As the beat writer for Georgia Southern, I have a fairly large amount of access to the Eagles.
In addition to seeing every play of every game — and plenty of practices throughout the spring and preseason — I’m also in on countless player and coach interviews and the occasional run-in outside the scope of football.
Armed with all of those interviews and casual conversations, it’s not hard to keep a running reading on the barometer of the team.
Because of that, I’m about to make a general statement on behalf of the team. It’s something that no coach or player has said - at least not in the harsh terms I will - but it’s something that is hard to ignore.
Whoever signed off on the Eagles’ schedule this season was out of their damn mind.
It’s easy to see why this sentiment is coming from me rather than anyone inside the program. With a season that isn’t quite going as planned and with plenty of questions flying around about the identity of the Eagles’ offense under a new coaching staff, to focus on the schedule seems like a cop-out.
I get that. And I should also point out that who and when and where the Eagles have played so far has nothing to do with many of the other problems facing the team.
But again — what person out at the Sun Belt offices in New Orleans thought that the Eagles’ 2016 schedule looked anywhere close to acceptable?
As it stands, the Eagles have played five of their last six games on the road. They are also the only team in all of FBS that was scheduled to play four consecutive road games.
When looking at the friendly confines of Paulson Stadium, the Eagles play just five of their 12 games at home. That part is understandable. When trading in its FCS heavyweight belt for status as a new team (with a minuscule budget) in a ‘Group of 5’ FBS conference, Georgia Southern knew that balancing the budget by playing more games away from home against more prominent programs was going to be part of the deal.
But look at where these home games are falling. Of the five home games, two are on a Thursday after a road game. This has caused the Eagles to deviate from normal travel plans and has had players cramming dozens of pages worth of advance scouting just hours after finishing a game. This has effectively crushed any sort of home field advantage that is usually provided by more time spent on the home practice field, in meeting rooms, or even just getting sleep in a familiar bed.
To make matters worse, those two Thursday home games were tacked into the Eagles’ already unfavorable road-heavy stretch of schedule. By the time Thursday’s game is done, Georgia Southern will have played 80 percent of its home schedule, but will have had just two full weeks to prepare for a home game.
Combine that fact with the decreased preparation time when having to schedule flights and bus rides for a road trip and it’s fair to say that the Eagles haven’t had a chance to take a deep breath since boarding a plane for Western Michigan on Sept. 23.
Every team has to play its 12 games and almost all would love some extra rest right about now, so a busy schedule isn’t an excuse for falling short of expectations. But when you consider the challenges that this incredibly busy schedule and some untimely injuries have put on a staff that is trying to find its comfort zone, it’s easy to see where the Eagles’ problems aren’t simply a black-and-white issue of play calls or coaching philosophies.
Now, a full 25 percent of the schedule was set in stone. Georgia Southern signed contracts with Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, Savannah State and Western Michigan years ago and firmly planted them on their specific dates on the calendar.
But that only further questions the decisions of the Sun Belt schedule makers.
Somehow, some way, through some sort of drunken stupor, those schedule maker looked at fixed GS road games on Sept. 24, Oct. 15 and Nov. 5 before deciding to shoehorn two league road games and a short week home game into that span. And now another short week welcomes the Eagles as they’re still reeling from the last 45 days.
So now the Eagles are left with their latest short week challenge before —SURPRISE! — going on the road again.
To all of the Eagles’ conference rivals — and probably to a good amount of Eagle fans — there will be no tears shed over the predicament in which Georgia Southern has been placed. Conference foes don’t mind a down tick in the Eagles’ success and even hometown supporters set a high bar of expectations each year, regardless of scheduling quirks or new coaching regimes.
Yet, for those who pay attention to the small details that can lead to huge shifts in the fortunes of a given team from season to season, the Eagles’ schedule stands out as an eyesore.
So to the players and coaches who will be charging onto the field Thursday (for the fourth time in 19 days), know that there are plenty of reasons to keep up the fight. Mostly because a couple of wins over the last few weeks will get Georgia Southern to another bowl game, but also because success at the tail end of the season will show a measure of resilience that the final win-loss record might not reveal.
Oh, and to whoever is in charge of the Sun Belt’s 2017 football schedule, maybe buy a calendar and get some sense before getting back to work.