Georgia Southern Looks for Third Consecutive Division I-AA Title
STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) _ To hear Erskine Russell tell it, his Georgia Southern team doesn’t have a chance in the world of capturing college football’s Division I-AA national championship for the third year in a row.
″Zero,″ he says.
″That’s really the way it is. Can you get me any lower than zero?″
The only trouble is that no one believes him.
When 20 Division I-AA athletic directors voted last week in their preseason poll, there was Georgia Southern occupying the same lofty perch it has held since 1985 when it charged to the national title with a 44-42 victory over Furman.
″Being No. 1 is a courtesy vote,″ Russell said. ″I guess they figure since we won it the last two years, we’re No. 1 until somebody beats us.″
If all this badmouthing sounds a little familiar, it is. Russell told all who would listen before last season that it would be next to impossible to repeat. That was before Southern battered Arkansas State 48-21 in the national championship game.
The situation is different now.
Russell no longer has available the namesake of his Hambone offense - Tracy Ham, the dynamic Little All-American quarterback who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and passed for more than 5,000 in his exceptional career.
Ham’s loss isn’t the only reason Russell gives this team little chance of winning the national title again. Southern lost five other offensive starters and six defensive starters.
″And they were people that played the most for us,″ Russell said. ″We don’t have the people on hand to replace them. Now I just hope we can be competitive.
″We really are at a turnaround point,″ he said. ″We have a start-over type situation here.″
Russell has done an amazing job at Southern, where the football program ceased to exist in 1941 during World War II.
When the school decided to bring back football in 1981, it sought Russell, recognized as a master of defense during 17 seasons as an assistant at Georgia, which won the national championship for the 1980 season.
His first Southern team, composed entirely of walk-ons, had a 7-3-1 record in 1982. The Eagles were 6-5 in 1983 and moved up to Division I-AA in 1984, narrowly missing the national playoffs with an 8-3 record.
Both national championship teams posted 13-2 marks, giving Russell a 47-15-1 record for five years. The only losses last season were to Division I- A opponents - Florida and East Carolina.
Southern will carry an eight-game winning streak into its season opener at home against Catawba on Sept. 5.
Russell says Ham ″can’t be replaced. That’s not to say that we will fall apart because he is gone, but he was the best I’ve ever seen at making something out of nothing. And that’s something that can’t be taught.″
The heir apparent to Ham at quarterback is Ken Bullock, a junior who saw little action last year, rushing for 61 yards on 16 carries and completing 1 of 5 passes for 15 yards.
Russell said Bullock was just a shade ahead of two others, Ken Burnette and Ernest Thompson.
″Thompson probably has more physical ability than most anybody we have, but he also is going to work some at slot back,″ Russell said.
Russell shouldn’t have to worry about his kicking specialist. Tim Foley returns for his senior year, having made All-American in 1985. Foley has kicked 33 of 40 field goals and 126 of 130 extra points in his three regular seasons.
Russell says the Eagles have been fortunate to win two straight national titles.
Unlike Division I-A, where polls pick a national champion, Division I-AA has had a playoff format since 1978. This year’s championship game will be played in Pocatello, Idaho.
″For two years we’ve played without any serious injuries to key people,″ he said. ″Luck has a lot to do with winning these things.″
He expects his team to have a tough time every week.
″Last year teams wanted to beat us because we were the defending champions,″ he said. ″Now that we’ve won two in a row, they want to beat us that much more.
″We have to played up to our capabilities every week,″ Russell added. ″If we don’t, it’ll be a long season.″
END ADV Weekend Editions Aug. 29-30.