Opinion: The great, late turnaround

 The GS defensive line lines up against Georgia State, a game the Eagles lost in the waning minutes.

McClain Baxley

When the Eagles left Auburn after their first loss of the season, there was still a strong sense of optimism and pride. “We can’t let this loss define our season,” first-year starting quarterback Shai Werts said.

To the disillusionment of the team, the students and all of Eagle Nation, that loss would end up defining the majority of this 2-10. One of the worst in Georgia Southern football’s rich history.

Preseason, Georgia Southern was predicted to finish 7th in the Sun Belt. They finished 11th, behind newcomer Coastal Carolina. Fans assumed and hoped that the firing of Tyson Summers midseason would provide at least one win as the second half of the schedule was much more forgiving.

But alas, after nine weeks, there were no wins to be attained. On a Saturday before thanksgiving, a new page would be turned. Behind LA Ramsby’s inspired day, a determined defense and perhaps some senior day magic, the Eagles were back in the win column. 52-0 over a team that beat two of the Sun Belt’s best. There’s no way to truly record a perfect game in college football, but this might’ve been as close as it gets.

The thought of it being a senior day fluke would be extinguished after GS picked up another win against Louisiana the following week. Eagle nation will now remember this season as one that featured now head coach Chad Lunsford slamming and throwing the people’s elbow on chairs. It is now a totally different vibe with these wins than the vibe that engulfed the city when they were winless.

So how did it come to this? How did a program that was once the best national powerhouse at the FCS level and a team that went 8-0 in their first Sun Belt year fall so hard, yet respond two of the last three weeks? So hard that the team would lose to another winless team, an FCS team, but muster up wins against two competitive opponents all in the same agonizing season?

I think it is fair to admit that my preseason predictions were too optimistic. Perhaps I put too much emphasis on the past seasons for teams like UMASS and New Mexico State. Before 2017, the Eagles had never lost to USA or NMSU and UMASS was one of the worst teams in FBS history. After starting 0-6 on the year, the Minutemen from Massachusetts strung together a  4-8 season with two wins over Sun Belt teams (App State and GS).

In my preseason schedule analysis, I also underestimated the chances of losing to Georgia State three years in a row. This was the closest, most competitive loss of the campaign. Eagle Nation won’t soon forget the tragic heartbreak in the fourth quarter on Nov. 4.

Have to give credit to the Shawn Elliot led Panthers who finished top 5 in Sun Belt with a 6-5 record. Georgia State, as much as it pains to say, has owned the Eagles and there is no more room to talk down to them. This will be the first year that the Panthers will have a postseason without the Eagles.

I also didn’t give enough credit to Indiana, even though they’re a Power 5 school. The season opener for the Hoosiers had them nearly upsetting then number 2 Ohio State. Indiana went on to have a 5-7 record with narrow losses to top 25 teams Michigan and Michigan State. Quarterback Richard Lagow led the Hoosiers to 6th in Big 10 passing offense.

This year’s GS team was one of the youngest in the nation. The 2016 seniors were one of the best and biggest classes in GS football history, but left the team bare boned and inexperienced. Youth in the secondary and at the quarterback position was evident every game.

The secondary was one of the worst in the nation allowing  234 passing yards a game. Under Chad Lunsford, a two quarterback season was used more (spare the GAST game) and it gave experience to both Werts and Kado Brown. Each game both quarterbacks got more comfortable and the offense looked stronger.

The season is now over. There is no good in looking forward to how the option will be run or how the defensive scheme will be played out. “The Greatest Team in America” finished 2-10. Two wins and ten losses.

Perhaps, the Eagles will go on the same path as Central Florida did going undefeated two years after going winless. Georgia Southern narrowly escaped the winless part, but still look out for a GS College Football Playoff run in 2019.

This season wasn’t all terrible though. There were some strong signs of a defensive line. While the Eagles couldn’t stop the pass, they could stop the run for the most part.

The wide receiver play was also a big improvement behind Malik Henry, Obe Fortune and Wes Kennedy III- all who should return for the 2018 season. And Shai Werts is still young. He has only played in 11 division 1 football games. Having a full offseason to work with the offense after having played a season will be huge.

Another good sign for Eagle Nation and a good move for Tom Kleinlein was the signing of Chad Lunsford as head football coach BEFORE the season ended. Now that the season is officially over, Lunsford will have the entire recruiting season to try and get new players in.

Based on social media, several commits already love Lunsford which is exciting to see. As long as Coach keeps the bald look, he should have success as a Georgia Southern football coach.

Now, the lights of Paulson have been turned off for the final time in 2017. We won’t see the Eagles in action again until Saturday Sept. 1, 2018 when Presbyterian visits. It should be an easier test than an SEC West champion Auburn team. Eagle Nation, put this season in the past. We may laugh about it after a 2019 Peach Bowl win.