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Remembering a Rivalry

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium will be one for the history books.

This is tradition. All of the players who played in the past, all of it builds up to this moment because this is the last shot you have in the SoCon.
~Jacque Roman

Though the story of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern isn't ending this Saturday afternoon in Boone, North Carolina, a very real chapter in college football history will soon be complete. Together, these two programs helped highlight and strengthen the FCS, known formerly as 1-AA football, and brought bright lights and big headlines to the Blue Ridge and low country. For the final time ever, the Mountaineers and Eagles will meet as Southern Conference foes. As young men, many bound for the Sun Belt, take the field, legacies as proud as any will once more take the stage.

Perhaps best known for becoming the first-ever FCS school to defeat a nationally-ranked FBS team with their 2007 upset of Michigan, Appalachian State has a history of success that includes 18 conference championships and three national titles. From 2005-2007, the Mountaineers became the first Division I program to claim back-to-back-to-back national championships since Army in the mid 1940s. Following their last run, the Mountaineers received votes in the final AP top 25. Since their postseason debut in the 1937 Doll and Toy Charity Game, Appalachian State has seemed at home in the spotlight.

Despite football not being brought back until 1982 after World War II, Georgia Southern soon became one the nation's most powerful programs. The Eagles won at least a dozen games five times between 1985-1990 and at least eleven games every season from 1998-2002. Georgia Southern has claimed six national titles, twice defending one with another, and has most recently advanced to the playoff semifinals the last three years. An expectation of immediate excellence has lingered. The Eagles have had just three losing seasons the past three decades; each coach was let go afterwards, two of them following their first year.   

The consistency of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern has mirrored each other because that reflection has been the status quo. One of the Mountaineers or the Eagles has held at least a share of the Southern Conference title in 15 of the last 16 years. Either Appalachian State or Georgia Southern has made it to the postseason every season since 2004. Dating back to 1999 alone, the two have combined for five national championships. The Mountaineers and Eagles have twice met in the postseason. Their final FCS matchup will be their 25th regular season showdown.    

"We looked forward to it and marked that day on the calendar every year," recalled former GSU quarterback Jayson Foster, the 2007 Walter Payton Award winner, on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "Both teams wanted to get after each other and make that playoff push and it was usually for a conference ring or championship. It was definitely something we looked forward to. That is what made it so special, the quality of the players on the field when we played."

A collective location in the polls, not on a map, is what makes this rivalry unique. Out of a simple competition to be the best has emerged a pairing that, in some ways, redefined FCS football. At times, the rest of the nation struggled to keep up. Even through Appalachian State and Georgia Southern constantly challenged each other for championships, both teams always wanted more.

"This was the biggest rivalry I ever played in," acknowledged former ASU All-American and three-time national champion linebacker Jacque Roman on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "I remember preparing for this game because you didn't want to lose because the winner had bragging rights for a whole year. It is a very hard-fought, intense rivalry."

This storied series has reached a high point the last three years as, in each of those meetings, the nation's top-ranked team has been upended. With both programs being ineligible for the postseason, this weekend's matchup lacks playoff implications. Appalachian State enters Saturday at a very disappointing 1-6, Georgia Southern at 4-2. Neither team is above .500 in conference play. Despite their modest places in the standings and comprehensive disqualifications, passion isn't on probation.

"They will be ready to go because this is the one that will go down as the last FCS game between the two. You want to go out winning so emotions will be high-strung. Each team is looking to get that victory, turn their season around and keep it going," Foster added.

Back on March 27th, both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced their decisions to join the FBS Sun Belt effective July 1st, 2014. Most are understandably excited for what will soon be for the Mountaineers and Eagles. College football's highest level of competition awaits. For all of the looking ahead, however, Saturday should, in many respects, be about taking a long and thoughtful look back.

"This is tradition," Roman concluded. "The stepping stones were put in place before this game. For this to be the last time probably two of the top powerhouses to ever play in 1-AA play in the SoCon, it's exciting. If they don't already have it in their heads, I'm quite sure they will feel it when they step out on that field. All of the players who played in the past, all of it builds up to this moment because this is the last shot you have in the SoCon. You definitely don't want to go out and lose this game."

Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium will be one for the history books. Years of dedication and persistence will stand on the sidelines, along with the accomplishments of the likes of Armanti Edwards and Jerry Moore, Adrian Peterson and Erk Russell. At least one part of a grand story is coming to a close. It's a tale that, even with all that lies ahead, should continue to be told.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports