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Eagles, Trojans Looking to Make More History

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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While this contest could go a long way towards making history, it, now at college football's highest level, is a powerful extension of it.

Saturday's Georgia Southern vs Troy showdown awaits as one of the Group of Five games of the  year. A pairing with title implications, the winner will be the clear front-runner to host the first-ever Sun Belt Conference Championship Game. The Eagles and Trojans are a combined 14-4, 9-1 in league play, with both teams having made front page headlines in recent years. While this contest could go a long way towards making history, it, now at college football's highest level, is a powerful extension of it.

With distinct legacies and proven track records, Georgia Southern and Troy are two of the game's most unique success stories.

The Eagles, following the lead of the legendary Erk Russell, burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, winning back-to-back NCAA Division I FCS national championships in 1985 and 1986, the first of six in a 16-year span for the program. From Russell to Paul Johnson to Jeff Monken, Willie Fritz and now Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern has largely remained a conference contender through change in leadership and level. Fittingly, the Eagles won at Florida in their final run through the FCS, then promptly led the country in rushing and went undefeated in Sun Belt play in their debut season in the FBS.

Transition, for the Trojans, followed NCAA Division II national titles in 1984, under Chan Gailey, and 1987, Troy's third total championship including an NAIA crown in 1968. The great Larry Blakeney took Troy all of the way from Division II to the FBS and in year one, in 2001, the Trojans upset Mississippi State. Blakeney would go on to beat Missouri and Oklahoma State during his tenure and win the Sun Belt title in five consecutive seasons from 2006-2010. Neal Brown has added to that strong foundation, taking Troy to another championship last fall and winning at LSU along the way.     

In 2016, the Trojans became the first-ever Sun Belt team to break into the national rankings, coming in at 25th in the AP Poll after a win over Appalachian State. Georgia Southern, following its recent win over the Mountaineers, very nearly joined Troy and Appalachian State in making such an appearance, peaking at 28th a week ago. Potentially hosting the league title game aside, the winner this weekend could ultimately have the opportunity to make a high-profile return to the rankings.

First meeting in 1934, the Eagles and Trojans have played 17 times, including in the FCS playoffs. The 1985 pairing stands as, perhaps, the most fascinating. With Troy fresh off a Division II National Championship and Georgia Southern on the way to its first, the Eagles earned a hard-fought 17-10 triumph in east Alabama, avenging a one-point loss on a failed two-point conversion two years prior. After a 35-10 defeat to MTSU the previous week, the win over the Trojans arguably got Georgia Southern back on the right track to a title. Playing up in classification, the competition may have added to Troy's overall momentum as well.

These are programs defined by the expectations they long ago established. Tracy Ham, Jerick McKinnon and Adrian Peterson are among those who helped set the standard in Statesboro, while the likes of Leodis McKelvin, Osi Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware did the same at Troy. Validation, in both places, have come with victory. There are banners on both campuses that speak to the status quo.

Tradition doesn't have to come full-circle when it's already fitted to a ring.

As Georgia Southern and Troy compete to host the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, their respective program legacies continue.

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