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Georgia Southern's 4-year reality check
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This report is the final installment in a six-part series about the state of Georgia Southern Athletics. Part six takes focuses on the accomplishments of the football Eagles since joining the Southern Conference in 1993. Wednesday’s story was a retrospective of the Eagles from 1993-2005, and the series will conclude today with the program’s change in direction and an overall evaluation of Georgia Southern football as a member of the SoCon.

 

            With a rich football history including six Division I-AA national titles and a Southern Conference history including eight league titles and two national championships, Georgia Southern came to a crossroads in 2006.

            For the first time in the program’s modern era, the Eagles changed their offensive philosophy.

            The change was made after a stunning playoff loss in 2005 in which Mike Sewak’s Eagles saw a 19-point, third-quarter lead quickly turn into a 50-35 loss to Texas State. Sewak’s contract was not renewed, and Brian VanGorder -- at the time a linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and previously the defensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs -- was hired and made the change from the option-based running offense used by the Eagles during each of the championship years to a more common, pro-style, balanced offense.

            VanGorder’s history with the Southeastern Conference and the NFL made him a popular choice as Sewak’s replacement, but the change did not go as smoothly as anticipated.

            The Eagles, who hadn’t lost more than three home games during any prior season in the modern era, lost five of seven on the 2006 home slate and finished with a 3-8 record, a new season low for GSU.

            VanGorder resigned after the conclusion of the season and returned to the NFL, opting to coach Atlanta’s linebackers. He is now the defensive coordinator.

            Georgia Southern moved quickly, finding another coach in Chris Hatcher, whose high-octane passing offense and obvious success at the Division II level -- he won a national title at Valdosta State and left with a career record of 76-12 -- made him another highly-anticipated hire.

            Hatcher made a popular move when he arrived in 2007, moving Jayson Foster -- who started at quarterback as a sophomore in 2005 and was moved to wide receiver in 2006 -- back to quarterback.

            Foster had a record-setting season taking snaps his senior year, winning the Walter Payton Award as the most outstanding player in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), and had the Eagles in good shape nine games into the 2007 season.

            Georgia Southern went 7-2 in the first nine games and both losses were SoCon games which ended in overtime.

            The wheels came off when a 24-22 loss to Furman with the program’s ninth SoCon title on the line ended in a missed field goal, and a 42-34 loss to Colorado State the following week eliminated GSU’s hope of a playoff bid.

            Despite missing the playoffs for the second-straight season, things were looking up for a GSU team which had gone 3-8 the previous year. Two of the seven wins came on the road against No. 5 Appalachian State -- which started the season with a win over Michigan and ended it with its third-straight national title -- and against No. 10 Wofford.

            Foster graduated at the end of the season, and the Eagles began a slow decline, finishing 6-5 in 2008 and 5-6 in 2009.

            Hatcher was released immediately after a 13-7 win over The Citadel ended the 2009 season.

            “We just didn’t feel like next year was going to be any different than this year,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker following the announcement of Hatcher’s dismissal on November 21, 2009. “We just felt like now was the time to do it -- go ahead and make the change and start anew -- working to get our program back to being one of the premier programs in FCS football.”

            With Georgia Southern on a five-year SoCon title draught and a seven-year stretch without a win in the playoffs, Appalachian State took advantage, becoming the SoCon’s top program.

            The Mountaineers are the only team ever to win three-straight FCS national championships (2005, 2006, 2007), and have won at least a share of the SoCon title every year since 2005.

            Since Georgia Southern joined the league in 1993, only five teams have won even a share of the league championship -- Georgia Southern (8), Appalachian State (7), Furman (3), Marshall (2) and Wofford (2). In 1996, Marshall left the league and Wofford joined.

            Winning the league outright in the time period has been an even harder task to accomplish. Marshall did it in 1994 and 1996, but of the league’s current members, only three have done it -- Georgia Southern (5 -- 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002), Appalachian State (5 -- 1995, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009) and Wofford (1 -- 2003).

            The Eagles have only finished the season with a losing record in Southern Conference games only twice -- 1996 and 2006.

            Though Georgia Southern has the edge in SoCon titles (8) and playoff appearances (10), ASU has set the bar in playoff wins. In nine appearances since 1993 the Mountaineers are 21-6, and are 15-2 the five appearances since 2005.

            The Eagles have appeared in the playoffs 10 times in the span, going 18-8 and appearing in three national title games, winning two championships. They have made it to the semifinal round five times -- four under Paul Johnson and once under Sewak.

            As far as playoff appearances go, no other current SoCon member comes close to what GSU and ASU have done since 1993. Furman is 5-6 in six playoff appearances, going the farthest in 2001 after eliminating the Eagles to advance to the championship game, where it lost 13-6 to Montana.

            Marshall went 13-2 in the playoffs with back-to-back national titles from 1993-96 before making its exit from thee conference, and only three other SoCon programs -- Wofford (2-3, three appearances) , Elon (0-1, one appearance) and East Tennessee State (1-1, one appearance) -- have advanced to the postseason in the past 18 years.

            Jeff Monken, who was on Johnson’s staff at GSU, Navy and Georgia Tech from 1997-2009, was hired to bring back the option offense and lead the Eagles into 2010.

            Monken feels that the program’s history can only help the current team improve.

“There’s more people that care,” he said. “The expectations are there, but there’s a standard set for our players. They walk the hallways of (the Parrish Center) every day. They see the championship trophies, they see the All-American pictures and they see the records. There’s a standard that’s been set. I think our players, they want to be good. … Everybody wants that. Knowing that there’s been success here, hopefully that puts less doubt in their mind that it can be done. It can be done, but it’s going to be up to them.

“It’s certainly easier than taking a program that hasn’t ever done it, where there is no tradition of winning, and trying to take it to the top.”        

 

My Conclusion

            It’s been clear since Georgia Southern joined the Southern Conference in 1993 and Marshall left in 1996 that two programs have dominated – Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.

            The biggest crossroads in the modern era of GSU football happened in 2005 when Sewak was released and a new offensive philosophy was experimented with, and the turn taken by the program is clear -- it was a failed experiment.

            After a promising season during Hatcher’s first year, the team’s yearly record slowly declined and the losses went up not only in frequency but in margin of defeat.

            As it had been in the past, the decline of the program was met with swift action, and Hatcher was released to make way for Monken and the return to the option offense.

            The decision was a popular one among the program’s sentimental fan base, but the direction the program will take from here is a question only time will answer.

            It is clear that Georgia Southern was the top program in the SoCon for the first 14 years after it joined the conference, and it is equally clear that during GSU’s shift from the bottom of the pack to the middle during the last four years, the Mountaineers have run away with the league.

            Appalachian State has won at least a share of the SoCon title each year since 2005 and won the last two of its three-straight championships since GSU changed its offense.

            While the records of the two programs are strikingly similar over the last 18 years, it is clear which one is on the rise and which is on the decline.

            History shows that the sky is the limit for the Georgia Southern Eagles, but recent tribulations show how quickly success can turn into mediocrity.

            The recent record, as well as the recent domination by ASU, hurts the overall grade of a once A+ GSU program, and only the future knows if the downward trend will continue or the program will return to the top of the pack. The Eagles have a lot of room for improvement, and a lot farther to potentially fall.

 

Overall grade for Georgia Southern football: B

      Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.