With just over a month before the 2018 season kicks off, there is no doubt that the Georgia Southern Eagles still have plenty of work to do in order to escape the spectre of last year’s disastrous 2-10 campaign.
It was the worst mark in program history, cost Tyson Summers his first head coaching job and left thousands of fans struggling to pinpoint exactly what had sent the program off the tracks.
The easy scapegoat in the matter is Summers. After all, he managed just a 5-13 record during his short stint while the previous 33 years of Eagle football had only ever suffered one losing season. And that finger-pointing gets more powerful considering that Summers inherited a 9-4 team that had just dispatched the MAC champions from Bowling Green in the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl and that was bringing most of the key members of that squad back.
When what should have been a loaded 2016 squad managed just a 5-7 mark, it was terrifying to think what would happen when that season’s depth chart was decimated by graduation. And sure enough, 2017 saw a bunch of freshmen and sophomores flailing about, taking loss after loss in the process.
Fans and players alike are hoping that 18 returning starters and a full offseason’s worth of work with head coach Chad Lunsford and his revamped coaching staff will help the Eagles bounce back in a big way. It will take until at least September to get a grip on how much the team has improved, but there is another factor that could give Georgia Southern a big helping hand in the Sun Belt standings.
A quick skim of rival Sun Belt teams shows that many of those rosters — especially those of perennial conference title contenders — said goodbye to tons of talented seniors last year. More specifically, the Eagles’ new depth chart is easily the most experienced of any team in the newly formed East Division of the Sun Belt.
Troy is replacing a three-year starter at quarterback and half of a receiving corps that made up the league’s most lethal passing attack last year. Georgia State is trying to flip nearly all of what was a stingy defense. Appalachian State loses a couple of All-Sun Belt performers on its defensive front seven and will be looking for a new quarterback for the first time in four years.
In fact, Georgia Southern is the only team in the division with a returning starter at quarterback and brings back over 95 percent of its offensive yard gainers from 2017.
It would be foolish to look at a still-young Eagle squad — fresh off of a 2-10 trainwreck of a season — and predict that they’re set up for a perfect storm, but they will also have the benefit of having already cleared some of the player development hurdles that their rivals will be facing this fall.
This could be the hardest lesson learned for Georgia Southern in its jump up to FBS. At the highest level of college football, only a very small number of teams can rest assured that they can field top-level players at every position with each passing season. In the ‘Group of 5’ conferences, the culture and coaching can make some schools consistent winners, but there is a reason that 11 and 12-win seasons for G5 schools usually only come in spurts of one or two years.
A lot needs to break right for smaller schools to have enough talent all over the field to beat P5 schools and win bowl games in multiple years. Georgia Southern’s well ran dry last season, but they’re trying to refill beginning in September.
If the new coaching philosophies succeed and the players have all stepped up their game, the added fact that much of the rest of the conference is scrambling to find new stars could make a Georgia Southern turnaround quicker than expected.