Georgia Southern’s 35-7 loss to North Dakota State in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals Saturday was not the holiday party GSU fans anticipated. The Eagles’ season, however, turned out to be quite a gift.
After producing a 3-8 record under Brian VanGorder in 2006, and going 7-4 (2007), 6-5 (2008) and 5-6 (2009) under Chris Hatcher, GSU this season advanced to the FCS semifinals for a second consecutive season under second-year head coach Jeff Monken.
"It is really hard to get here," Monken said during the post-game news conference at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. "There are 125 teams at this level and four are left this weekend. I am tremendously proud of our team and our seniors, who two years ago were 5-6. They provided positive leadership for our team and our program."
After preseason camp began Aug. 4, GSU was picked to finish third in the FCS Coaches’ Preseason Poll. The Eagles cruised to victories over Samford, Tusculum, Western Carolina and Elon.
GSU improved to 5-0 after beating Chattanooga, 28-27, on Oct. 8 at Paulson Stadium. The following week, the Eagles crushed Furman, 50-20, at Paulson.
Spirits were high among GSU fans in Statesboro, Savannah and the rest of the Coastal Empire during the Eagles’ seven-week run as the No. 1 team in the nation.
But GSU lost its ranking in a 24-17 loss to Appalachian State on Oct. 29 at "The Rock" in Boone, N.C.
The lingering effects of the emotional loss to the Mountaineers were visible the following week as GSU escaped Paulson Stadium with a 14-12 homecoming victory over The Citadel. As a result, the grumbling grew louder from some Eagles fans.
But GSU’s coaches and players didn’t panic. Instead, they responded with perhaps their best game of the season, a 31-10 victory over Wofford in Spartanburg, S.C., to win the Southern Conference championship for the first time since 2004.
A confident GSU stormed into Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 19, eager to shock the college football world. A Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd of 101,821 watched, often in disbelief, as the Eagles masterfully executed their triple-option attack for 302 yards rushing against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama won, 45-21, but GSU scored more points and ran for more yards than any opponent has this season against Alabama’s top-ranked defense. GSU’s performance prompted Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban to say, "This has been a tough week for us from a defensive standpoint, and I’m glad it’s over."
As a result of its SoCon championship, GSU earned an automatic bid into the FCS playoffs and was rewarded with a first-round bye. The Eagles beat Old Dominion, 55-48, in a second-round playoff game Dec. 3 at Paulson Stadium.
The following week, GSU emerged from Paulson with a 35-23 victory over Maine in the FCS quarterfinals.
Saturday, in the FCS semifinals, GSU fumbled three times against North Dakota State. All three fumbles resulted in Bison touchdowns. North Dakota State advanced to the FCS championship game and will play top-ranked Sam Houston State on Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
As the individual postseason awards continue to come in, GSU will continue to recruit players from throughout the country. National Signing Day is Feb. 1, 2012.
Monken and his assistants clearly have GSU’s program back on track. The quest for a seventh national championship already has begun for next season.
Only 255 days remain until GSU begins its 2012 football season against Jacksonville University on Sept. 1 at Paulson Stadium.
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.