There has not been an official Georgia Southern athletic event since the Eagle baseball team beat Georgia on March 11. On Saturday, the Georgia Southern football team becomes the first Eagle team to play since then, as they christen in the 2020 season hosting Campbell at 3:30 pm.
For the first time since it began in 1939 the NCAA basketball tournament was cancelled. Both College World Series as well as seasons for track and field, golf, tennis and swimming were all shut down. Student athletes learned the hard way that life wasn’t fair, and they had to get used to the new normal.
College football players typically watch ESPN in the late summer and early fall to see what other teams are looking like, but the past few months they have been tuned to ESPN to see what programs and conferences have decided to delay, or cancel the season more than anything else.
Thankfully for Georgia Southern student athletes the Sun Belt conference decided to go on with fall sports, and despite having to make a couple scheduling adjustments, the Eagles will open the season Saturday against Campbell.
“It’s a weird vibe with all that has happened, but we are so excited to be able to play football,” said Eagle receiver Dexter Carter Jr. “Everybody on the team seems locked in and ready to go. You always get hyped up for the first game of the season, but with this one this year I think we are even more ready.”
The players and coaches know the atmosphere will be different, with attendance capped at just over 6,000, but they are just happy to get a chance to play at all.
“We know there are some schools that are not getting the chance to play football this year at all,” said defensive lineman Raymond Johnson. “We would love for all of our fans and family to be here, but we know we are blessed to be able to play at all. We don’t take anything for granted, especially with this being my senior year.”
There have been a few bumps along the road for the Eagles. They had to suspend practice for a few days because of COVID-19 testing issues, but like the players, the coaching staff has been eagerly anticipating Saturday’s season opener.
“I always believed this day would happen,” said Eagle Coach Chad Lunsford. “There have been days when you maybe thought it wouldn’t, but there is definitely a lot of excitement with our guys as Saturday draws closer. We don’t want to take anything for granted, because we know how quickly it can all be taken away from you. We have to make sure each day we take advantage of the ability to practice, and hopefully play.”
Lunsford is aware that the game day will be a lot more different than any home game the players have experienced before, but he feels 6,000 at Paulson Stadium can still make enough noise to make a difference.
“We still feel like we will have an awesome game day atmosphere,” said Lunsford. “Last year we had so many rain games where the crowd was down in numbers, but they were still loud. The Coastal Carolina game comes to mind, and when we were in overtime the place sounded pretty full. The players understand that it may be a little different, but we practice every day without fans so I think we will be fine.”
As for the team across the field, the Campbell Camels may need to be dubbed an honorary member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Big South Conference cancelled football, but the Camels were able to pick up nine games including opening up against three straight Sun Belt teams in Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State.
The Camels were fourth in the Big South last season, and were 6-5 overall. Campbell had a six game win streak last year, but ended the season with four straight losses including a 38-35 loss to then 11th ranked Kennesaw State.
Campbell’s offense is led by Big South offensive Freshman of the Year Hajj-Malik Williams. Williams threw for 2,042 yards and 17 touchdowns, and rushed for a team-high 664 yards and nine scores in 2019.
“Their quarterback was a kid we recruited out of high school,” said Lunsford. “After watching him throughout the season last year on film, he’s a guy we’d love to have on our team. They played really well for a stretch last year, and you can see why they won those games.”
“They are very explosive with their spread offense, and dual threat quarterback,” said Lunsford. “Defensively they play a four-down front. They are solid and disciplined on special teams, and I think they are a very good opponent to start off the season with.”
The Eagles and Camels are set for a 3:30 kickoff at Paulson Stadium. The game is being televised on ESPNU.