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Winning is the only way up, no matter the method
Georgia Southern quarterback Kevin Ellison, center left, running back Matt Breida, center right, and other seniors celebrate their last game with a crowd leap after defeating Troy 28-24 at Paulson Stadium Saturday.

No matter the level, Georgia Southern football doesn’t seem to be interested in doing things the traditional way.
    In the national college football landscape, change isn’t something that often comes quickly. It can take years for a new offensive or defensive scheme to come into popularity and the talking points about what wins games are similar now to what you would have heard 30 years ago.
    Even more in that vein, the top teams don’t seem to change much as the years come and go. There may be an unheralded team that reaches the mountaintop now and then, but it’s a select few - and usually the same select few - that are always at the top.
    When Georgia Southern restarted football in the 80’s, the Eagles didn’t want to hear any of that.
    Less than five years after starting a program from scratch, Georgia Southern was dancing around with a national championship trophy. Not content to have just one and be called a fluke, the Eagles became the first team to win back-to-back Division I-AA national titles. From there, the Eagles continued to cruise, not only forcing their way to the top, but making themselves one of the only names from college football’s second tier that a casual fan might know.
    When Georgia Southern made the leap to FBS in 2014, the Eagles heard all of the stories about how many great programs have endured years of struggles before getting solid footing in the top tier. The Eagles seemed to scoff at that as well, becoming the first team to ever record an undefeated conference record in its first FBS season before qualifying for - and winning - a bowl game in its first year of eligibility.
    But 2016 has been the year where the hierarchy of college football finally caught up to Georgia Southern.
    While no one would have thought that the Eagles would just continue to mow through opponents until they were banging their heads on the bigger, shinier ceiling of FBS every year, they definitely gave that strategy a good try for a couple of year.
    Now, however, is the Eagles’ first test in their new home. The ‘Group of 5’ isn’t exactly overflowing with world-beaters. Aside from Boise State and - before joining the Big 12 - TCU, there haven’t been any programs from outside the power conferences that have achieved staying power in the national discussion.
    Sure, Western Michigan is an impressive 13-0 and could be headed to the access bowl, but it is much more likely that they go the way of 1998 Tulane, 2007 Hawaii or 2015 Marshall after their one or two years of high-level success. Too often, it seems, incredible success on the fringes of the FBS is the result of one or two great recruiting classes. After they are graduated, previously held levels of achievement seem to become the norm and a lack of funds relative to traditional powers keep the programs from fully capitalizing on their fleeting success.
    This is the new mountain that Georgia Southern must climb. Even with one of the most accomplished senior classes in program history, the Eagles won’t be getting an invitation to the postseason - much less one of the fancy, high-profile bowls.
    Sure, there are plenty that will point to the new coaching staff as the team’s downfall this season. And while not too many methods of evaluation would say that Tyson Summers and company did anything to help out the Eagles’ fate this season, that can’t be the only factor separating 9-4 from 5-7.
    The truth is, when you don’t have a nine-figure athletics budget, a seven-digit booster base, and rely on ‘money games’ against P5 opponents to help balance the books, there will always be a razor-thin margin of error. Just a couple of injuries or bad breaks can shift any team’s final record by a few wins. And when your conference doesn’t have the luxury of nearly a dozen automatic bowl tie-ins with lavish payouts, the lack of those few extra wins make a perfectly decent record inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
    For the established elite of the college football world, there will be down years. There may even be losing seasons. But those are usually followed by a steady and swift improvement - buoyed by national recognition that won’t view the improvement as a passing trend - before resettling back at the top.
    For those in the Eagles’ position, there is only one path to the top.
    Win and win more.
    Win all of the time. Win until those outside of the Georgia Southern bubble take notice of when you lose instead of when you win.
    It’s not a fair deal. And it’s a much tougher task than scaling the realm of FCS.
    But, as the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
    So yeah… The 2016 season wasn’t a great one. It wasn’t really even a decent one. And unlike in years past, the opportunity to get back in the national relevance mix isn’t as simple as making a playoff run next year.
    This year has set some very clear markers for Georgia Southern as to where the bar for success is and where hurdles can hinder the search for that success.
    All that’s left to do is learn from it and do better in 2017.