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GSU - The road begins in Birmingham
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Georgia Southern football player Roderick Tinsley, right, juggles some drinks for teammates as he boards a bus Friday morning while fans see off the team as they travel to take on Samford in their season opener in Birmingham, AL - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

  Don’t expect Samford to be intimidated by Georgia Southern’s No. 3 national  ranking when the two meet Saturday night in Birmingham.
    It’s not only the season opener, but also the Southern Conference opener for the two teams. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
    Georgia Southern is coming off a 10-5 season which saw it reach the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. With 20 starters returning the Eagles now find themselves in the role of the hunted.
    How they handle the spotlight will be interesting as the Eagles will be playing a team that has been a bit of a puzzle for them. 
    Since joining the SoCon in 2008 season Coach Pat Sullivan’s teams are 9-24 in league play. However, they are 3-0 against Georgia Southern, and 3-0 against Western Carolina.
    It is rare when teams play a conference opponent in their opener, but Eagle Coach Jeff Monken is putting a positive spin on it. He perhaps realizes he may have caught a break by facing Samford so early.
    “The good thing about it is if you can find a way to win the game someone’s going to leading the league to start the season,” Monken said. “You start 1-0, and that’s a good thing. You hope it’s your team.”
    Sullivan, who is perhaps better known — unfairly many will agree — as Auburn’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 1971 than he is as a football coach, believes he has the makings of a good team despite heavy losses from last year including all time leading rusher Chris
Evans.
    “Georgia Southern is an outstanding team,” Sullivan said. “They are deserving of their ranking, but I believe before the end of the year we’re going to be a
good team, too.”
    While Evans and standout linebacker Bryce Smith have departed quarterback Dustin Taliaferro returns for his fourth season, and Sullivan believes he has some good talent around him.
    Sullivan has made an offensive change in an attempt to help Taliaferro return to the form which saw him earn SoCon Freshman of the Year honors in 2007.
    New offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was at Auburn last year. He plans on running a more up tempo offense with Sullivan’s blessings.
    “It’s not a wholesale change from what we’ve been doing,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to be more up tempo.
    We’re a young team compared to last year,” Sullivan said. “We lost 25 seniors off last year’s team. Our first year here we couldn’t afford to redshirt anyone, and now we’re paying for it.”
    The cupboard isn’t bare, however, Sullivan said.
    Taliaferro, of course, is one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the league. He threw for 1,427 yards last year, completing 133 of 224 attempts. His top receiver was Quin Roberson with 31 receptions, and he also returns.
    Tailback Fabian Truss gained 301 yards as a freshman, and Sullivan expects him, along with freshmen Stanley Robinson and Jeremiaha Gates, to present a solid running game.
    Linebacker Darion Sutton and cornerbacks Corey White and Isaac Cooper all have a chance to be among the best in the league at their position, Sullivan said.
    Samford will be attempting to match Marshall as the only SoCon team to beat Georgia Southern four straight years. The powerful Thundering Herd teams of Coach Jim Donnan won in 1993-1995.
    Taliaferro, who played at Roswell High School, is the only starting quarterback to beat the Eagles three times in a row, and he will be seeking to make it four straight.