Back Georgia Southern Ready for Rivalry

Georgia Southern Ready for Rivalry

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Georgia Southern has a process to finish and a point to prove.

It means a lot, bragging rights as far as the conference goes and throughout the whole state, it's a big rivalry.
~Matt Breida

At 8-3, it's already been a great season for Georgia Southern. The Eagles, in Chad Lunsford's first full year as head coach, have returned to the national forefront and reestablished many of the traditions that make the program special. Nearly debuting in the AP Top 25 after a convincing triumph over Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, headed to a bowl game, has a potentially historic ten-win season within reach. More recognizable in success and scheme, the Eagles are averaging 259 yards rushing per week, up over 37 yards from the year prior.

Even with the noted improvements, something, in Statesboro, is still missing and has been for a few years; Georgia Southern is on the wrong end of a three-game losing streak to in-state rival Georgia State. After dominating the first-ever meeting between the two schools, the Eagles have struggled since, dropping consecutive contests 34-7, 30-24 and 21-17 in recent years.

Already, in a four-game series where the combined total score is separated by just one point, there is a lot on the line.

"Southern, not State," smiled former Eagle standout L.A. Ramsby. "They try to say the 'GSU' is for Georgia State University instead of Georgia Southern University."

Limited in history but long in hostility, this is a competition about more than just hashtags and acronyms. The 200 miles between the two campuses may be the closest the two programs get. That said, the state's two youngest FBS institutions share two additionally powerful starting points for any great rivalry: disdain and divisions. As members of the new Sun Belt East, Georgia Southern and Georgia State don't just stand nearby; in terms of achieving their respective goals, they stand directly in each other's way.  

The Eagles, starting the rivalry with a statement, hit the ground running in a memorable series debut. Georgia Southern rushed for a conference-record 613 yards and ten touchdowns in a 69-31 win in Atlanta, earning the program's 300th modern era victory in front of a sizable road crowd. A late September thrashing of the Panthers was just one highlight in an undefeated league debut for the Eagles, a season where new expectations followed an old script. Through it all, the victory was one for the record books. 

Before a single snap was taken, a specific tone was set.

"Going into the first year I knew it was going to be intense. Bragging rights for the state, only so many miles apart...the students were getting involved with it, even the professors," recalled former Georgia Southern and current San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida. "It grew within the first couple of years."

Breida, that afternoon, led the way with 201 yards and four scores on just 12 attempts. As a sophomore in that inaugural 2014 showdown, he averaged an unfathomable 16.8 yards yards per carry.

"Our offense was clicking so good that game, every time I touched the ball I felt like I was going to score," Breida added.

Eight different Eagles rushed for at least 30 yards and six different players ran for at least one touchdown. In addition to Breida's 201 yards, quarterback Kevin Ellison added 115 yards and Ramsby rushed for 92 yards and two scores. For the game, Georgia Southern compiled 28 rushing first downs and held possession for over 35 minutes. The Eagles, team-wide, averaged nearly ten yards an attempt.

Georgia Southern made an impact both on the field and in the stands.

"It felt like everything we did just worked. Once we got the ball, we had that confidence that it was going to work, whether a power play or an inside zone," Ramsby shared. "It was a great day for us and Eagle Nation. We had a lot of fans up there, so it felt like a home game, too."

As was the case in the first-ever meeting between Georgia Southern and Georgia State, that time in the old Georgia Dome, the hope is that another great atmosphere awaits, this time at Georgia State Stadium, formerly Turner Field.

"Eagle Nation they were there to show out and hopefully they will be there this week, too," Breida nodded.

Since the beginning of the series, the rivalry, for Georgia Southern, has taken a turn for the worst, meaning a sharp detour north. Georgia State enters Saturday on a three-game winning streak, including surprising the Eagles 34-7 at Paulson Stadium in 2015, just two weeks after Georgia Southern took Georgia to overtime in Athens. Two years ago, the Eagles, again, had the better record, only to lose 30-24. Last fall, a late Penny Hart touchdown catch proved to be the difference for the Panthers as Georgia Southern fell to 0-8 overall. 

This Saturday, the Eagles, even on the road, are a notable favorite. Lunsford's Georgia Southern vision is starting to take shape; beating Georgia State is an important piece to that puzzle.

The Eagles, on paper, look poised to snap the streak. Georgia Southern ranks 8th nationally with 259.5 yards rushing per game, while the Panthers slot 123rd in rush defense, giving up 248.7. Georgia State has allowed the most runs of 50 yards or more of any defense in college football with 13, four more than the next-worst unit. As the rear-view will attest, however, the Eagles will have to go out and earn the victory. A win Saturday would move Georgia Southern to 9-3 and keep the possibility of a ten-win season intact ahead of a bowl game.    

"It did look like we were going to dominate the rivalry at first, the way we won," Ramsby stated. "I feel like Eagle Nation has a bad taste in their mouth losing to Georgia State the last three years, so it would be big to beat them this weekend."

Georgia Southern has a process to finish and a point to prove. Correspondingly, the Eagles have a formidable in-state foe to beat in a series, I-16 to I-85, that has taken the fast track.

"It means a lot, bragging rights as far as the conference goes and throughout the whole state, it's a big rivalry," Breida acknowledged. "Whenever we go to play Georgia State, we have a little extra chip on our shoulder."

It's rivalry week in college football. For Georgia Southern, memories and motivations are fresh.

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