Georgia Southern is 32-3 all-time in playoff games at Paulson Stadium.
Other than that, Saturday’s matchup between Central Arkansas and GSU in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs is pretty much even.
Both teams are conference champions — UCA (9-2, 6-1) of the Southland Conference and GSU (8-3, 6-2) of the Southern Conference.
The Bears are 10th in the nation in points per game (37). The Eagles are 14th (35).
The Bears give up 22 points per game. The Eagles allow 21.
Even the fact that Georgia Southern has gone to the semifinals each of the last two seasons and has more national championships (6) than UCA has playoff appearances (2) doesn’t even seem to make a difference.
“I think it’s just two teams battling it out,” said GSU coach Jeff Monken, who is 5-2 in the playoffs in two years as a head coach. “There’s motivation for everybody in this tournament.”
Even GSU seniors, who could potentially play their last game in Paulson Stadium, regardless of the outcome, don’t get a whole lot of motivation from anything but the thought of winning the game.
“Senior year, maybe the last home game, maybe,” said senior safety J.J. Wilcox. “But we just hope to get a win on Saturday, and then we can proceed. Anything can happen in the playoffs.”
If the fifth-seeded Eagles win on Saturday, and No. 4 Old Dominion beats Coastal Carolina, the teams could face a rematch of the 2011 first-round game, which the Eagles won, 55-48. This time it would be on the road.
If the Eagles get past them, they could head back to Fargo, N.D., for a semifinals rematch against No. 1 seed North Dakota State, which eliminated GSU, 35-7, last year.
“A lot of people are talking about that -- how things are going to shake out in the playoffs,” said GSU quarterback Jerick McKinnon. “But no game is guaranteed. We’ve got to take this thing one game at a time and come out ready to play against a great Central Arkansas team. If we don’t, we aren’t going to have to worry about next week.”
A lot to follow
Before GSU played Georgia on Nov. 17, New York Giant and former GSU kick returner/cornerback Laron Scott was on hand.
He said it wouldn’t surprise him to see Wilcox take a kickoff to the house.
Wilcox, who has averaged a respectable 26.8 yards per return this season, knows taking over for Scott is a tall order.
“He was a great returner, as seen when he went to the NFL,” Wilcox said about Scott. “I try to compete with him. I know he had two kick-return touchdowns by now. It’s in the back of my mind, but I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps.”
Home away from home
The Eagles practiced throughout the Thanksgiving break, including Thanksgiving Day, but the ones that couldn’t make it home were treated to dinner with the coaching staff.
Turns out, it was a pretty good reward.
“The coaches’ wives, they cook so good,” McKinnon said. “They had us eating right. I’m still trying to shed a few pounds from that.”
Just how it is
The Eagles may have the top rushing offense in the country and a second-straight SoCon title, but that’s not nearly enough.
After back-to-back trips to the semifinals, the Eagles feel like they still have a long way to go.
“Every year here, you’ve got to live up to the hype,” McKinnon said. “For the past two years, two great teams made two great runs to the semifinals. There’s a little pressure. What you did the last year, you want to set as the bottom standard and surpass that. There’s always pressure coming into the season with that on your shoulders.”
Unlike McKinnon, who has made the playoffs every year since he got to GSU, Wilcox brings a different perspective.
He has experienced records from 5-6 to 12-3.
“There’s pressure every year no matter what,” Wilcox said. “It’s Georgia Southern.”