STATESBORO — The feeling of the 2017 season is akin to 2014 for the Georgia Southern football team.
Three years ago, the Eagles were an FBS start-up ineligible for the postseason, led by a first-year coach and fresh off a 7-4 2013 campaign marred by injuries. They were picked to finish ninth in the Sun Belt as a first-year member.
The Eagles won the conference and then won a bowl game the next season, ascending to the crest of the Sun Belt and gaining notoriety across the Group of 5.
With 22 seniors in line to return for 2016, being the top-ranked Group of 5 team and earning a New Year’s Six bowl berth was the next step.
But the Eagles went 5-7, had no offensive identity and were forced to fire co-offensive coordinators Rance Gillespie and David Dean at the end of head coach Tyson Summers’ first season.
Back to square one.
No one outside of Statesboro is expecting much from Georgia Southern in 2017. A Sun Belt coaches’ poll ranked the Eagles seventh in the league, and they have to play the top four ranked teams — Appalachian State, Troy, Arkansas State and South Alabama. They’re a 34.5-point underdog in Saturday’s season opener at Auburn, which is gearing up for a week two showdown against Clemson.
But the Eagles have always embraced the role of the underdogs, and this year’s group is no different.
“I feel like at Georgia Southern we’re always the underdog,” said junior safety Josh Moon. “That really just pushes us hard. With all the doubt, it just gives us a reason to prove the world wrong.”
And if something can change for the worse in one season, it can also change for the better.
“People know that’s not what Georgia Southern is about,” said quarterback Shai Werts, who was redshirted as a freshman and watched the 2016 season unfold from the sideline. “Personally, I’ve put it in the past.”
Werts is a walking example of this year’s team’s identity — talented, but inexperienced. Georgia Southern has just eight seniors on this year’s roster, the fewest in the FBS, and only four of them are starters.
But head coach Tyson Summers said inexperience doesn’t take away from the leadership Werts has shown since he took off his redshirt.
“I think he’s been the same guy who reported back in January,” Summers said during a press conference Monday. “He’s been the same guy every day. He’s had outstanding leadership qualities every day since then.
“We’re young, but that does not mean we don’t have leadership. I don’t think age creates leadership.”
Starts up front
One area that has plenty of leadership and experience is Georgia Southern’s offensive line, which is returning three starters, another who started two years ago before missing the 2016 season, and a sophomore who saw significant playing time as a freshman.
“Can’t do what we do on offense if those guys don’t play for you and be consistent at what they do,” Summers said. “I think that’s one of the groups and positions that’s had the most drastic improvements. (Offensive line) Coach (Bob) Bodine has done a tremendous job with those guys. I think you’re going to see Curt Rainey, Jeremiah Culbreth coming back after last year, and they have showed a tremendous amount of improvement in what they do and the pride they have in their work each and every day.”
The offensive line had a lot to hang its hat on in 2015, when GS led the nation in rushing at 363 yards per game. Redshirt junior left tackle Tommy Boynton was a part of that group, as were guards Ryan Northrup and Culbreth and center Rainey, but Boynton missed all of 2016 with a severe concussion he sustained during spring practice.
Boynton said the offensive linemen are focused on doing their job first before trying to reclaim the title of the nation’s top rushing offense.
“I think we’re going to be a lot better in this new offense,” Boynton said. “The guys who are up front are going to get their job done because we’re coming back with nearly the same people.
“Most of the pressure isn’t getting back to the No. 1 spot, it’s getting our offense where it needs to be, whether it’s passing or running. It’s getting points on the board. I would love to lead the nation in rushing again because that’s a fantastic honor as an offensive lineman. I’m hoping we can get to that No. 1 spot again.”
If they can, there’s a good possibility the Eagles will climb back near the top of the Sun Belt, and 2016 will just be a bump in the road.
“We didn’t perform as people would want us to, and people are predicting us to … they’re not thinking of us much right now,” Boynton said. “That’s fine with us. We never let any predictions or statistics make a name for us.”
Last season, the Eagles endured an almost unheard of five straight weeks on the road that included two weekday games on short rest. The next home game came against archrival Appalachian State, which turned into a lopsided 34-10 loss.
The Eagles won’t have to go through another gauntlet like that this season, but, like last season, they only play five home games, which inevitably creates some tough stretches. Georgia Southern will play the preseason top-four teams in the conference in consecutive weeks, starting with a trip to Troy on Oct. 28. The Eagles then play back-to-back games against their rivals, hosting Georgia State on Nov. 4 before traveling to Boone, North Carolina on a quick turnaround for a Thursday night game against the Mountaineers on Nov. 9. The Eagles will return home to face South Alabama on Nov. 18.
2017 Georgia Southern football schedule
Saturday|at No. 12 Auburn
Sept. 9|New Hampshire
Sept. 23|at Indiana
Oct. 4|Arkansas State
Oct. 14|New Mexico State
Oct. 21|at UMass
Oct. 28|at Troy
Nov. 4|Georgia State
Nov. 9|at Appalachian State
Nov. 18|South Alabama
Nov. 25|at Louisana
Dec. 2|at Coastal Carolina