Although any conversation about college football in Georgia inevitably starts with the beloved Dawgs, and perhaps the Ramblin’ Wreck shortly thereafter; there’s another proud program to be found in the Peach State: Georgia Southern.  After moving up from the FCS ranks to join the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, the Eagles were enjoying considerable success in their inaugural FBS season.  Soaring their way through the Sun Belt, they sported an unblemished 7-0 record in conference play, and a final showdown with Louisiana Monroe was all that stood between them and the conference championship hardware.  Ineligible for bowl consideration during their first two FBS seasons, this was the final contest for the Eagles 2014 season, and Paulson Stadium would be primed on a Saturday night.

While flying into Savannah would have been the more palatable alternative, with Thanksgiving weekend flight prices reaching north of $1,000 I opt for the cheap Southwest bird into Atlanta and hoof it 200 miles into Statesboro in a rental Ford Focus.  Things aren’t always as glamorous as they seem here on the pigskin chase.

An hour south of Atlanta, I detour into Jackson, Georgia – home of legendary Fresh Air Barbecue.  The oldest BBQ joint in Georgia, the fires have been burning here since 1928 and I sling open a rickety screen door while the cashier is still taking down the last chairs off the tables for lunch service.  The familiar aroma of oak and hickory smoke wafts through the building, and the ancient brick pits bear a distinctive patina from eons of char.  They smoke hams (the hind quarter of the hog) here exclusively, and chopped pork is the only protein on the menu – served plain or sandwich style. Naturally, I opt for both, retreating with the plastic tray to one of the folksy wooden tables.  I add in a side for good measure, a steaming styrofoam cup of hearty “brunswick stew” – a chunky, tomato based stew loaded with beef and vegetables – a fixture of Southern BBQ joints.

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Peeling out of the gravel parking lot of Fresh Air with plenty of time to spare before a night kickoff, I cruise backroads the remaining 150 miles into Statesboro.  Winding down Georgia State Highway 57, I pass through small towns like Irwinton, Wrightsville and Kite; each of them dotted with a selection of pristine, white washed, First Baptist churches.  During longer stretches the road bisects vast swaths of Longleaf Pine habitat – lush grasslands shaded beneath canopies of slender pines extending as far as the eye can see; one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America.  The roads are all but empty on a Saturday morning, save a few deer scampering across. It’s a pleasant drive, and a gentle reminder of the rural beauty that Georgia offers outside of the suffocating metropolis of Atlanta.

Arriving in Statesboro, the campus is quiet in the early Saturday afternoon.  I slip into some easy free parking at the Georgia Southern Performing Arts Center and take an obligatory tour of the grounds.  Strolling along a tree lined walkway skirting Lake Wells, the grounds all but vacant during Thanksgiving holiday, the campus resembles a country club carved into the Southern Georgia woods.  New buildings abound, accented by crisp new bricks and gleaming galvanized metal, all of them constructed in a massive, $300 million dollar expansion for the school since the early 2000’s.  The shiny new part of campus is offset by the traditional, lived oak lined promenade bisecting “Sweetheart Circle” – the old part.  GSU lettered topiary greets visitors at one end, while the South side is anchored by the imposing white columned, plantation style, Pittman Administration building at the other.

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With the sun dipping lower into the late afternoon sky, I wander my way towards the beckoning light towers of Paulson Stadium to find a more vibrant scene.  The numbered parking spaces surrounding the stadium are swarmed with revelers, tents are spread out on grassy medians, and blue Eagles flags flap with the brisk gusts arriving in the evening chill.  The lines at the two small box offices are stacked forty people deep, and ticket resellers are noticeably absent.  I press my usual carpet trading tactics in the asphalt lots instead, making a few passes with a raised finger before tracking down a single ticket for five bucks.

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As far as small program go, the Georgia Southern fan base is one of the liveliest I’ve seen.  For a Sun Belt game during the post-Thanksgiving hangover, a time when most stadiums are hibernating, the Eagles crowd is a delightfully raucous one.  They exchange alternating chants before the game – “Who’s house…..Our House!!!” and “Georgia…….Southern!!!” while a bird handler settles into position midfield, leather glove ready at the wait.  With one of only two live eagle mascots in college football, the other being Auburn, of course, Southern fans quietly enjoy one of the best entrances in the sport.  The crowd hushes for a moment once the signal is given, and “Freedom” the live Bald Eagle mascot of Georgia Southern, swoops down from the top of the press box.  Circling over the field at dusk, the wings of the great raptor outstretch like fingers brushing the rust colored horizon, it’s a magnificent entrance.

