This season, there are 252 football teams in Division I college football. Georgia Southern along with 127 other teams make up the entire FBS which is the highest a team can go in terms of collegiate athletics. All of these 128 teams play for bowl games, national championships, and individual awards, but outside of the usual stable of Top 25 programs, the other teams must fight for something else first before they can move into the ranks of the football elite. They have to fight for legitimacy.
Georgia Southern is currently in a fight for legitimacy in the FBS. Many would argue that the Eagle’s six national championships in FCS (formerly Division I-AA) is enough to give them a reputation throughout college football. These national championships mean the world to the Statesboro faithful, and sent chills down the spines of FCS opponents every season. Regardless of Georgia Southern’s record that year, FCS schools knew that on any given Saturday they could be beaten by the Eagles. The unfortunate truth is that, in the world of FBS football, those prior championships mean nothing. They go the way of old yearbook photos and memories from long ago in the minds of college football fans and those AP members who tally the Top 25 vote each week. Six national championships is more than most colleges in the nation can even dream of achieving, but it is not yet enough.
The struggle for legitimacy really had its beginning when the Eagles trounced the Gators in the Swamp. It was a stunning loss for Florida at the end of a dismal season which gave the Eagles their first taste of FBS notoriety in years. However, no one really felt that the Eagles belonged on the field with Florida, more so that Florida was having a bad year and overlooked a weaker opponent. You may have seen the shirts that were sold after the big victory. They didn’t say how the Eagles belonged on the field with the Gators, or how they could go toe-to-toe again. The shirts defined the word ‘embarrassment’ and it was pointed at the University of Florida. The shirt was self-deprecating, insinuating that we are so beneath you, that to be defeated by us is an embarrassment to your peers, not that we are legitimate.
The fight for legitimacy continued the following season. It was the buffer year between the FCS and FBS, despite playing 11 FBS opponents. With tough losses to Georgia Tech and NC State last year, the Eagles began 1-2 but spirits were high among True Blue fans, and FBS teams began to take notice. Murmurs started in the Sun Belt conference as Georgia Southern began methodically picking off each of their conference opponents one by one. The rushing attack became one of the most productive in the country and fans of every team began raising an eyebrow at what was going on in Statesboro, Georgia. With only two games left in the season, all of the efforts from the Eagles had culminated in a single vote from the AP polls to be ranked in the Top 25 teams of college football. It may not seem like much, but that was a step on the road to legitimacy. That same week, the team traveled to play the Naval Academy and was crushed in a 52-19 affair that broke the dreams of becoming ranked and taking another step towards legitimacy.
After the lopsided defeat the team rallied. Their final game of the season was against Louisiana Monroe, at home, for the Sun Belt Championship. The Eagles rushed their way to a victory and an undefeated conference championship in the FBS. Despite being told they would not play in a bowl game that year, athletic director Tom Kleinlein and head coach Willie Fritz fought tooth and nail to get their boys into a bowl game. While the Sun Belt championship did leaps and bounds for the program, a bowl game would have been the icing on the legitimacy cake.
Now we arrive at the beginning of the season. Many fans, myself included, believe that we have one of the best running backs in the country along with the best offense in the country. The fight for legitimacy took a harrowing blow in week one against West Virginia as the high powered offense failed to put up a point. As much as I hate to admit it, we did not look like we even belonged on an FBS field that Saturday. Since that loss and topple down the mountain, the Eagles have dug their cleats in the ground and begun driving forward again. Four straight wins, including the first out of conference home win in the history of Eagle football shows that things are headed in the right direction again.
There are three things that will win us legitimacy this season; (1) Going unbeaten in the Sun Belt, as just winning the conference will not be enough. (2) Putting up a fight against Georgia to at least show that we belong. (3) Win a bowl game. These are easy things to write from my living room table in the comfort of my AC, but they are far more difficult to actually achieve. However, I believe if any team can do it, it would be the Eagles. These three things will win the battle for legitimacy this year, but not the war. The fight for legitimacy is a series of long, arduous battles, but this time now is where it is won.