players and a big-play defense that figure to make a strong run at defending their title.
Of course, Arkansas State would do well for itself and the rest of the conference if it could carry that success over to non-conference games.
In its four games against FBS teams outside of the Sun Belt, the Red Wolves posted an 0-4 mark and were outscored by a 166-61 margin.
One of those losses was a 37-7 drubbing at the hands of Toledo. Arkansas State gets a chance for revenge as it hosts the Rockets Friday night.
“It’s a great way to open up the season - under the lights and in front of a lot of eyes on ESPNU,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “Toledo has a really good team coming in. Our guys have had a chance to play them twice and have come up on the short end twice. We have a lot of respect for them, but we’ll be looking to change that outcome.”
While Arkansas State can settle a score with its first non-conference matchup, Appalachian State could send waves through the FBS landscape with a win in its opener.
The Mountaineers - fresh off of an 11-2 campaign and entering this season receiving some votes in the Associated Press poll - will roll into Knoxville this weekend to take on No. 9 Tennessee.
“We’re playing the best of the best, year in and year out,” Appalachian coach Scott Satterfield said. “Even two years ago, we could see the kind of team that Butch Jones was building (at Tennessee). They have super talent and we know that we’re going to have a fight on our hands.”
Plenty of people still remember the Mountaineers’ historic of Michigan nearly a decade ago, but it’s unlikely that Appalachian will sneak up on the Volunteers now that they have proven themselves as a solid FBS program.
Still, the Mountaineers are anxious to see what they can do against one of the presumed powers of the Southeastern Conference.
“This is a chance to play a game against a team that our fans and players and our recruits are familiar with. Most importantly, it’s a chance to maybe do something that no one thinks we can do.”
Along with Arkansas State and Appalachian State, Georgia Southern is among the three favorites to win this season’s Sun Belt championship.
After a third place finish last season, the Eagles bring back the majority of their talent. While their schedule - games at Arkansas State and vs. Appalachian - is tougher than those of their fellow top contenders.
What is a bit easier for the Eagles is their first game of the season.
Georgia Southern has never lost to their coastal Georgia neighbors and doesn’t figure to this week as they are favored by nearly eight touchdowns. But they still have to play the game and it’s all business in the Eagles’ camp.
“We’re looking forward to opening up our season and playing at Paulson for the first time this season,” GS coach Tyson Summers said. “I expect Savannah State to be a good team. I expect coach (Erik) Raeburn to have his players ready. He’s a good coach with 22 wins in the past two seasons, so you expect to face a well-prepared team.”
Summers has alluded throughout the preseason to how the Eagles might attack. Georgia Southern should be aggressive on both sides of the ball, but much of the attention will be on how much option and how much passing is thrown at Savannah State.
To that end, Summers isn’t letting much slip, focussing more on how his team will adjust to a live game setting.
“We’re looking forward to seeing how our guys respond on gameday,” Summers said. “We have a lot of big personalities, but sometimes guys are different on gameday. I know I’m a little more quiet and reserved on gameday.
“We want to go out and play hard. Hopefully, we’ll get some new guys in the mix.”
Around the Sun Belt
No in-conference games are scheduled until next week, but all 11 teams will be in action at some point this week.
Appalachian State kicks things off Thursday with its game against Tennessee. The Sun Belt will also see action in its westernmost outpost Thursday as Idaho hosts Montana State.
On Friday, Arkansas State’s game will be preceded by Georgia State, which will try to match last year’s non-conference win as the Panthers host Ball State.
Saturday sees the Sun Belt take on another P5 opponent as South Alabama travels to Mississippi State. UL Lafayette hosts Boise St. in a marquee G5 game while Texas State visits Ohio. Troy (vs. Austin Peay) and UL Monroe (vs. Southern) join Georgia Southern in taking on FCS opponents.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.