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In addition to Freedom the Eagle, for a school of recent vintage in FBS college football landscape, Georgia Southern is a charmingly tradition rich program.  The most integral part of that tradition is, simply, – winning.  One could forget that the Eagles claim six national championships at the FCS level since 1985 (the most of any school) before making the jump to FBS this season.  And the program today cultivates those humble, hungry roots.

They still take yellow school busses to the stadium, a tradition which began in 1981 when nearby Bulloch County school district donated the busses to an Eagle program that was too poor to afford its own.  The squad dons minimalistic uniforms of simple blue and white, free from garish accoutrements and frivolity – the anti-Oregon approach, if you will.  Their flat navy blue helmets are numbered, similar only to Alabama, and feature a white stripe down the middle.  The white stripe is a holdover from the early days of the program resurrection in the 1980’s under coach Erk Russell.  The skipper had ordered solid blue helmets because budgets were too tight and simply instructed the players to put a white strip of tape down the middle.  The same coach then rebranded a muddy, mosquito infested, drainage ditch outside the stadium to “Beautiful Eagle Creek” – and carried jugs of the “magical water” to sprinkle on opposing team’s field prior to away games.  While his methods may have been quirky, the traditions stuck, and Russell’s influence still celebrated in the program today.

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As the ball is booted into the Georgia night 16,283 fans belt in unison “Go!!!…….Blue! One more time!!!” a cheer dating to 1986 after the Eagles won their second straight national championship.  Despite the vociferous opening, the Southern squad starts out slow, however.  The offense sputters in the first half, eeking out a lone field goal and botching a second attempt.  Momentum comes in infrequent spurts, and their powerhouse, methodical running game – one which led the country in rushing average at 379ypg – falters. Despite their relentless ground onslaught, they are unable to penetrate into the second level of the defense and break off chunks of yardage.   The invasive Warhawks manage a touchdown in the second quarter, and at halftime the Eagles trail 7-3.

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But the ever passionate Georgia Southern crowd, the best I have witnessed at a smaller school, remains unfazed.  On their feet for every key play, they bellow the “Who’s House……Our House!!!” chant with renewed vigor as the eagle handler parades “Freedom” through the stands to rouse them on.  Finally, midway through the fourth quarter the Georgia Southern commitment to principle pays off.  They reel off two straight touchdown drives, steamrolling the gassed Louisiana Monroe blockade.  With 59(!) rushing attempts on the evening, the Eagle offense demonstrates a textbook example of a dogged, relentless running game wearing down a defense until it breaks.  Assuming control at 22-16, the Eagles defense holds on the final drive of the game, and they run out the clock to take home the Sun Belt Conference Championship.

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After the final whistle, fans remain in Paulson, cheering the culmination of their initial FBS season.  The PA announcer invites the audience onto the field for a post game celebration, and thousands of them descend onto the turf for the trophy presentation.  Standing on the patio near the east endzone, head coach Willie Fritz triumphantly hoists the Sun Belt Trophy high in the air.  Mobbed by players, and surrounded by a few thousand fans, the team enjoys a few minutes of public celebration before retiring to the locker rooms.

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In the end, Georgia Southern is the pinnacle of small program college football.   Where the program doesn’t benefit from 120 years of history, they create their own traditions, reinforcing them with a culture of winning.  Many smaller schools chuck the ball all over the field to fill the stands, but Southern sticks to their principles, pounding it out on the ground, a discipline instilled under the tutelage of great former coaches like Erk Russell and Paul Johnson (current guru of the Georgia Tech triple option).  The fans respond in kind, standing on their feet for all four quarters.  Southern supporters are among the most boisterous, loyal, and passionate fans I’ve encountered in my varied travels and they would be the envy of any program in the country.   I left enamored with my Georgia Southern experience.  “Southern” as it’s loyal followers refer to it, is truly a credit to this beautiful and varied sport.

Pound for pound, Georgia Southern is one of the best college football experiences in the game, and I’ll happily make the sojourn back to Statesboro to watch the Eagles soar again….Hail Southern!

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